Election Season Is Upon Us – National Anthems Heard Here!

Hello blogosphere! This is the first entry in Listening In, the blog of Parsons Music Library. Enjoy and leave comments, please!

We’re kicking off the blog with a post that is always timely, but even more so now that we have the 2012 Presidential Election within a few weeks.

You are all no doubt quite familiar with the importance of our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Any large public ceremony, professional athletic event, or public gathering makes sure to start with a performance, usually sung by a vocalist. With an octave and a half range, though, this song is notoriously difficult to sing, and critics of the music often complain that it is down right unsingable!

public domain, published in 1814 by Carr's Music Store

One of only 10 existing originals that show the complete music and words to Francis Scott Key’s composition.

So why did Francis Scott Key set his beautiful poem about witnessing the battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 to this song? Actually, he knew of the melody for a good ten years before he wrote the lyrics. The song was composed originally by Englishman John Stafford Smith as a popular song called “The Anacreontic Song” in honor of Greek poet Anacreon. Key liked the melody, and so it turned into “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (Yes, that is just about the shortest history one could write about the origins!)

But what about other countries around the world? Most anthems are musical symbols, just like a crest or flag, of the history and people of their country. The article on national anthems in Grove Music Online says the following about the variety of text subjects in anthems:

“The texts of national anthems are rarely of literary merit. Patriotic fervour is usually the keynote, although the forms and images used to express it vary a good deal and can reveal much about the character of a nation at the time the words were written. The text of an anthem may often have to be revised or modified in the light of political changes within the country or in its relations with its neighbours. Some countries, particularly those that have enjoyed long periods of peace and political stability, choose anthems that dwell on the natural beauty of the land. Several anthems are built around a national hero, such as Denmark’s King Christian and Haiti’s Jean-Jacques Dessalines, or around a nation’s flag, like those of Honduras and the USA. Many are in effect prayers, like God Save the King/Queen, or calls to arms, like France’s La Marseillaise. The struggle for independence (or the pride in achieving it) is a favourite theme among those countries that have emerged since 1945.”

Interestingly, Grove Music Online also divides the style of music that helps classify an anthem. They use the following distinctions:

1) Hymn: Eurocentric in design with stateliness, smooth melodic development, and typically quite old in origin.

2) March: Like “La Marseillaise” of France or “Marcha Real” of Spain.

3) Operatic anthem: Central and South America typically, many of which were written by Italians, and quite impractical to sing.

4) Folk anthem: Might require indigenous instruments and/or formal gestures, and typically have no influence from European colonization. Myanmar, Japan, Tibet, and Sri Lanka are a few examples.

5) Fanfare: with no text normally, these are more simply a music theme. Since many Middle Eastern countries only allow a sung performance if the audience is the same gender as the performer, their anthems often fall into this category. Examples include Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

One final interesting note from Grove:
” In January 1972 an arrangement by Herbert von Karajan of the main theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was adopted (against the wishes of many musicians) as a European anthem by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (it was later chosen also as the national anthem of Rhodesia).”

For further reading, here is the link to the Grove article, with descriptions of many anthems, along with short musical notation of their melodies.If you’d like to listen to some collections of national anthems, here are links to audio recordings of national anthems across the world that we own:

Collections of National Anthems (Europe, U.S.S.R., Asia)

America, Africa, Middle East, Oceania

Hymnes nationaux du monde (performed by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra)

World Anthems (performed by the Miller Brass Ensemble)