National Anthems (x-posted from OAC)

by johnmccreery

Yesterday evening I found myself, as a member of the Roppongi Mens Chorus, at the Mexican Embassy in Tokyo singing the Mexican and Japanese national anthems as part of the celebrations of the Bicentennial of Mexican independence (1810) and the Mexican Revolution (1910). I was moved to quip to a friend that,

“Given the tendency of some of our colleagues to read sacred texts literally, I wonder what they will make of the words and music of the Himno Nacional Mexicano. Personally, if I were living in a part of the country that the Mexicans feel was stolen from them in 1848….”

He replied,

“Yes, stanza five’s a cracker:

War, war without quarter to any who dare to tarnish the coat of arms!
War, war! Let the national banners be soaked in waves of blood.
War, war! In the mountain, in the valley, let the cannons thunder in horrid unison
and may the sonorous echoes resound
with cries of Union! Liberty!”

That got me to thinking. National anthems and the flags with which they are commonly associated are what Victor Turner labeled dominant symbols, the focus of attention at civic ceremonies that celebrate patriotism. That let me to Wikipedia, where I found the following bits of history,

Anthems rose to prominence in Europe during the 19th century, but some are much older in origin; the oldest national anthem is “Het Wilhelmus”, theDutch national anthem, written between 1568 and 1572 during the Dutch Revolt. The Japanese anthem, “Kimi ga Yo”, has its lyrics taken from aHeian period (794-1185) poem, yet it was not set to music until 1880.[1] “God Save the Queen”, the national anthem of the United Kingdom and one of the two national anthems of New Zealand, was first performed in 1745 under the title “God Save the King”. Spain’s national anthem, the “Marcha Real” (The Royal March), dates from 1770 (written in 1761). The oldest of Denmark’s two national anthems, “Kong Kristian stod ved højen mast” was adopted in 1780 and “La Marseillaise”, the French anthem, was written in 1792 and adopted in 1795. Serbia was the first nation to have a national anthem in east,[clarification needed] having Rise up, Serbia! in 1804.
An anthem can become a country’s national anthem by a provision in the country’s constitution, by a law enacted by its legislature or simply by tradition. The majority of national anthems are either marches or hymns in style. The countries of Latin America tend towards more operatic pieces, while a handful of countries use a simple fanfare.
Although national anthems are usually in the most common language of the country, whether de facto or official, there are notable exceptions. India’s anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”, is a highly Sanskritized version of Bengali. States with more than one national language may offer several versions of their anthem: For instance, Switzerland’s anthem has different lyrics for each of the country’s four official languages (French, German, Italian and Romansh). Canada’s national anthem has different lyrics for each of the country’s official languages (English and French), and on some occasions is sung with a mixture of stanzas taken from its French and English versions. The Sri Lankan national anthem has translated lyrics for each of the country’s official languages Sinhala and Tamil. It was actually written in Sinhala, but a Tamil translation is also played on some occasions and mostly played in Tamil Provinces and Tamil schools. On the other hand, South Africa’s national anthem is unique in that five of the country’s eleven official languages are used in the same anthem (the first stanza is divided between two languages, with each of the remaining three stanzas in a different language). Apart from God Save the Queen, the New Zealand national anthem is now traditionally sung with the first verse in Māori (Aotearoa) and the second in English (God Defend New Zealand). The tune is the same but the words are not a direct translation of each other. Another multilingual country, Spain, has no words in its anthem, La Marcha Real, although in 2007 a national competition to write words was launched.[2]”

Am I mad to think that looking into anthems, the circumstances in which they appeared, and how they are now regarded and played would be a marvelous exercise in comparative, historical sociology? A big book for someone ambitious or an interesting assignment for smart undergraduates?

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3 Comments to “National Anthems (x-posted from OAC)”

  1. Not mad at all, although in historiography it only starts to work as a standalone topic with the rise of post-structuralism and cultural studies over the last few decades. Before that it would have been a footnote to the political historiography of nation-formation or the love-labor of patriotic history buffs publishing in the newsletters of local historical societies.

    Now however I can imagine feminists uncovering the patriarchal thrust of anthems’ music, lyrics and ritual deployment; Foucauldians excavating the desires disciplined and punished in the process of whipping up nationalist sentiment; post-colonialists recovering the Others excluded in the anthemic delimitation of the national Us; and so on. So I can imagine a cool historiography seminar more advanced than I’d want to try here in which I assigned the topic and asked the students to research and write it from each of these perspectives and more.

    I’m also reminded of ‘unofficial’ anthems that crop up periodically in popular music, songs that seem to generate a higher level of symbolic investment than the norm: “Free Bird,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” for example, or the great anti-anthem “Anarchy in the U.K.” And also the failed anthems, the songs written with grand aspirations that just don’t catch on.

  2. I was thinking of something a bit more old-fashioned. Suppose, for example, you were to ask people to compare the lyrics to the Mexican National Hymn, the Start-Spangled Banner, and “O, Canada” and ask them to describe the image of the nation that each projects, why that image seemed a good fit when the anthems were adopted, and why the fit may no longer be so good.

    P.S. I was struck myself, doing this little exercise, with how defense of the nation is portrayed in these three anthems: a bloodbath (Mexico), a flag still flying on a fort under attack by superior forces (US), and a call to pull together and guard the nation’s borders (Canada, my esteemed spouse, no warmonger, calls the lyrics “wimpy”).

  3. I like it. This would make a terrific in-class exercise for learning how to analyze music as a primary source.

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