Two years ago, Gough Whitlam’s state memorial service began with the singing of ‘Advance Australia Fair’, and not just the first verse. On this occasion, the little-used second verse was also sung, its fifth and sixth lines – “For those who’ve come across the seas / We’ve boundless plains to share” – gaining added piquancy when sung in chorus by four prime ministers who between them had shaped the so-called Pacific Solution. It was tempting to believe that Whitlam, who was largely responsible for Australia adopting the song as its national anthem, had planned the moment himself.
National anthems are tricky things. Most of them are compromises, cobbled together, changed over the years, ultimately failing to satisfy all or even most of the citizens who sing them. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ ticks all those boxes. Both the words and the tune are undistinguished. If you are writing a verse that obliges you to use the word “girt” in line four, you really should start again. And as the composer, you would be hoping that no one notices the final line of your tune is identical to the final line of ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’.
Not that inspiring words or a well-written tune will guarantee an anthem’s longevity. ‘Auferstanden aus Ruinen’ (‘Risen from Ruins’) had a lovely melody by Hanns Eisler – a pupil of Schoenberg, and Brecht’s long-time collaborator – but it is hard to imagine under what circumstance the world will have further use for the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic.
In his 2014 choral piece the national anthems – note the lower case – the American composer David Lang has taken a line from each anthem of the 193 member states of the United Nations, arranged in alphabetical order from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The ninth is “for we are young and free”, but not all the phrases Lang collected sounded so innocent, and his original plan of creating “a kind of meta-anthem of the things that we all share” was dashed.
“I started combing through the anthems,” Lang explains in a note accompanying a new recording, “pulling out from each the sentence that seemed to me the most committed. What I found, to my shock and surprise, was that within almost every anthem is a bloody, war-like, tragic core, in which we cover up our deep fears of losing our freedoms with waves of aggression and bravado.
“Hiding in every national anthem is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose.”
Even the best anthems are in some senses provisional and prone to alter their meanings. At the end of the 19th century, ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ was composed as a hymn by a Methodist lay preacher and teacher, Enoch Sontonga. In fact, he modelled it quite closely on Joseph Parry’s famous hymn tune ‘Aberystwyth’. Sung at the end of meetings of the African National Congress in South Africa, Sontonga’s hymn became, by default, a protest song when the government banned it. Now that it is the national anthem of South Africa (and also Zambia and Tanzania), it sounds a lot like a hymn again.
National anthems are often forged in times of struggle, and some adapt better than others to ensuing peace. Two especially bellicose songs now representing their countries are France’s ‘La Marseillaise’ and the United States’ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Among the world’s most recognisable tunes (though in fact both are rather convoluted), they still work best when a degree of a belligerence is required – at a sporting event, say, or after a terrorist attack.
Even so, neither is uncontroversial. Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle’s enthusiastic call for French furrows to run with the “impure blood” of the enemy sounds more like provocation than resistance. Francis Scott Key’s third-rate poem relates to America’s standing firm during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, and it’s hard to believe that many of those who, hand on heart, sing the words today have much idea what it’s about. Increasingly, it is an occasion for African-American sporting stars to remain seated, and not only because, as US attorney for the District of Columbia, Key opposed the abolition of slavery.
‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was officially named America’s anthem only in 1931, but then national anthems in general are a recent invention. The oldest, dating from the 16th century, belongs to the Netherlands. ( Japan’s has lyrics that date back a thousand years as a poem.) But it wasn’t until the 18th century that ‘God Save the Queen’ (originally ‘King’) started something of an international fashion for anthems. It was dreary and the words alternately pedestrian and xenophobic, but it caught on – not just the idea of a national song, either, but the tune itself.
As you would expect, ‘God Save the Queen’ was sung around the British Empire, but it was also used (to different words) for the national anthems of Russia, Germany, Switzerland and the Kingdom of Hawaii. Norway still uses the tune for its royal anthem, as does Liechtenstein for its national anthem, which puzzled English football supporters when the two teams met in 2003. Accustomed to singing their own anthem then booing the opponents’, the fans weren’t sure how to proceed when the band struck up the tune a second time. In the end, they sang ‘God Save the Queen’ again.
When Joseph Haydn was composing the tune that would become best known as the ‘Deutschlandlied’, he was actually writing an anthem for Austria. He used ‘God Save the Queen’ as his model, but the words eventually fitted to his tune implored God to save Emperor Francis II (even as French forces massed on his borders). The ‘Deutschlandlied’ words were written in the mid 19th century and in 1922 it became the German anthem after Austria had found itself a new one. But ever since the Third Reich attempted to put the sentiments of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” into practice, Germans have sung their anthem beginning at verse three.
There will always be those who want to change their national anthem. There are many Finns, for instance, who would prefer Sibelius’ stirring ‘Finlandia Hymn’ to the anthem they share with Estonia; the closest that Sibelius’ tune has come to official use was in West Africa, where in the late 1960s it was a model for the anthem of the short-lived state of Biafra.
The Russian anthem has undergone more changes than most. The old imperial anthem, ‘God Save the Tsar’, which we hear pitted against ‘La Marseillaise’ in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, was in fact only composed in 1833. After embracing ‘The Internationale’ in 1918, Soviet Russia adopted the ‘State Anthem of the Soviet Union’ in 1944, which over time was subject to numerous word changes, the first expunging Stalin’s name. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘God Save the Tsar’ was poised for a comeback (with its own set of new words), but Boris Yeltsin favoured a piano piece by the 19th-century composer Glinka. The trouble was it had no words at all, and none were ever settled on. Athletes said they had nothing to sing on the victory podium, complaining that this dented their confidence. Ten years later, Vladimir Putin brought back the ‘State Anthem of the Soviet Union’, with yet another new set of words.
The military associations of most of the world’s anthems are plain enough, even if they surprised David Lang. Most of the world’s anthems can be turned into marches if you sing them fast enough. It’s an unusual feature of ‘God Save the Queen’ that it’s in triple time (as is ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’), so you can’t march to it. South American anthems are often glittering triumphal affairs that could have been composed by Verdi. Listening to the national anthem of Uruguay, for instance, the ‘Anvil Chorus’ from Il trovatore comes to mind. (South America also boasts some of the world’s longest anthems. Under Brazilian law, if you sing the first verse of ‘Hino Nacional Brasileiro’ you must also sing the second.)
And of course the music of any of the world’s anthems tends to be played by marching bands. The reasons for this are historical and not necessarily sinister. Prior to amplification, it was the only way an anthem could be heard outdoors. But if a band is going to play an anthem, all the players will need something to do, and that means bass lines and chords. Most Asian music doesn’t have these things, because it isn’t harmonic. Asian anthems, then, must either be written in a foreign style (there is little about the national anthem of Thailand to distinguish it from a Western march) or have harmonies fitted to make it band-friendly.
The Bangladeshi anthem resists this at every turn. Both its words and music are by the Bengali poet and painter Rabindranath Tagore, but when chords are added, the modal tune loses its personality. To hear it in its ecstatic glory, you must track down a version with traditional instruments played above an unchanging drone. Tagore’s words also reject martial clichés; ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’ instead celebrates the natural beauty of the region. Another anthem that’s really a nature poem is Sweden’s. In fact, ‘Du gamla, Du fria’, whose words simply celebrate the Nordic landscape, sounds like a folk song, has no official status and fails to mention Sweden till the end of the seldom sung fourth verse.
David Lang wasn’t the first composer to be drawn to national anthems. In 1966–67, during the war in Vietnam, with continuing Cold War tensions and growing student radicalism in Europe and elsewhere, Karlheinz Stockhausen composed an electronic work of nearly two hours, simply entitled Hymnen. In 1969, he returned to the piece. By now San Francisco had enjoyed its “summer of love”, Parisian students had staged their événements, Rudi Dutschke had been shot, Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy assassinated, and Russian tanks had entered Prague.
Stockhausen was always more interested in music than politics, and in the music of national anthems than their words. Given this moment in history, however, it is hard to hear in Hymnen the familiar tunes in purely abstract terms. These include the anthems of France, West Germany, the United States, and Franco’s Spain, as well as a medley from African nations, some already historical (Upper Volta, Dahomey, Guinea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Gambia, the Ivory Coast and more). Hymnen employs recordings, as well as an optional orchestra in its third “region”, but many of the sounds were created electronically, including an oddly touching slowed-down version of the Soviet anthem.
Still, it is the sound of short-wave radio signals that pervades Hymnen. As we listen, the piece becomes a passing parade of frightened, isolated nations, holding up shields of musical bravado – to use Lang’s word – while broadcasting their humanity through the crackle of radio interference.
Perhaps, in the end, what distinguishes national anthems from flags is that the latter are merely badges. Anthems are living things. Each time they are sung they are renewed, and if we listen as hard as Stockhausen and Lang did we will notice that poignant mixture of bluster and fragility that characterises most nations most of the time.
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