Random thoughts on National Anthems

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flagOne of the incidental pleasures of the Olympics and Paralympics has been the opportunity to hear lots of different national anthems. I've always been a little uncertain about my relationship with the British effort,* coming from a family where opinions on both religion and royalty were rather divided, but I have to say it comes into its own when you need to sing it in a packed stadium where you can actually feel the heat of the flame from where you stand.

The thing I particularly like about it is that, for a tune that's intended to be sung by anyone and everyone, it is both well-formed and singable. The whole covers a range of less than an octave, and it mostly moves by step. The one big leap comes between phrases halfway through, to a note a step higher than the highest note in the tune so far. This means you get the drama of a big leap, but are pretty guaranteed that everyone is likely to actually get to the right note. (Unlike the octave leap in the middle of 'Happy Birthday', which is routinely fluffed because people (a) start too high and (b) aren't vocally prepared for the high note.) It's the kind of tune that L.B. Meyer could have used as a text-book example of a well-balanced set of implications realised appropriately.

By contrast, I was struck by how both the 'Marseillaise' and 'The Star-Spangled Banner' both wander off into the wilderness in terms of form. They both start with very striking and memorable first phrases, but these lines are musically complete in themselves. Each reaches a rousing cadence at the end of the first statement and then carries the rest of the words with much less interesting or distinctive melodic material. It's like they have wonderful musical facades to front rather functional ideological buildings. Of the two, I would say that the ''Marseillaise' wins on the first line, but 'The Star-Spangled Banner' wins on overall form. It does at least have some internal repetition to hold it together.

I find it interesting that both of these anthems date from a similar kind of era, and interrelated political contexts. And both have a history of strong popular participation - during the French Revolutionary era, it was common for crowds to storm the stage in theatres and make the cast sing the 'Marseillaise' if they didn't think the plot was sufficiently patriotic. This makes me think that the people of 18th-century France and America were better singers than the general populace of 21st-century Britain, who I don't think would manage either the range or the form of these anthems particularly well.

The Italian anthem was stereotypically tuneful, though it had instrumental bits between some of the phrases, which I think says something about the expectations for the occasions it is to be sung. Nonetheless, the athletes appeared to sing along with the instrumental bits anyway, which tells us how they manage when they don't have an orchestra to hand. The Finnish anthem struck me as another very balanced piece of music.

It is interesting that these more orthodox musical shapes are associated with younger nations - and that both had a long history of association with nationalistic sentiment before they were adopted as anthems. The revolutionary new nations of the late 18th-century were arguably more rushed into adopting their anthems, and so picked the tunes with the strong headlines. Those who found their way to unification and/or independence over decades in the 19th and 20th centuries had the luxury to pick tunes that stood the test of time.

One other random thought. Did you notice the harmonisation of the British anthem used at the Olympics? It used far more diatonic minor triads than the usual arrangement. Hmm, I thought on first hearing, how very Tchaikovskian, and thought no more about it for a while. But then I got an email from my friend Tom Gentry with the following tidbit in it:

From Harper's Index:
Percentage of Top 40 songs from the 1960s that were written in a major key: 85
From the 2000s that were: 43

I actually had suspected something like this before I read it. Anyone else? What do you suppose it means?

Now, I have no idea what it means (though I did have a passing thought that there was a lot of inane tat in the charts of the 1960s, most of which would have bumped up the major key tally). But the choice of secondary (i.e. minor) triads in a major key in contexts where traditionally major triads would have been used did seem to show a similar shift in preferences of harmonic flavour. Probably just a coincidence...but one that has me primed to listen out for things I might not otherwise have clocked.


*The complete - and boggling - full words are here. I quite like the second half of verse 3. That seems a nice expression of the principle of rule by consent in the interests of the populace. The Scots, not unreasonably, tend to get huffy about the traces of the union's problematic history recorded in verse 6. Though I think they quite like being thought of as 'rebellious'.

I'm still getting to grips with this version of the National Anthem - in particular the missing upward phrase, linking the end of the first half to the start of the second, which of course makes the leap that much easier. I was quite surprised not to hear it the first time... and the second and the third. In fact I was just getting used to not hearing it as the Paralympics came to an end.

Was the version I'm referring to specifically put together for children I wonder?

Interesting... I agree on the tune singability points.
My main response to the British anthem during the Olympics, I am ashamed to say, was to press the mute button by bar 6, as somewhere around there it did something harmonically non-standard that I plain didn't like. Not saying it shouldn't have been done, but it jarred with me every time I wasn't near enough to the remote control... I know some bloke had a great time penning new arrangements of every anthem to avoid copyright issues, but did he need to indulge himself quite so much for the sake of being different?

I thought your insights into the national anthems very interesting. Truly when a song originates in a different time, it belongs to a differing lexicon and thus is not always easily replicated in modern times.
When I was teaching elementary school music, I began with the lofty if wrongly placed idea that all "rock music" was " inane tat" and would not have it in MY classrooms. However, I took some courses about the rock music genre and found out differently.
I know you meant that there were only some songs that seemed to be "inane tat". Without judgement, (not easy for me at the time) I introduced a rock music unit into my grade 7 and 8 courses. We started with the roots of jazz and rhythm and blues and continued from there.
To my delight, it morphed into technological discoveries in recording and the changes in music by overdubbing and feedback to name just a few.
The students started learning chords on various instruments so those seemingly inane songs gave them the opportunity to play that rock basic of 1, 4, 5 chords that thrilled them no end.
I realized that I had been oh so wrong in dismissing one genre over another. Those same students happily studied opera and orchestra forms such as sonata-allegro and the periods of music. We did integrated art studies with fine and applied arts as well. Once we reached the rock form they were seeing all kinds of variations.
Rock music opened my eyes and I know you are very aware there is great music out there of every type. Thankfully, I learned not to dismiss any music type and even though we have our own opinions of what constitutes "good" music, I would tell my students that they had to leave the word LIKE at the door. We were only allowed to use that word when we were laying down money for a purchase. At any other time we learned to APPRECIATE what music was before us and understand its form.
My take on the major versus minor change is the change especially in our young people. The Fifties and Sixties were a wild ride from the restrictions of the war and even many of the protest songs were in the major keys as they saw them as change for the better, I believe.
Today there seems to be much more introspective and the young people are worried about their future and the minor sound reflects that kind of feeling.
I know one cannot make general statements at any time that covers all contingencies, but even though music of any sort may not be what we would pay for as our personal listening choice, we should appreciate it all as it has a place in history.

You know, Kitty, even as I wrote the phrase 'inane tat', I could feel it might be provocative.

I quite agree with you that genre is a completely different category from quality, and that a rounded music education needs the empathy to get inside different musical worlds and understand how life feels and sounds from those perspectives. I like your approach of leaving opinion outside to make room for appreciation. I hope the fact that I've written a book on a genre that can find itself of on the wrong side of cultural snobberies acts an index of good faith here.

When I was growing up, I learned of the 1960s as an era of great music, with the Beatles in particular changing the world. Now, I liked the Beatles, for sure, but as their music had always existed in my world, I didn't have the perspective to see what the fuss was. It was only when I heard some of the stuff that came before and alongside the innovators of the 1960s that hasn't generally stood the test of time that I understood the significance of what they achieved. So I guess I used the term 'inane tat' as a shorthand for this kind of thing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1cjaheraq8

Have just stumbled across this post and was reminded that there was an article in Sound on Sound about the recording of all of the anthems for the Olympics in 2012. There were various challenges with squeezing them into 1 minute and getting them so they'd sound OK played through the PA systems in the stadiums and through the speakers on peoples tellies - and doing it all in 12 minutes of studio time per anthem.

Might be of interest. Here it is:


Thank you for sharing this Richard!

(And I'm typing this reply just after Andy Murray has won Wimbledon, so it does rather feel like summer 2012 again! Except without the rain.)

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