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Random thoughts on National Anthems

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One 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'.

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