As the Olympics draw near, a lot of us will probably be thinking thoughtful thoughts of national pride, and waving flags and cheering on our sportsmen and women as they battle for gold, silver and bronze medals!…Although no medals used in the Olympics have been made of actual gold or silver, for over a hundred years (Whaaat?? Oh come on…!).
Nevertheless, during the games, there will no doubt be a lot of singing of national anthems and the waving of national flags. So that’s what this posting is all about – national anthems, and their histories!
A national anthem is meant to be the defining song of a nation, a state, a culture, and a people. Its lyrics are meant to embody what that country is, what it stands for, and what it holds dear. Considering how important this stuff sounds, it might surprise you to know that most national anthems have not been around for as long as you might think. And what are they singing about, anyway!?
A Brief History of National Anthems
it may surprise you to know that the whole ‘idea’ of a nation having a specific national song, to be sung during important state occasions, is actually a pretty new one! While it is true that the songs and the lyrics used in many national anthems are centuries old, the concept of each nation having its own anthem only dates back to the 19th century, the 18th, at the very earliest.
Prior to this point in time, most nations did not have national anthems. The almost persistent state of warfare throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, and the constantly shifting national boundaries which resulted from these conflicts, probably made national anthems a waste of time!
The period of relative peace in the last quarter of the 1800s and the solidification of national boundaries during this time, is probably what led to a rise in nationalistic feelings, and increasing interest in each country having its own national song.
So, what are the histories behind some of the world’s most famous national anthems? Where did they come from? What do they mean? What the hell are they actually singing about!? Let’s have a look and listen. Here, I’ll be covering the national anthems of six nations: Australia, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Russia, and looking into their histories and meanings.
“Advance Australia Fair”
Country: The Commonwealth of Australia.
Previous: “God Save the King”
Although Australia still has pretty close ties to Great Britain – we still have the Union Jack on the flag, for example – and the queen, bless her, is still the head of state – In the postwar era of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Australia began to question its relationship with Britain. The nation’s vulnerability to invasion by the Japanese during the Second World War had highlighted to Australia that it could not rely on Britain for assistance, despite their history and shared culture.
The fact of the matter was that Australia had to grow up and stand on its own two feet, and not depend on the unreliable assistance from a mother country on the other side of the world, one of the reasons why Australia has had stronger ties to the United States since the end of the Second World War.
Because of these feelings, Australia decided to do away with its old anthem, ‘God Save the King’ in 1974, and launched a competition to find a new anthem. It took ten years and a lot of umming-and-aahing, until ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was proposed, and adopted, in 1984.
Written in the 1870s, Advance Australia Fair was meant to celebrate all that was good about this island nation. Its rich natural resources, unique place in the world, and its links with Britain. While not all verses from the original song, written by Peter Dobbs McCormick in 1878, were used, the song was intended to paint a picture of Australia as a young, strong country with a rich past, and with much to strive for in the future.
…Personally I find it hard to respect any national anthem which you can also sing to the tune of the ‘Gilligan’s Island’ theme song. We used to do it all the time when I was a kid, just to piss off our teachers in school. It was fun! If you don’t believe me, find the lyrics, and give it a shot, yourself. Still, I guess it’s better than one of the other songs which was included in the vote: ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
“The Star-Spangled Banner”
Country: The United States of America
Previous: “Hail Columbia” (unofficial).
From 1777 to 1930, the United States of America had no national anthem which was recognised as being official throughout the land. The only one which really came close was ‘Hail Columbia‘, which dated back to the days of the Revolution (and which today, is still played for the Vice President); however, throughout the later half of the 1800s, and leading into the early 20th century, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ had been growing in popularity. Numerous votes and petitions had been cast and signed, but it was not until 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, that the song was officially declared the U.S. national anthem.
For a song that’s probably been featured on TV, in films, and on popular shows more times than any other, it can be surprising how many people don’t actually know what it’s about. So apart from the obvious fact that it’s about a flag, what are the song’s lyrics actually saying?
The song dates back to 1814, when it was written by Francis Scott Key, an American citizen trapped on a British warship, during the Battle of Baltimore, during September of 1814.
Part of the battle was the British bombardment of Fort McHenry, the coastal artillery battery and fort, which protected Baltimore Harbor. Despite nonstop artillery fire and bombardment by explosive shells, the fort endured, successfully holding the Royal Navy at bay, and keeping its ships far enough away from the Harbor to prevent the landing of troops.
The ‘bombs bursting in air’ and the ‘rocket’s red glare’ mentioned in the song refer to the artillery shells, and the flares which were shot at, and over the fort during the course of the battle, in order to destroy, and illuminate the target. It was the light provided by these flares that told people on both sides of the engagement whether or not ‘Old Glory’ was still flying over the fort, or whether the Americans had been forced to strike their colours and surrender to the enemy.
After days of shelling, the navy was almost out of ammunition, whereas Fort McHenry had survived relatively unscathed. The flag remained flying, and the British lost the battle. Today, the original ‘star spangled banner’ – the flag flown over the fort, is preserved at the Smithsonian Institute, donated to the museum in 1912.
While you might’ve learned all this in history class, one thing you might not know is that the tune to which the Star Spangled Banner is sung, is actually an old, English drinking song!
Written in 1780, ‘An Anacreon in Heaven‘ was the official ‘theme-song’ to the Anacreontic Society – an 18th century London gentleman’s club comprised mostly of amateur musicians. The club (and the song) got its name from Anacreon, and ancient Greek poet, and it was the song that the members of the club would sing during official meetings. Since copyright laws were almost nonexistent in the 18th century, almost anybody could steal anybody’s music back then, provided they knew how to write it, and play it – which was how it ended up as the music for the American national anthem.
In the end, The Star Spangled Banner glories in the resilience of the American people and their determination never to surrender and take down their flag, and celebrates their strength under fire.
La Marseillaise is probably the most famous national anthem in the world! And also, one of the oldest! Written in 1792 during the French Revolution, it became one of the most famous songs associated with the Revolution, and the various wars which followed, from 1792-1802.
Even if you don’t speak French, just the tune sounds triumphant, gallant, glorious, rousing and patriotic, which was exactly its point, when it was designed as a rallying cry for French soldiers when they went to war against Austria during the Revolution.
Although France has gone through numerous republics, restorations, monarchies, abdications and more republics since the 1790s, its national anthem has remained unchanged since the late 18th century.
La Marseillaise is so famous that it’s been used in countless movies and TV shows throughout the years, most famously in ‘Casablanca‘, during the ‘dueling anthems’ scene (although the other song, ‘Der Wacht Am Rhine’, ‘The Watch on the Rhine’, isn’t actually a national anthem). It was also used jokingly during the end of The Simpsons Movie, where it was played over the end-credits, with rewritten lyrics.
Country: The Republic of Germany
“Deustchlandlied”, or ‘The Song of Germany’, or “Deutschland, Deutschland, uber Alles”, has been the official, and unofficial national anthem of Germany since the 1800s. The original song was written in the 1840s, and it has remained popular ever since.
Today, only the third verse of the song is sung as the official anthem. This is because the first and second verses had been tainted by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s, who favoured them due to their rather overnationalistic airs, and this was seen as being inappropriate after the Second World War.
The music for “Deutschlandlied” comes from “Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser”, or “God Save Emperor Francis“, originally an Austrian patriotic tune written in the 1790s…you know? When France and Austria were at war? Like when France wrote “La Marseillaise”?
The song has been Germany’s official anthem since 1922, although it was drastically changed after the Second World War, with the third verse singing about freedom, unity and justice for all those living in the German Fatherland – certainly something that didn’t happen during the 1930s!
“God Save the King”
Country: The United Kingdom
“God Save the King” (or Queen, or maybe both!) has been the unofficial national anthem of the United Kingdom since the 1740s, and is arguably one of the oldest national anthems in the world!
The song was written in 1744, but gained widespread popularity in 1745, because of the Jacobite Rising, where Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), attempted to invade England from Scotland, and take the English throne. The famous Battle of Culloden, which saw the Jacobite forces slaughtered by government troops, spelled an end to that fantasy, and “God Save the King” became popular as a song of celebration throughout England. The invaders had been held back, and the monarchy had been saved for another generation!
Apart from Britain, ‘God Save the King’ was the national anthem of many of Britain’s colonies, dominions, and overseas dependencies, such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Today, it’s still the royal anthem of many of these countries, but it’s since been replaced by local national anthems in many of the commonwealth realms.
“The State Anthem of the Russian Federation”
Country: The Russian Federation
Previous: The Internationale, God Save the Tsar.
Of all the European countries, Russia is one with one of the most turbulent histories. Tsars and tyrants, invasions, wars, rising and falling fortunes, revolts and revolutions. All this is reflected in the history of the nation’s national anthems.
Russia’s first national anthem was “God Save the Tsar”, which was the official one from 1833 until 1917, when the longstanding Romanov Dynasty, which had ruled over Russia since the 17th century, was finally overthrown during the Russian Revolution.
After the fall of the Romanovs, the anthem was promptly changed. First, it was ‘The Workers’ Marseillaise’ – and it even had the same music as the French ‘La Marseillaise’! This was changed, just a year later in 1918, to ‘The Internationale’, which became a popular communist and socialist anthem throughout the 20th century.
‘The Internationale’ remained the anthem until it was changed…again!…in 1944, to the ‘State Anthem of the Soviet Union’, which was changed…AGAIN!…in 1977! The lyrics were also changed during this time. Early versions of the Soviet anthem were full of praise for Comrade Stalin. After Stalin’s death in the 1950s, many of the Stalin-centric lyrics were removed, and the anthem was rewritten, to try and blot out the damage he had done to the Russian nation.
The current Russian national anthem came out in 2000, and was yet ANOTHER reworking of the original Soviet anthem from the 1940s. Because of its controversial past, some Russians have actually protested its use, and have even refused to stand, or sing it, when it’s played on state occasions.