Soul Songs: The dazzling diversity of national anthems

By Vikas Datta

Apart from the flag, national anthems are the most cherished symbols of nationhood. However, are these musical compositions, eulogising the particular country/nation’s history and traditions or expounding its destiny, only the cultural epitome of patriotic sentiment?
Examples from around the world show anthems are not only valuable representations of history, politics, and popular sentiments – but also a prime form of literary expression, for they are, essentially poems, whether they praise the nation’s history or topography, invoke deities for protection, or call their compatriots to action.
British journalist and anthem expert Alex Marshall divide anthems into four types. And his focus is mainly the music, the lyrics also are key.
The first are the hymn sorts – in both music and lyrics, which Marshall attributes to the pervading influence of UK’s God Save the King and colonialism, for cropping up across Africa (say, Kenya’s Ee Mungu Nguvu Yetu or Oh God of All Creation), Asia, the Caribbean (Jamaica, Land We Love, incidentally written by a clergyman), and various Pacific island nations (take Tuvalu mo te Atua (Tuvalu for the Almighty).
However, they can also be found in countries like Hungary’s Himnusz and Iceland’s Lofsongur – both meaning hymn.
India’s Jana Gana Mana is also an example – in its invocation.
Second, there are the ones that sound like military marches.
The “State Anthem of the Soviet Union” and “State Anthem of the Russian Federation” are the best examples, and those of many post-Soviet states are of similar type too. France’s La Marseillaise is another prime example, with its stirring martial refrain Aux armes, citoyens,/Formez vos bataillons,/Marchons, marchons…! (To arms, citizens,/Form your battalions,/March, march!…)
The third are the fanfare anthems, particularly of the Middle East, which are mostly a few trumpet flourishes, some even lasting even less than a minute.
But, Marshall terms the fourth ones – the epic anthems of South America – the best, despite their tunes ignoring all conventions of anthems, while also being far from short, or easy to sing, being “set out like mini operas, with rollicking openings in which every part of the orchestra seems to outplay the others; melodramatic middle sections…; and huge over-the-top finishes, with multiple false endings”.
They, he says, feel like songs written for the stage, and it is not surprising that opera composers were behind most of them.
Also in the same mould is Georgia’s Tavisupleba (Freedom), brought in 2004, along with a new flag and symbol, after the 2003 revolution.
Not only is its music taken from the two popular Georgian operas, but the Caucasian nation’s public broadcaster often airs a music video version, featuring a notable opera singer.
However, if we take anthems from all around the world, save for four or five odd, they are all written by eminent poets or litterateurs.
Polymath Rabindranath Tagore, who bears the unique distinction of having his works figuring as the anthems of two separate counties – India and Bangladesh – is the best example.
He is followed by modern Greece’s national poet, Dionysios Solomos, whose eis tin Eleutherian (Hymn to Liberty) is the national anthem of his country as well as Cyprus. At 158 stanzas, it is also the longest in the world – however, on most official occasions, only the first two stanzas are used.
Then, Soviet/Russian author Sergey Vladimirovich Mikhalkov, known for children’s poetry and satirical fables, was tasked by Stalin himself to write the lyrics to the first Soviet anthem in 1942, and then wrote a revised version adopted in 1977. He was subsequently urged by President Vladimir Putin to write the new Russian anthem in 2000 – at the age of 86. All used the same tune, but Mihalkov proved his expertise with the lyrics.
While the first Stalin-era version had the refrain as Be glorified, our free Fatherland,/Reliable stronghold of the people’s friendship!/Banner of the Soviets, the banner of the people,/May it lead from victory to victory!, the 1977 version changed the last two lines to The Party of Lenin – the strength of the people,/Leads us to the triumph of Communism!. The new Russian anthem goes: Be glorified, our free Fatherland,/The age-old union of fraternal peoples,/Ancestor-given wisdom of the people!/Be glorified, country! We are proud of you!
In the first version, the second stanza was Through storms, the sun of freedom shone on us,/And Great Lenin illuminated our path./Stalin taught us to be faithful to the people,/To labor and achievements, we were inspired!, but the new version removed the reference to Stalin to make the final two lines: To a righteous cause, he (Lenin) raised the people/To labor and achievements, we were inspired!
Top Angolan author Manuel Rui Alves Monteiro wrote his country’s Angola Avante (Onward Angola), while closer to home, Nepal’s Sayaun Thunga Phulka was composed by Pradeep Kumar Rai, alias Byakul Maila, to replace the royalist anthem, and there are many other examples.
Even when political leaders are involved in creating an anthem, it turns out that they are poets too, or otherwise culturally gifted – be in Argentina’s Himno Nacional Argentino, written by poet and lawmaker Vicente Lopez y Planes, who briefly became President over a decade later, and Burkina Faso’s Le Ditanye (or Une Seule Nuit), written by then revolutionary President Thomas Sankara, who was also an accomplished jazz guitarist.
And then, anthems can be quite jingoistic – while France’s La Marseillaise, after asking citizens to mobilise, calls for Qu’un sang impur/Abreuve nos sillons! (Let impure blood/Water our furrows). More bloodthirsty is Algeria’s Kassaman (We Pledge), which tells us When we spoke, nobody listened to us,/ So we have taken the noise of gunpowder as our rhythm/And the sound of machine guns as our melody..
On the other hand, there was the erstwhile GDR’s (East Germany) Auferstanden aus Ruinen (Risen from Ruins), written by its Culture Minister – and poet – Johannes Becher, which stressed that Let the light of peace shine,/so that a mother never again/Mourns her son…
There are myriad other aspects, and some can be found in Marshall’s Republic or Death: Travels in Search of National Anthems (2015), about his multi-continent odyssey to bring out the nature and history of the songs, which despite being fundamental to “national consciousness”, have had the stories of their creation, adoption, and the usually unlucky or forgotten creator rarely, if ever, told. (IANS)