Origins of National Anthems

Hymns, marches, anthems or fanfares used as official patriotic symbols.

National Anthems are the equivalent in music of a country's motto, crest or flag. The English term 'anthem' as applied to such a piece became current in the early 19th-century; in most other languages the word corresponding to the English 'hymn' is used. The occasions upon which National Anthems are required vary from country to country, but one of their main functions has always been to pay homage to a reigning monarch or head of state; they are therefore normally called for on ceremonial occasions when such a person or his representative is present. The tradition, in Europe at least, of playing National Anthems in theatres, and more recently in cinemas, dates from 1745, when Thomas Arne's version of 'God Save the King' was sung at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

National Anthems are frequently used today at football matches and other sports meetings, notably at the quadrennial Olympic Games, where the winner of each event is saluted with the Flag and National Anthem of the country he represents. The power of a National Anthem to strengthen a nation's resolve was demonstrated during World War II when the BBC's weekly broadcasts from London of the National Anthems of the Allied Powers attracted an audience of millions throughout Europe. It is now as much a matter of course for every country to have its own National Anthem as to have its own flag. Many of the older National Anthems, including those of France and the USA, came into being during a period of national crisis.

The earliest of all, that of Great Britain, was sung and printed at the time of the Jacobite rising, though the melody itself is probably much older; and by the end of the 18th-century, Spain, France and Austria had also adopted National Anthems. It was the growing awareness of nationalism in the 19th- century that led to their proliferation, especially in central Europe and South America.

Japan's National Anthem dates from 1893, but it is only since 1949, when China adopted hers, that Eastern countries as a whole have followed the West's example in this way. The emergence of new independent states in Africa and elsewhere since the end of World War II has led to a corresponding increase in the number of National Anthems now in use. The texts of National Anthems are rarely of literary merit. Patriotic fervour is usually the keynote, though the forms and images used to express it vary a good deal and can reveal much about the character of a nation at the time the words were written.

The text of a National Anthem may often have to be revised or modified in the light of political changes within the country or in its relations with its neighbours. Some countries, particularly those that have enjoyed long periods of peace and political stability, choose National Anthems that dwell upon the natural beauty of the land.

Several National Anthems are built around a national hero, such as Denmark's King Christian and Haiti's Jean-Jacques Dessalines, or around a nation's flag, like those of Honduras and the USA. Many are in effect prayers, like 'God Save the King/Queen', or calls to arms, like France's 'La marsillaise'. The struggle for independence (or the pride in achieving it) is a favourite theme among those countries that have emerged since 1945.

A 20th-century development stemming from the National Anthem is what might be termed, the 'international' or 'supra-national' anthem. The tune known as the 'Internationale' (formerly the National Anthem of the USSR) has been used as a left-wing revolutionary song in many countries, including Italy and Albania. The melody of Tanzania and Zambia has existed for many years as a pan-African anthem, especially among the southern Bantu.

In January 1972, an arrangement by Herbert von Karajan of the main theme from the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was adopted (against the wishes of many musicians) as a European Anthem by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The United Nations Organization also has an Anthem by Pablo Casals to words by W. H. Auden, though this has not been (nor is likely to be) officially adopted.

National Anthems are rarely noted for their musical quality any more than for their texts, though most countries have succeeded in finding a tune that is suitably dignified or stirring. Not surprisingly there has been a tendency for some countries to emulate their neighbours, with the result that the musical style of a National Anthem is often determined as much by geographical locality as by the date it was written.

Broadly speaking, National Anthems may be divided according to their musical characteristics into five categories, which are not, however, entirely exclusive.

(a) Hymns:
The stately rhythmic tread and the smooth melodic movement of 'God Save the King/Queen' have served as a model for many National Anthems, both in Europe and among those countries that were formerly British colonies. European National Anthems of this kind tend to be among the oldest.

(b) Marches:
Together with the first group, these account for the majority of all National Anthems. The earliest march to be adopted as a National Anthem was the 'Marcha real' of Spain (1770), but it is 'La marseillaise' that has provided the main inspiration for National Anthems of this type. Its initial phrase is echoed, either rhythmically or in pitch, in many examples.

(c) Operatic:
The tendency for a National Anthem of one country to resemble those of its neighbours is nowhere more clearly shown than in the examples of South and Central America. As a group they are strongly influenced by the style of 19th-century Italian opera, and at least three of them were composed by Italians. They are without question the longest, most elaborate and most impractical of all National Anthems. Always in march rhythm and often with an imposing orchestral introduction, they are mostly cast in a ternary form of chorus-verse-chorus. The longest and most ambitious, that of El Salvador, would not be out of place in one of Verdi's middle-period operas.

(d) Folk:
A notable and perhaps disappointing feature of the National Anthems of those countries previously under the rule of Britain, France or Belgium is that they have mostly been content to imitate European traditions. Several of them were composed by nationals (missionaries or government officials) of the former controlling powers. For National Anthems independent of the European tradition one must look mainly to Eastern countries such as Japan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, who's National Anthems rely strongly upon folk music and sometimes call for indigenous instruments and are accompanied by formal gestures.

(e) Fanfares:
A small group of anthems, mainly those of oil-producing countries in the Middle East (Bahrain and Kuwait) amount to little more than a fanfare-like flourish without text.