Sunday, August 10, 2008

National Anthems: PBS Gets it About 90% Right (3 points off for content, 7 for smugness)

Last week, as the Olympics got underway, NPR ran a story on national anthems, taking their role in medal ceremonies as an opportunity to reflect on the musical form as a whole.   Interviewed by Renee Montagne, musician and commentator Miles Hoffman provided useful general background and generally sound commentary.   Regarding the Chinese anthem, they took pleasure in speculating that it is probably the only one derived from a popular film.  Hoffman correctly points out that the first real exemplar of the genre was "God Save the King," of 1745.  National anthems are thus relatively new phenomena, a product of the modern nation-state and nationalism, which arose only in the eighteenth century (and not earlier, as some works would have us believe).  

Hoffman subdivides the songs into the hymn-like ones, which praise land or ruler, and the bloody, combative ones (of which the French "Marseillaise" is the classic example).  He further and plausibly asserts that almost no national anthem texts are great poetry.

One nonetheless could have done without the arch tone that he uses when pronouncing not only the Chinese socialist phrases, but any lofty-sounding lines.  One could practically see the raised eyebrow and curled lip as he spoke.

The point was in any case not new. Had he wanted to point to warlike, pompous, ponderous, or preposterous texts, he could have gone even further, as this selection from Tom Kuntz's 1997 piece in the New York Times ("O Patriotic Hymns! You Enslave Us With Blood Lust and Self-Praise!") demonstrates:
Mexicans, when the trumpet is calling,
Grasp your sword and your harness assemble.
Let the guns with their thunder appalling,
Make the earth's deep foundations to tremble. . . .

King Christian stood by the lofty mast
In mist and smoke;
His sword was hammering so fast,
Through Gothic helm and brain it passed.

Other anthems appear to lose something in cross-cultural transmission:

Syria's plains are

     Towers in the heights,
     Resembling the sky
     Above the clouds.
     A land resplendent
     With brilliant suns,
     Becoming another sky
     Or almost a sky.

But other countries make it all too clear where they stand -- Libya among them:

     O World, look up and listen!
     The enemy's army is coming,
     Rising to destroy me.
     With truth and with my gun I shall repulse him.
     And should I be killed,
     I would kill him with me.
     Sing with me --
     Woe to the Imperialists!
     And God is above the treacherous tyrant.
     God is Greatest!
     Therefore glorify him, O my country,
     And seize the forehead of the tyrant
     And destroy him!
That said, I was fully in agreement with Hoffman when he praised the melody of the former Austrian and current German anthem--composed by Franz Joseph Haydn during the turmoil of the Revolutionary Wars in 1797--as one of the most beautiful, and played the sublime version that Haydn incorporated into his string quartet, op. 76 no. 3 (the "Emperor").  Haydn's inspiration came from the British example (he had recently visited England twice for extended periods), and the text, by the nonentity Lorenz Leopold Haschka, was likewise a dynastic hymn.  (Both the text and the melody of the Austrian anthem have changed several times since the fall of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, but that is another story.)

Although Hoffman correctly pointed out that the Germans chose to drop the first verse, with the words, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles," from the official text after World War II, the full story is actually slightly more complicated and interesting.  Like the Times, he implied that the lines were supremacist. No doubt, that is how they sounded in 1945, but when the radical and nationalist Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote them in 1841, they, like the words that spoke of Germany as stretching from the Baltic to the Alps and Lithuania to the Netherlands, referred to the locales in which German was spoken and were meant to emphasize simply the supremacy of German national culture and unity over German regional particularism.  Under the Wilhelminian Empire prior to World War I, the German national anthem was "Hail thee in victor's crown," sung to the same melody as the British "God Save the King" and the American "My Country, 'tis of Thee."  Only in 1922--under the democratic Weimar Republic--did the "Deutschlandlied," employing Haydn's melody and Hoffmann von Fallersleben's text, become the official German anthem.  The verses sung today, "Unity and justice and freedom for the German Fatherland," are actually Hoffmann von Fallersleben's adaptation of a song of praise by the great medieval poet Walther von der Vogelweide.

All in all, the NPR piece was a useful one, and there are worse places to start, especially as this one contains eight musical selections (though having the Marseillaise played by the Coldstream Guards was a nasty irony; I'll take the Orchestre d'Harmonie des Gardiens de la Paix de Paris).

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