Meet Lačni Franz, the only rock band to give a country its national anthem

The lead singer of Lačni Franz at a concert in Yugoslavia in 1981. Check out those haircuts!

Lačni Franz’ lead singer at a concert in Yugoslavia in 1981. Look at those perms. LOOK AT THOSE PERMS!

There are dozens of famous rock covers of anthems: think of Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner or Gainsbourg’s Aux Armes et caetera.

But there’s only one rock act who’s given a country its anthem: a Slovenian band called Lačni Franz – a bizarre fact I learned this week while reading an incredibly academic book called Identity and Nationalism in the Balkans.

Before picking that up, I already knew Slovenia’s anthem had an insane story. Its original author was France Prešeren, a 19th century alcoholic who spent most of his life infatuated with a woman who didn’t love him back no matter how many poems he dedicated to her.

In 1844, he wrote one of those, a drinking song called A Toast (Zdravljica). There’s no doubt it was meant for getting drunk to. Prešeren wrote the verses so they looked like a wine glass, while its very first lines are, “Friends! Again the vines bore well / Let sweet wine liven our veins.”

But mixed in among the calls to drink were bouts of national sentiment like this: “God, let your Slovene girls bloom…There are no maidens more comely than ours.” Ok, bad example, but you get what I mean.

Were those lines enough to make it the natural choice to become Slovenia’s anthem following the Soviet Union’s demise? Apparently not. Instead, the reason A Toast became the anthem is apparently entirely down to Lačni Franz.

In 1987, the band recorded a parody of the song that repopularised the poem across the country and practically forced its adoption as the anthem two years later. God knows if that’s true, but this clip certainly shows people loving it. Dance Slovenes, dance!

Slovenia’s politicians disappointingly ignored all the drinking verses when they made it the anthem and went for this one instead:

Long live all folk everywhere
Who long to see the day
When wherever sun may roam
Strife holds none under its sway
Then all people, everywhere
Will be free
Not enemies, but dear neighbours

Yes, it’s an odd choice given it makes no reference to Slovenia, to that country’s landscape or its people. There’s nothing nationalist about it at all really. It’s like a country decided to take Michael Jackson’s Heal the World for its anthem.

Personally, I think it’s great for that, but if you want to read the political reasons behind that move, pick up ‘Identity and Nationalism in the Balkans’ (or order it at your local university library). The reasoning is just as bizarre as anything above.

Anyway, I should shut up – this post is already far too long! Here’s some more Lačni Franz for you.

Dope sounds

Just in case you think I only write about national anthems, below are a few things I’ve done recently that couldn’t be more different.

Here’s a piece on my trip to the world’s first government-owned cannabis farm in Uruguay done for the BBC’s amazing From Our Own Correspondent programme:

And here for The Guardian is an interview with the man growing that dope, the CEO of the brilliantly-named Internal Cannabis Corp. It’s a more fun read than it sounds.

“How about some music?” I don’t hear you ask. Well here for the New York Times is a piece on the British musicians who’re remaking the world’s oldest instruments. It contains some amazing sound clips of a 30,000-year-old vulture bone flute and a carnyx, and I highly recommend you click through.

There will be some other pieces appearing soon, including one I did on my trip to Antarctica for British Airways’ High Life magazine (how appropriate given the cannabis pieces). I’ll try to remember to post those when they appear.

Don’t panic, Czechs! You don’t need to change your tune

Yes, it really is hard to illustrate a blog about a country changing it's name

Yes, it is really hard to illustrate a blog about a country being renamed

This week, the Czech Republic’s government announced it wants to rename the country Czechia, apparently because it “rolls off the tongue more easily” and will look better on football shirts.

Yes, those are the first and second worst reasons ever come up with for renaming a country.

“But,” I hear every Czech fail to cry, “what is the answer to the most important question of them all: what would the change mean for our national anthem?”

Well, don’t panic. I’m pretty sure it’ll mean absolutely nothing.

The Czech anthem – Kde domov můj / Where is my home? – only mentions the word Czech twice (when it answers its title with the words “The Czech land, my home”). Since it doesn’t mention the word republic at all, that should mean it can continue.

But – and it’s a big BUT – why would any Czech want to keep using it? It’s a boring piece of 19th century incidental music. Literally; it was written for a short song in a long forgotten play. Its title is also the sort of thing drunk stag parties shout at 3am in Prague.

Czechs, do yourself a favour. Use the name change to change this too.

My paperback’s arrived!

As I didn’t have enough copies to write Republic or Death, I wrote this instead. Sorry!

ChildishnessIt’s coming out next month on Penguin Random House’s amazing Windmill imprint – home of authors like Douglas Coupland, Michel Houellebecq and Harper Lee – but feel free to order it now. It’s a fiver cheaper than the hardback!

Vladimir Putin and the case of the disappearing Motherland

Stolen from Alexey Druzhinin of AFP. Sorry as always. Clearly not that sorry, but...!

“Hello, ladies!” Picture stolen from Alexey Druzhinin of AFP. Sorry, as always. Clearly I’m not that sorry, but…

First things first, I don’t work for an intelligence service looking to undermine Russia! I should probably say that given recent comments from the Kremlin.

Second things second, I’ve written a lot about Russia’s national anthem before – both on here and in my book – because its story is amazing, especially the fact that one of the first things Putin did when he came to power was change it back to the anthem Russia had used during the Soviet Union.

It was a shrewd move, symbolising to every Russian he was bringing back the glory days.

But what I haven’t mentioned before is that he also changed the lyrics. This is the anthem’s Soviet chorus:

Sing to the Motherland, home of the free
Bulwark of peoples in brotherhood strong
O Party of Lenin, the strength of the people
To Communism’s triumph lead us on

Obviously the Lenin bit needed a makeover, and definitely that bit about Communism triumphing. I mean, you can’t have oligarchs running around with those lyrics in place.

But how about that first line; that Motherland? Seems perfect for Mother Russia, doesn’t it? Well, this is what the anthem says today:

Be glorious, our free Fatherland
Age-old union of fraternal peoples
Ancestor-given wisdom of the people
Be glorious, our country. We are proud of you

I’ll let you jump to your own conclusions about what that change means.

I only realised this had happened last weekend while listening to an interview with Bridget Kendall, the BBC’s retiring diplomatic correspondent (from 31 minutes in).

“When I first went to the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, I was a student…propaganda was in full swing and you heard the anthem all the time,” she says, before discussing how its use is one of the best ways to trace how the country’s changed.

She’s surprisingly even-handed during the interview and doesn’t remotely criticise Putin. “I’m a long-term optimist when it comes to Russia,” she says at one point. “They’re on a difficult political twist at the moment, but you think what they’ve been through over the past 30 years. Of course it’s going to take decades to sort it out.”

National deficit (or why famous composers don’t write anthems)

BBC Music Magazine March 2016 cover

This feature was originally published in the great BBC Music Magazine‘s March 2016 issue (see above), but now it’s out of the shops I feel happy to put it up. It discusses everyone from Verdi to Sibelius, all of whom I probably should have written about in my book. I hope this makes up for it.

My talk at London’s Royal College of Music on 23 June will expand all this greatly so get a ticket now!

 

In January 1797, Haydn wrote what was, in one respect, the biggest failure of his career. Austria was at war with France, Napoleon’s cannons were threatening even Vienna and Haydn was commissioned to write a piece to keep them back. He thought of his time in London where he heard God Save the King almost daily, and he thought of la Marseillaise, whose rousing, bloody call to arms seemed to be getting closer by the minute. And then he decided to write Austria their equivalent.

He had been given lyrics to write to – Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser, God Save Emperor Francis – and he sat down and penned a melody that he’s meant to have believed could “inflame the hearts of Austrians to new heights of devotion” as well as “incite [them] to combat”. It debuted on 12 February, and was so instantly popular, it was taken out of the theatre and straight into the streets.

But unfortunately for Haydn, it didn’t exactly have the effect he’d hoped for. Within weeks, Napoleon had invaded. Within months, Austria was forced to sign an embarrassing peace treaty. Gott Erhalte… was not Austria’s Marseillaise. But Haydn did achieve one thing with that song: he became the only famous composer to successfully write a national anthem. It is still in use today, albeit across the border in Germany and now known as the Deutschlandlied.

It’s surprising that out of the world’s 200-odd countries, Germany is the only one whose anthem has a star composer attached. It means that none of music’s great nationalists ever managed to give their homelands a song to bellow at football matches or turn to at times of need. Finland’s anthem, for instance, is to the tune of a German drinking song, not anything by Sibelius; the Czech Republic’s is taken from a 19th century comedy, not Dvořák or Smetana. Is it composers’ fault this situation has arisen, or is there just something about anthems that puts everybody off?

Soon, every Soviet composer you can name – Prokofiev, Khachaturian, even Shostakovich – was writing one piece of Communist bombast after another in an effort to conjure the winning tune

It would be wrong to say that Haydn is the only household name to have written an anthem. Several others have tried. In 1942, Stalin decided he needed a new anthem to replace the Internationale, apparently because Winston Churchill was refusing to let that song’s revolutionary message (“Enslaved masses, stand up!”) be played on British radio. Soon, every Soviet composer you can name – Prokofiev, Khachaturian, even Shostakovich – was writing one piece of Communist bombast after another in an effort to conjure the winning tune.

It’s impossible to know if any of them entered with genuine enthusiasm since they had little choice – who turns down Stalin? – but also because they all seem to realise the competition was a money-spinner. Each entry earned 4,000 roubles – ten times the average monthly wage at the time – with bonuses for those that made the competition’s final. Shostakovich made 34,000 roubles for his multiple entries, none of which anyone’s felt good enough to record since. Khachaturian made 30,000, including payment for one composition that went on to become the anthem of Soviet Armenia (it was discarded in 1991).

Stalin’s lyricists were adamant a famous composer should be chosen. It would “be almost unique and raise the profile of the USSR on the world stage,” they wrote. But Stalin ignored their pleas and picked a piece by a man called Alexander Alexandrov instead. He deserved the victory – his anthem, still Russia’s today, is so rousing and filled with threat it could inspire anyone to trudge across the steppe. Although Shostakovich saw it differently. “A national anthem must have bad music, and Stalin didn’t break with tradition,” he says in his disputed memoirs.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Benjamin Britten once tried to write an anthem for Malaysia, a country he had only set foot in once and then only for a few harrowing hours (he spent most of the “really hair raising trip” fearing he was about to be shot by communist guerrillas).

‘A national anthem must have bad music’, wrote Shostakovich, ‘and Stalin didn’t break with tradition.’

In June 1957, the Federation of Malaya was about to become independent from Britain, but its government had somehow failed to find an anthem. As a last throw of the dice, it contacted Britten, William Walton and Gian Carlo Menotti and begged them to have a go. Only Britten took up the offer producing, by his own admission, “a curious and I’m afraid rather unsuccessful job.”

The Malaysian government evidently agreed as a few weeks later they asked him to rewrite it so it sounded actually Malaysian, sending him several records of folk music as inspiration. He rewrote an entire section, but it didn’t help. The government ended up using the anthem of Perak – one of Malaysia’s states – instead; a piece of music better known in Malaysia as a cabaret tune.

There are a few composers whose music has become an anthem without their involvement. In 1990, Boris Yeltsin chose Glinka’s Patriotic Song to be Russia’s anthem despite it having no words, something that made it doomed from the start (Vladimir Putin brought back the Soviet anthem almost as soon as he came to power). Similarly, Sibelius’s Finlandia was Biafra’s anthem for that country’s tragic, three-year existence, rechristened Land of the Rising Sun.

There are also some composers who are wrongly thought to have written anthems. Our own God Save the Queen, for instance, is frequently misattributed to Thomas Arne. Arne is responsible for its first documented performance on 28 September 1745, when he arranged it for London’s Drury Lane Theatre to inspire people heading off to fight Bonnie Prince Charlie. But when Arne was asked if he knew who had composed it, he said he “didn’t have the least knowledge, nor could guess”, an admission that opened the floodgates to the wildest of claims.

John Bull, the great organist, is the likely composer. But the better story is that Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote it in 1688 for some nuns so they could welcome Louis XIV on a visit to their convent (“Grand Dieu, sauvez le Roy!”). A few decades later, Handel’s meant to have visited it too, stumbled across the song and, realising just what a gem it was, rushed it back to England, his own name now attached. The story appears in the memoirs of a French noblewoman and is such fun, it’s almost a shame to learn they are fakes.

The other anthem that’s often misattributed is Austria’s current Land of the Mountains, Land by the River (the country dropped Haydn’s music after World War Two). Many believe Mozart wrote it as part of a cantata for his Masonic lodge, but it doesn’t appear in his original score and even the Austrian government admits it is more likely written by the somewhat less glamorous Johann Holzer.

So why have so few famous composers tackled these songs, instead leaving them to amateurs, everyone from teachers to musically-inclined politicians?

One possible reason is that they are simply incapable of writing them. Coming up with a minute-long song that’s catchy and stirring enough to unite an entire country is a genuinely difficult task, and much harder if you are used to writing symphonies or operas.

‘There can be only one music grateful to the ears of Italians [right now]; the music of the cannon,’ Verdi wrote

Just take Verdi’s experience. In 1848, when Milan threw out its Austrian occupiers, Verdi rushed to the city, but shied away from composing anything to celebrate, writing to one of his librettists: “You speak to me of music? What has gotten into you? There can be only one music grateful to the ears of Italians [right now]; the music of the cannon.” A few months later, he appeared to have a change of heart after being asked by a leading revolutionary to write a hymn so powerful it “might become the Italian Marseillaise…in which the people might forget the composer and the poet.” Verdi produced Suona la Tromba, The Trumpet Sounds, a march so plodding even he seemed to realise it was a failure. “I tried to be as popular and simple as is possible,” he wrote. “Use it however you want. Burn it if you think it is unworthy.”

It got several airings, but it never caught people’s attention, who kept singing the rambunctious Fratelli d’Italia instead – the song that is now Italy’s anthem. Verdi clearly realised that was the better piece of music as he used it to represent Italy in his Inno delle Nazioni (Hymn of Nations), written for the 1862 London Exhibition.

There are a couple of more likely reasons why few famous composers write anthems. The first is that most people – even egotistical composers – believe anthems are immovable. Replacing them is thought impossible, like altering a country’s flag or changing its very soil. It’s untrue, of course – most countries change their anthems so frequently you wonder how people keep up (France has had three besides the Marseillaise) – but it’s a belief that’s unshakable.

Then there is the biggest reason of them all: politics. If you write an anthem, there is a strong chance that the very next day it will be sung by people you don’t like, or in a context you can’t bear. Like all music, as soon as you write an anthem, it is out of your hands forever. When Haydn wrote Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser, he wasn’t to know that it would become the anthem of Nazi Germany, a melody Hitler would describe as “holiest to us Germans.” Would he have composed it if he had known? Maybe, but most composers today wouldn’t take the risk.

As a bonus, here’s the five anthem-quoting works, BBC Music Magazine’s staff think you should hear:

Puccini, Madam Butterfly

It’s near the beginning of Puccini’s 1904 opera that we hear the opening of the US anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, shortly before the loathsome Pinkerton launches into his ‘Dovunque al mondo’ aria. The tune becomes his signature throughout the opera.

Schumann, Hermann und Dorothea

The two most famous works to quote la Marseillaise both reveal a dubious command of history. When Tchaikovsky used it to represent Napoleon in his 1812 overture, he was apparently unaware that the French emperor had banned it. And the event portrayed here in Schumann’s Goethe-inspired overture – the arrival of French immigrants at the Rhine in 1743 – predates the anthem’s composition by some 50 years…

Debussy, Hommage à S Pickwick Esq

Those hearing Charles Ives’ 1891 Variations on America for organ may be surprised to hear God Save our Gracious Queen blasting out of the pipes – the tune was, at the time, also widely popular in the US and competed for anthem status. Twenty years later, Debussy also used the tune in a fond dig at British formality in this, the ninth of his Préludes, Book II.

Stockhausen, Hymnen [This is awful – Alex]

Divided into four ‘Regions’, Stockhausen’s lengthy electronic work from 1966-7 consists of recordings of national anthems from around the world, with live performers if so wished. Those whose anthems are featured include Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Russian and a number of African countries.

Elgar, Polonia

In 1915, Elgar was asked to compose a work to support the Polish war effort. The resulting 20-minute orchestral overture was premiered at a concert to raise funds for Polish Victims Relief soon after. Consisting of music from the Polish national anthem, plus themes by the likes of Paderewski, Chopin and Elgar himself, it deserves to be better known today.