World premiere: Benjamin Britten’s Malaysian national anthem!

Britten, smoldering!

Most blogs premiere tracks by second-rate indie bands no one’s heard of. And I would be more than happy to do that if any second-rate indie bands are reading!

But today it’s my pleasure to instead premiere a national anthem – and one written by one of the most famous composers of the 20th century at that: Benjamin Britten.

Yes, the man smoldering in the photo above and the man who wrote the opera Peter Grimes and the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra also once wrote a national anthem for Malaysia, a country he only ever spent a day in and couldn’t have been further from his Aldeburgh home. Listen below or here.

Yes, it’s a minor work. And, yes, it is too pensive for a national anthem. But it’s got something and it’s BENJAMIN BLOODY BRITTEN, so stop complaining!

It was written in the 1950s, never adopted and hasn’t been heard since. Malaysia instead plumped for this song, Negaraku.

I just wrote a piece about the bizarre story around this for the BBC so head there now. I barely touch on it in my book on the world’s anthems (largely as it’s a travelogue at heart and I went to Egypt to explore issues around anthems and fame), so imagine what amazing things I write about instead! Go and buy it now!

The above video was made for me by the great young composer Josephine Stephenson, whose music you should check out immediately, and her brother, Robin, whose playing you should also delve into now. Huge thanks to them both.

Finally, for any Malaysians reading, please do not call up your radio stations and talk about this. Apparently by law it’s illegal to discuss the national anthem in your country, or anything else going by the photo below. Bloody hell!

Malaysian press rules

Malaysian press rules, as stolen from Nazeem Hussain’s twitter account @nazeem_hussain

10 thoughts on “World premiere: Benjamin Britten’s Malaysian national anthem!

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    • Hi Seez, thanks for reading. It’s a really interesting article, but no, I hadn’t seen it before! I’ve just written a book on national anthems, which I’ve been researching for the past four years. I first got hold of the Britten sheet music in July 2014 – I waited until now to write about it as I wanted my book to be out when it was published so I could try and get some sales from it!
      One point is wrong in it though. Britten was definitely approached after the competition closed and by the government direct. It’s all in his letters!
      Anyway, I hope the article inspires you to look at my book too. All anthems have fascinating stories to them, not just Malaysia’s!
      Thanks again for reading.

      Alex

      • Hi Alex, thanks for your very prompt reply! It must have been a happy coincidence then as the aforementioned podcast also mentions the rediscovery of Britten’s proposal. And yes, I ordered a copy of your book immediately upon learning of it, having some interest in national anthems myself (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc6XlTX5hvo – old video, current total is 105). I’m really looking forward to reading it once it arrives!

      • Ha – very fun! You know many more than I do. I just learned the ones of the countries I travelled to. But I got the same reactions you did so agree it’s an oddly useful skill. Keep it up! And thank you so much for ordering the book. I really hope you enjoy it, and don’t spot any mistakes! I did most of the research on Britten after finishing the book, so intend to put more in the paperback edition if I’m allowed. We’ll see… Thanks again. Alex!

      • I just received Republic or Death in the post this week, and needless to say, I have already devoured the whole thing with much pleasure. Your writing is lucid and never dull, and it’s clear that you went to quite some lengths to get the story told, which is impressive and admirable. That being said however, I have noticed a couple of errata which hopefully can be fixed in the paperback:-

        1. Page 101 – ‘Comfort women’ is not a euphemism for ‘prostitute’, as the term ‘prostitute’ implied that they were paid. ‘Sex slave’ would be more accurate in this instance;

        2. Page 104 – Hirohito (regnal name Showa) was not Meiji (birth name Mutsuhito)’s son, but rather his grandson. In between their reigns was the reign of the mentally handicapped Taisho (birth name Yoshihito)

        3. Page 168 – Not so much an erratum as a clarification – while ‘Heil dir im Siegerkranz’ did appear in Danish Schleswig in 1790 as a patriotic song, by that time ‘Kong Christian stod ved højen mast’ was already established as the Danish anthem.

        4. Page 248 – Die Stem is far more a hymn than a military march, just listen:- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTMAv2WkmN0

        I hope you will accept my pointing out the above in a spirit of constructive criticism, no malice or offence is meant thereby and it is not my intent in any way to detract from the obvious scholarship and effort you have put into the book.

        Apropos our earlier discussion on the Malaysian anthem, I recently went back to Malaysia for a short visit, and to my chagrin and disappointment, I discovered that the book ‘Rosalie and Other Love Songs’ by Datin Saidah Rastam, which tells the story of how Negaraku was adopted, was sold out and out of print!! Here’s hoping that a second printing will be done soon and that I’ll be able to pick up a couple of copies the next time I’m back home (one of which I intend to send to you!).

        Thanks again for the wonderful read, I look forward to a sequel soon! And should you happen to come to Malaysia to research our anthem further, I will be more than happy to guide you around should I be there myself.

        Cheers!

      • Blimey, thanks for reading it and for such a kind message. Don’t worry about pointing out any errors. It’s a 350-page book, there’s bound to be some mistakes.
        There’s several things I intend to change for the paperback, but strangely I hadn’t noticed any of those, so yes, big thanks.
        I get the point about comfort women although I’d need to check they were all unpaid (I don’t want to start getting barraged by messages from insane Koreans telling me ‘paid sex slave’ would be a better term!) , and very big thanks for pointing out the Hirohito error which I don’t know how that got in and the one on Die Stem, which I’m surprised I described as a march. I’m blaming my editor for that last one…!
        Thanks for the point about Kong Christian. I might do a bit more research on that when I get time.
        Anyway, I’m really glad to hear you read it all and enjoyed it and please feel free to tell any other anthem obsessives you come across about it. Here’s hoping I can get to Malaysia too and perhaps we can do some singing! Thanks so much again. Alex

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