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.
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.
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.
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.