One violinist, one anthem and a wall of riot police

Wuilly Arteaga playing Venezuela’s national anthem at a protest in Caracas in May. I’ve stolen this from Luis Robayo and Agence France-Presse/Getty Images. It’s too shocking not to

There was a brilliant story in The New York Times recently about Venezuela’s ongoing anti-government protests and how they’ve embroiled the country’s classical musicians. It was focused on the death of a viola player, Armando Cañizales, who walked alone towards a line of soldiers:

“He said nothing as he advanced, arms outstretched, palms facing up.

“Then the fatal shots rang out.”

Why’s this tragedy relevant to a blog on national anthems? Because Venezuela’s anthem – Glory to the Brave People – is regularly sung and played by protesters at home and abroad, trying to show they really represent the country. Iit’s been played especially since Armando’s death. Here’s one example from that New York Times story:

“On a recent afternoon, [Armando’s friend] Wuilly Arteaga, 23, stood in the centre of a crowd of demonstrators, his violin on his shoulder. His case was strapped to his back, his helmet painted with the colours of the Venezuelan flag. He played the national anthem.

“Explosions of tear gas canisters erupted between the notes he played. Finally, other protesters grabbed him by a shoulder and dragged him back from the security forces.

“‘I remembered my friend Armando,’ Mr. Arteaga said afterward. ‘I have spent ages now playing and living on the streets, and I see that so many talented Venezuelans have had to eat from the trash.'”

Read the whole article now. It’s a great piece of journalism. It’s a shame it’s such sad reading.

In, in, in, innnnnnnnnn: why Beethoven wouldn’t have wanted a Brexit

photo

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – the climax of his ninth symphony – has one of the strangest histories in music. Since its premiere in 1824, it’s been used by everyone from French socialists to Nazis, Tiananmen Square protesters to racists (it was Rhodesia’s anthem in the 1970s before the country became Zimbabwe).

But this week, as the UK’s Brexit referendum occurs, it needs to be highlighted for one particular part of its history: for being the anthem of the European Union.

Why did the EU choose Ode to Joy? Largely because of one man: Paul Lévy, a Belgian Holocaust survivor who in 1962 was director of information at the Council of Europe, one of the EU’s many forerunner.

That year, Lévy found himself being deluged with songs from seemingly every amateur songwriter in Europe desperately hoping to give the continent its theme tune. “Some aren’t bad,” he wrote to a colleague. “Others would make a bald man’s hair stand on end.”

All those submissions made him realise one thing: that Europe couldn’t have some unknown’s “anodyne, simple little tune” as its anthem. How would that inspire anyone? It needed a great work instead: a true example of European achievement; one that could uplift anyone’s soul. At the top of his list: Ode to Joy.

The Council adopted it a few years later; the EU a few years after that. Weirdly they both decided to commission a former Nazi to do the arrangement, the conductor Herbert von Karajan. Hardly the best start.

They also decided to remove the words believing, probably rightly, that no one except Germans would sing in German. Although that probably doomed the anthem from the outset. How can people sing a song without words?

Clearly, Ode to Joy hasn’t worked as the EU’s anthem. It hasn’t brought the continent together one bit.

The EU’s own surveys suggest only a third of Europeans even realise the bloc has an anthem. I assume even fewer know it’s Ode to Joy. Some probably think it’s the Champions League theme (“The champions!”).

But regardless, I’m pretty sure Beethoven would be proud to have the title. He wrote his ninth symphony to Joy at a time when Europe was anything but unifed, yet he chose to include in it a poem that literally calls for “all men to become brothers”.

He even added some of his own words to the start that seem to be calling people to move beyond nationalism: “Oh friends, not these sounds. Let us instead strike up more pleasant and more joyful ones.”

You could argue that he would have hated the EU. Beethoven wrote plenty of pieces of patriotic music for Austria and he also seemed happy to stoke nationalist feelings across Europe during his career. In 1803, for instance, he wrote seven variations on God Save the Queen. A decade later, he included both that anthem and Rule Britannia in his appalling Battle Symphony – a 14-minute crowd pleaser seemingly written solely to get the money rolling in from England.

But with Ode to Joy, his feelings are clear. Listening to it is rather like hearing a hippy strumming a guitar; the sound of someone who has smoked a bit too much dope and decided he can change the world with a song.

Given that, I’m pretty sure if he were alive now, he’d be campaigning for Britain to be remain in Europe. Although perhaps he wouldn’t like what some people have done to his tune around the vote:

“One of the most musically brave – or stupid – things I’ve ever heard in my life”

Before I had the meltdown

Mid-way through the meltdown

That quote’s from Tom Service, one of the UK’s best music journalists, and is worryingly about me.

Tom’s, right now, behind a great BBC radio show and podcast called The Listening Service where he explores how music works.

Here’s an amazing episode on repetition; here’s another on musical beginnings; and here’s one on noise. You should listen to them all.

But this week’s is all about national anthems – pieces, as he says, that have “been made to carry more bloodshed, hope, victory, despair, arrogance, humility and even cynicism than any other melodies before or since.” See, it’s not just me who’s obsessed with these songs.

I’m on the episode quite a bit and you can listen to the whole thing here, but I thought I’d put up a couple of excerpts up in case you haven’t got half-an-hour to waste.

Firstly, here’s Tom on Stockhausen’s Hymnen – the great German composer’s attempt at a world anthem – since I don’t actually mention it in the book.

But secondly, here’s that brave/stupid thing.

When we were recording the show, Tom asked me to tell a story about the time I sung the Star-Spangled Banner at a song contest in Nashville. And he found it so funny, he then begged me for the recording.

The story’s in my book, but if you want to hear the sound of a man basically having a nervous breakdown in a baseball stadium, listen below. Dear God!

Any Listening Service fans who stumble across this, read this from BBC Music Magazine for a lot of information on famous composers and anthems. It has everyone from Verdi to Haydn – your every classical need met!

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.

 

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.

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

National plagiarism 2: plagiat national!

In a piece for the BBC this week, I wrote about the insane number of national anthems that seem to be plagiarised.

But I stupidly forgot to mention the biggest example of them all: la Marseillaise. The omission was all the more bizarre since I write about it in my book, so sorry about that!

Where did la Marseillaise’s music come from? Below is a piece by the Italian violinist, Giovan Battista Viotti written in 1781 – 11 years before Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle wrote France’s anthem. You only have to listen to it for a moment to hear the resemblance.

Some people claim it wasn’t written by Viotti either, but by Jean-Baptiste Grisons in 1787. That I don’t understand since it’s six years later, but here’s his Oratorio d’Esther anyway.

Yes, it’s the same again.

Did Rouget steal one of these tunes? Here’s a quote from Frédéric Frank-David, former director of the Memorial de la Marseillaise, and the man who should know:

“There is a certain amount of probability that Rouget had been inspired by Viotti’s tune, be it consciously or unconsciously…”

So there you go!

But the problem I have with calling Rouget a plagiarist is it takes away from his achievement. Even if he stole it, “just choosing that melody – knowing that it was the one to inspire – there’s art in that too” (to narcissistically quote my own book!). There’s more art in that than most songs you can name, in fact.

Plus, the rest of Rouget de Lisle’s life was such a disaster, I think he should be given this one thing. Read my book for more on that. It’s a story that’s frankly unbelievable at times, but I promise I haven’t plagiarised it from any novel.