National anthems have fascinated me for as long as I have watched international football. The idea that a piece of music can somehow capture and unite the very soul of a nation seems wonderfully romantic and, the more I read and think about it, absolutely absurd.
Over three posts, I have compiled ficts and facts of all the anthems that will blare out from speaker systems across Europe over the next month or so. Come with me on a journey through this weird vocal phenomenon, as we ask: who? what? where? why? whow? whom? whemp? and, mostly, why? Bon appétit…
İstiklal Marşı – Independence March
We begin our journey at the Bosphorus, the largest river in the universe to rhyme with an element in the nitrogen family. Turkey’s ode-to-self starts boldly, with a fanfare that makes you wonder why a country with the 20th highest GDP couldn’t afford the rights to the Star Wars theme. After this uplifting opening clamour, it descends unexpectedly into the minor key. Thank you, Turkey, for allowing us to establish the first rule of National Anthem Club so early on:
1. National anthems in the minor key are superior to national anthems in the major key.
It is not simply that a sadder tune is a more interesting one. The heft and pain that the minor key carries better reflects and confronts the realities of nationhood. No country in the world hasn’t had to fight for its existence; no country in the world is completely at peace with itself. Life is a struggle and Turkey – a state named after a useless, flightless bird – understands this better than anyone. This is why İstiklal Marşı can be found framed on the wall above the blackboard in every Turkish classroom. Its message to the kids?
“Frown not, I beseech thou, oh thou coy crescent!
Smile upon my heroic nation once! What is this violence, what is this rage for?
Our blood which we shed for you shall not be worthy afterwards.”
Have you done the maths homework?
Inno di Mameli – Mameli’s Hymn
Triumphant, epic and suitably operatic, Inno di Mameli begins at breakneck speed and shoves its foot down onto the accelerator. The orchestra has a Q&A session with itself. The strings call and the woodwind responds. The strings have doubts but the woodwind reassures. They come to some sort of an amicable agreement. Then, the gathered chorus erupts;
“Brothers of Italy,
Italy has woken!”
Didn’t know what this song was about? Well, you do now, and it’s not you. Unless you are Italian. And identify as male. And have a sibling. Then it’s probably about you. A bit. But mostly it’s about Italy, the country. The lyrics, directly transplanted from Goffredo Mameli’s poem, make this much clear. It is usually just the first stanza that is performed (and repeated), before an ascension to the chorus. In this short structure, “Italia” is mentioned six times, giving Inno di Mameli an almost uncomfortable rate of Ipm (Italies per minute). As it crescendos to its glorious finale, the words are not minced. They are not even carpaccio’d;
“Let us join in a cohort,
We are ready to die.
We are ready to die,
Italy has called.
Let us join in a cohort,
We are ready to die.
We are ready to die,
Italy has called! Yes!“
There is nothing quite like the sound of an entire nation needlessly talking itself onto a ledge.
Rather than an emphatic statement of infallible patriotic commitment, the “Yes!” that punctuates the end feels like the cultish chant of a people coerced into believing that a collective death wish is genuinely the way to answer their country’s call in a time of need, rather than stronger investment in social welfare or retarmacking the roads.
Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – Land of My Fathers
When you base so much cultural capital in choral tradition, you better have a belting national anthem to match. Thankfully, James James’ (yes, really) composition delivers. Although its translated title might lead you to believe that this is a tale of a sperm donor child looking for answers, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau is in fact a love letter to Wales. In the mere seven lines of verse and chorus usually sung, homage is paid to the land, sea, language, freedom fighters and, crucially, everyone’s favourite milk chocolate button snack;
“The land of my fathers is dear to me,
Old land where the minstrels are honoured and free;
Its warring defenders so gallant and brave,
For freedom their life’s blood they gave
Country, country, true I am to my country,
While seas secure the land so pure,
O may the old language endure.”
Any hymn that exalts the virtues of Galaxy’s flagship product has its priorities right, and a hymn indeed this is. Listen to the melody’s cadence, soaring in one phrase and descending to resolution in the next. It is this arc that lends the tune the aura of something your six-year-old self was forced to sing in school assembly as the education system carefully indoctrinated you with Christian values. Still, the Welsh entry is wholesome and uplifting, melting in your mouth and ears alike.
Schweizerpsalm – Cantique Suisse – Salmo Svizzero – Psalm Svizzer – Swiss Psalm
Although the football team sings the German iteration, a version exists that combines all four official languages of Switzerland, which is something I can get on board with. After the opening two lines, something makes it very difficult to resist the urge to cry, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO SWITZERLAND!”
As is vogue, and what do you associate Switzerland with if not a nation at the forefront of fashion, a contest was put to the public in 2015 to conjure up and subsequently vote for new, more secular lyrics. The winning entry* definitely fulfils the brief. The traditionalists’ favourite begins;
“When the morning skies grow red And o’er their radiance shed, Thou, O Lord, appeareth in their light.”
“White cross on a red background Our sign of the country Freedom, independence, peace.”
While you might contest that the modern hymn is devoid of its predecessor’s poetic panache, you absolutely cannot argue with the fact that it accurately and comprehensively describes the Swiss flag. It’s for reasons like this that Switzerland has such a burgeoning reputation for its creative arts. We cannot and, frankly, should not expect anything more from a national anthem written by Werner Widmer, a 62-year-old director of a medical foundation.
*At the time of writing, the winning entry is yet to be officially adopted.
Der er et Yndigt Land – There is a Lovely Country
Denmark is renowned for its rapacious greed, and so the fact that it boasts two (2!) national anthems should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody. This one is used at sporting events and, as you may have guessed from the title, is essentially a eulogy to the country. Tell me that you listen to this melody and it doesn’t conjure up images of serene Danish landscapes, flush with Danish sheep and pastries.
Whereas, as we have seen, other hymns apparently seek to incite violent rebellion, this one takes an alternative route of saying lovely things about lovely (but insatiably greedy) people, as the very gentle third and fourth verses explain;
“Strong men and noble women still
uphold their country’s honour
With faithfulness and skill.”
“Hail every Danish citizen,
who is doing the best he can.”
If we just ignore the gendered pronouns for a moment, this is an extremely encouraging, supportive sentiment. The humility and realism truly resonate, and stand out when compared with the nationalistic overtures that fill this needless compilation. Don’t expect too much of the Danish, just know that they are trying. As Denmark prepare for their clash with Finland, this is the perfect way to lower the expectations of a football team overly reliant on the invention of Christian Eriksen.
Maamme – Our Land
Just as The Eagle-owls are not expected to ruffle many feathers at Euro 2020, Finland’s ballad merrily and harmlessly plods along, an occasional staccato the only points of intermittent intrigue. Interest can, however, be mined from its title.
While many other national anthems make parental allusions to their respective countries, Finland’s takes a route one approach. Maamme sounds like a toddler wailing for its mother having had a setback in their potty training. Progress is, after all, rarely linear and the team will do well to remember as much when it takes its bow at a major international tournament for the first time. Of eleven stanzas, only the first and last are voiced, the latter beginning;
“Thy blossom, hidden now from sight,
Shall burst its bud ere long.”
If ever there was a metaphor for getting caught short – in childhood or otherwise – this is as delicate as one could hope for. The only disappointment here is that we are yet to encounter a Scandinavian hymn that more closely resembles the music that tends to accompany the opening titles to whatever Nordic noir your parents keep telling you is “really very good”.
La Brabançonne – De Brabançonne – Die Brabançonne – The Brabant
The current rendering of the hymn for Belgium gets bonus points for having a version in each of the three official languages, before a final stanza that alternates between them. Any anthem that makes attempts to broaden the inclusive reach of the nation it represents should be commended, even if it cannot realistically remedy societal divisions.
The French verse begins;
“Noble Belgium – O mother dear –
To you we stretch our hearts and arms,
With blood to spill for you, O fatherland!”
Mother and father to its children, there is little wonder why they call Belgium “the seahorse of Europe”.
The words common to all three linguistic interpretations are: Belgium, heart, blood, king, law and liberty. You get the picture.
Gosudarstvennyy Gimn Rossiyskoy Federatsii – State Anthem of the Russian Federation
Russia. Eagle-eared listeners who also followed sketch shows of the late noughties may recognise the core refrain from the opening titles of BBC’s Harry and Paul, in which messieurs Enfield and Whitehouse depicted Soviet leaders overseeing a sycophantic parade in their honour, the likes of which would never be seen in the Russia of today.
The melody dates back to 1939 and was previously used as the Soviet anthem. With the arrival of Vladimir Putin at the turn of the millennium came calls from various high-profile sportspeople to fill the unoccupied tune with actual words. Russian athletes at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games were upset that they would have to merely hum along during medal ceremonies in Sydney, and members of Spartak Moscow football club complained that the lack of lyrics “affected their morale and performance”. And there you have it, the essence underpinning the entire notion that an anthem for a nation matters, fittingly revealed at the conclusion of this post: people just enjoy having something to sing.
Putin, being the magnanimous, open and forward-thinking statesman that he is, brought the issue before the State Council, and the State Anthem of the Russian Federation, as we know and love it, was born. A survey conducted in 2009 showed that 56% of respondents were filled with pride when hearing the national anthem, and the 25% simply liked it. The remaining 19% have long since disappeared. So, when Russia’s first team lines up against Belgium in the build-up to their opening game and croon;
“Be glorious, our country! We are proud of you!”
rest assured that only 6.16 players are actually feeling proud.