Without any further ado, let’s tuck into the filling of this continental sandwich…
Het Wilhelmus – The William
There are so many things happening in Het Wilhelmus that it is best served deconstructed into little tender morsels of fact.
The way the melody soars like an ocean in winter, its simplicity, its warmth…there is more than a whiff of a rousing happy-ever-after to a mediocre mid-‘90s Hollywood family movie. It sounds simultaneously proud yet humble, which is entirely apt for a country that knows it could be flooded at a moment’s notice. The music was in fact adopted from a Roman Catholic French song that mocked the Siege of Chatres in 1598 by the Protestant Huguenots. Dutch Protestants, with their world-renowned dedication to repurposing, reclaimed the tune and subverted its contents to fit their own propaganda, which brings us on to…
Across 15 stanzas, Het Wilhelmus chronicles the protagonist’s inner struggle from an imagined first-person perspective. Set in the context of the Dutch Revolt, William of Orange directly confronts his conflicting allegiances as his country fights to gain independence from the Spanish Empire: his commitment to the King of Spain, and his commitment to his conscience, his people and his God;
“William of Nassau, scion
Of a Dutch and ancient line,
I dedicate undying
Faith to this land of mine.
A prince I am, undaunted,
Of Orange, ever free,
To the king of Spain I’ve granted
A lifelong loyalty.”
In a landscape plush with sentiments of national hubris and absolutist patriotism, how refreshing that this anthem captures something altogether more universally human in its honest expression of the many opposing loyalties one can hold. How odd that one country’s hymn pledges fidelity to completely different country in its opening verse. How fitting, also, that a song-cum-diary-entry that aims only to represent the thoughts and feelings of one person perhaps speaks to a wider audience than many of its contemporaries, which pretend and fail to encapsulate the assumed collective experience of an entire nation. To generalise – and at once completely undermine my own point – people are pretty good at finding something to relate to in the accounts of other individuals, without needing to be spoken for. What else could possibly explain the popularity of TED talks?
Symmetry and conventional ideas of beauty are oft equated. While an unfair and uninteresting aesthetic standard (Wes Anderson films notwithstanding), symmetry can provide a very creative thematic device. Het Wilhelmus is built around a thematic chiasmus: verses one and fifteen resemble one another in meaning, as do verses two and fourteen, three and thirteen etc. Verse eight is the sole stand alone stanza at the anthem’s core, in which William goes off on a biblical tangent, analogising his plight to that of David’s fight to free himself and his nation from the tyranny of King Saul. Of course. And what’s even better than conceptual mirroring? No, not that. Acrostics! And this is an acrostic: the first letter of each verse spell out W-I-L-L-E-M- V-A-N- N-A-Z-Z-O-V (William of Nassau), the full title of our eponymous Dutch forefather. Don’t know much about history, don’t know much about biology, don’t know much about a science book, do know much about the French I took, and I know that if every anthem in this pointless compilation were authored with the same artistic intentionality as Holland’s, what a wonderful world this would be.
Shche ne Vmerla Ukrainy ni Slava, ni Volia – Glory and Freedom of Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished
Yet. Yet is a funny word, a procrastinator’s dream (one of my friends is a procrastinator). Yet is the difference between certainty and doubt, between conclusion and continuation, between defeat and hope. Michael Bublé’s Haven’t Met You Yet becomes a far bleaker ballad with the final word removed and, somehow, Ukraine’s song is more pessimistic for it. This trepidation is baked into the music of Shche ne Vmerla Ukrainy ni Slava, ni Volia, which couldn’t sound more Slavic if you placed it within a larger, identical national hymn. Every phrase in a major key is followed by one in the minor, every silver lining by a thundercloud. Still though, where there are silver linings, there is Sun, and where there is Sun, there is Sun-dried foam;
“Our enemies will vanish like a Sun-dried foam,
We will be the only masters in our dear home.”
Ukraine has gone all Heston Blumenthal on us and, like a fine dining experience, this hymn leaves you feeling a little hollow: interesting, but you probably would have rather just had a burger and chips.
Land der Berge, Land am Strome – Land of Mountains, Land by the River
The Alps, Mozart, waltzes, viennetta: Austria has a lot going for it. Happily, three of these things combine to create its national hymn. Ok, so Mozart’s alleged authorship of the music is strongly disputed. And fine, just because the music is in three-four time doesn’t strictly make it a waltz. But the mountains they sing about are probably definitely the Alps. And Land der Berge, Land am Strome is the only anthem at the Euros whose lyrics were written by a woman, Paula von Preradović. And, as of 2012, after much campaigning from former Women’s Minister Maria Rauch-Kallat and pop singer Christina Stürmer, those lyrics are intentionally gender-balanced (if not entirely gender-neutral);
“Home to great daughters and sons,
People highly gifted for beautiful arts,
Austria, of high praise!”
This follows an opening salvo of;
“Land of mountains, land by the river,
Land of fields, land of cathedrals,
Land of hammers, with a promising future!”
Suddenly, The Sound of Music’s My Favourite Things is reframed as not merely the exhibition of Maria’s whimsy in her attempts to lift the spirits of bereaved children as the Third Reich threatens their world, but as a tribute to the Austrian choral tradition of *listing random stuff*. May your hammers know only promising futures.
All of the above redeems what is ultimately a boring, wailing disappointment of a melody. If the Mozart estate is pushing for this to be officially recognised as part of his oeuvre, don’t bother – it’s got nothing on his (17)70s jam.
Denes Nad Makedonija – Today Over Macedonia
With its name like a flagship breakfast television programme destined to be taken off air after five controversies in three weeks, Denes nad Makedonija is the musical accompaniment to North Macedonia’s tournament debut. When a contest was held to find a national anthem befitting of the newly-independent sovereignty in 1992, this submission actually finished as runner-up. Despite this pathetic attempt, the Assembly Commission voted to install the loser as the state’s symphonic standard, and here we are almost twenty years later, pretending everything is fine. `
Listening as the tune aimlessly meanders up and down the registers without any real conviction of destination does call into question what exactly was wrong with the public’s choice. Apart from anything else, ignoring the will of the people isn’t very socialist of you is it, North Macedonia? This does, however, mirror the absurdity of the Eurovision Song Contest polling system, which is perhaps the norm for all such competitions on the continent. The football team could do with similarly corrupt adjudication if they aspire to negotiate their way out of a tricky Group C.
Channelling the English GCSE student I was eleven years ago, there is some sympathetic personification that catches the eye;
“The Macedonian woodlands sing brightly
New songs, new awakenings.
Unfortunately, any attempt at linguistic invention is rather undermined by an utterly superfluous final line whose poet, exhausted by the brainpower needed to imagine that trees might croon, couldn’t even find the willpower to consult a thesaurus.
God Save the Queen
Just in case you were in any doubt as to whether England forms part of a monarchical constitution, this jiglet should clear it up. The best thing about it, apart from the fact that a 2017 study showed that more than half the population claim to have no religion, is just how utterly desperate and futile it would sound if you replaced “Queen” with any other word.
“God save the elephants!”
“God save the NHS!”
“God save the Teletubbies!”
It does rather drone on, not helped by the fact that the first three lines of the national anthem of the country that gave us Shakespeare, Byron and Keates each end in the word “Queen” which, as noises go, is like a mosquito flying into your earlobe every four seconds. It hasn’t turned out badly for her, though. She recently turned ninety-five years old against 95.8% of the odds, as a girl born in the UK in 1926 only had a 4.2% chance of making it to ninety. Truly a modern-day medical miracle.
Lijepa Naša Domovino – Our Beautiful Homeland
Owing to their famed and deep-seated hatred of nouns, Croatians often refer to the anthem as simply Lijepa naša (Our Beautiful), which is also a common metonym for the country. There is a lot to like melodically, not least the motif of brass call and woodwind response.
If this hymn were an ice cream flavour, it would be milk. There are a lot of flowery platitudes as references to the splendour of nature, as the title suggests;
“Whilst his fields are kissed by sunshine,
Whilst his oaks are whipped by wild winds,
Whilst his dear ones go to heaven,
Whilst his live heart beats.”
Then, out of nowhere, the last line hits you like a coffee bean at the centre of the scoop. In an instant, everything that has come before is re-understood as something more sinister. Why is there the need to clarify that a beating heart is “live”? Is this heart beating within the confines of ribs, of a decomposing body? Or is it simply out there, on its own, pumping blood through arteries that were severed long ago?
Flower of Scotland
Time for some pop philosophy. Choice, as a corollary of free will, is a highly contentious concept. The option to choose is often accepted as an indication of the chooser’s personal and environmental liberties, while a lack of choice reflects the opposite. Choice, and by extension free will, are valued so highly because they create an illusion of stakes, the outcomes of which we causally attribute to the influence of our actions. Stakes, however apparently high or insignificant, furnish lives with meaning, and without meaning there are only uncomfortable, unanswerable questions. These questions persist regardless, but meaning provides a structure within which the idea of engaging with them is more conscionable.
To believe that in every moment of existence there is complete autonomy to choose from an infinite number of possibilities, and that this unlimited choice is *a good thing*, is a capitalist mirage. Regardless of how many avenues of potential action and reaction exist, there are several factors that will inherently eliminate most: who we are, who we want to be, how we perceive ourselves, and what we believe is attainable.
However, when it comes to artistic creation – and musical expression in particular – there is perhaps more room for any of all the possible worlds to be accessed. As the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton argues, music exists in a space that is neither wholly physical nor wholly abstract, but in a metaphoric ether that transcends space and time, where a new kind of individual is born and lives out its life.
Those who work within this liminal space do not necessarily make something truly transcendental, but should they touch both walls, they have the chance to connect the physical and abstract worlds in unparalleled beauty, and unite the listener with something altogether more divine.
When Roy Williamson composed the music for his song Flower of Scotland, a cosmos of tonal possibility was open to him. From this universe, he plucked the ingredients for a relatively mediocre, unremarkable church hymn. That is no crime, we’ve all been there. But Williamson made two choices that elevate the piece to something more.
The first was rhythmic: arranging it into triple metre, easily the best metre, the metre of the waltz (see Austria). The absence of the expected fourth beat propels the anthem forwards with the urgency of a brisk highland walk, and in a sub-genre of largely conventional tunes, lends it a positively “edgy” swagger.
The second was harmonic: the chord progression from the tonic to the subtonic, and back to the tonic. In other words, it moves from the tonal reference point of the song to one whole tone below, and back again. It is the musical equivalent to that moment when you are on a descending plane it sharply drops, and for a split second you are in exhilarating free fall before the pilot calibrates and you have not had time to fully confront your own mortality. This is heard at the end of each verse;
“And sent him homeward,
Tæ think again.”
It is the same refrain heard at the beginning of the famous Fellowship refrain in Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score and, as a harmonic sequence, it is perhaps the one most evocative of a Charlton Heston biblical epic. The fact that the change lands on the word “think” is especially slick, as the unexpected harmonic shift does compel the listener to think again that this might not be the predictable take-off-float-bad-food-and-land ride they were expecting.
The lyrics of this unofficial strain for a nation recount the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where Robert the Bruce’s troops defeated Edward II’s English army. Whereas many of its contemporaries either pine for bygone days of military might or attempt to inspire a new era of imperial dominance, Flower of Scotland bears a refreshing variation of Elsa’s line “the past is in the past” from Frozen, albeit with a wonderful hint of passive aggressive resentment;
“Those days are past now,
And in the past
They must remain.”
Oh, how relatable! Forgive but never really forget. I bet Scotland still mulls over what it wishes it had said, replaying it over and over in the shower.
Kde Domov Můj – Where My Home Is
Some works of music you can tell were not originally written to be odes to a nation. They lack the bombast, the bravado, the pomposity, the desperation to make a statement that constitute many of the objects of this pointless article. They are somehow more harmonically coherent, comfortable in their own skin, self-assured as standalone tunes.
The gentle Kde Domov Můj was created in 1834 as part of the incidental music to the comedy Fidlovačka, or No Anger and No Brawl in English – inspiring a Bob Marley song released 140 years later. It was not until the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 that it was adopted as the Czech part of the national anthem and remains serviceable for the modern-day Czech Republic, although the lyrics have changed a little since.
Ironically, although it’s the Austrian hymn that is supposedly his brainchild, Kde Domov Můj sounds about as Mozart as you get. The way voice and orchestra swell and loosen together, almost daring each other to evolve the original, arpeggiated motif as the piece organically progresses; if you told me that this here was the lost aria from The Marriage of Figaro, I would believe you. It is quite possibly the most complete, most beautiful refrain that will be heard at Euro 2020, even beating whatever David Guetta inevitably has planned for the opening ceremony.
A pity, then, that the verse evokes less an impassioned declaration of love and more the stray thoughts of a 42-year-old IT consultant, stumbling back from another disappointing works drinks at ‘Spoons on a Thursday night, fondling for keys as their bladder prepares to burst;
“Where is my home, where is my home,
Streams are rushing through the meadows.”
Of course, I could choose to engage with the melancholic poignancy of wondering what and where home is, the longing for belonging and place in the context of nationhood, and the bravery to confront these notions when “patriotism” often asks that we don’t. Frankly, though, I’ve been generous enough to the Czech Republic, and it’s well past my bedtime.