If you’ve made it this far, well done and thank you. We probably both need help. He we go, deep breath, one final plunge…
Marcha Real – Royal March
One of just four countries to eschew the concept of words, Spain’s anthem is less a march and more an aimless stroll through the Andalusian countryside. An inoffensive if dull melody, though stick a spade in the music and beneath lies something far more profound.
The tune has not always been verbally vacant, and last accompanied sung verse during the regime of General Francisco Franco, who reinstated a new version of La Marcha Real at the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War after the First and Second Spanish Republics had chosen a different hymn. Following Franco’s death in 1975, the country abandoned the dictator-approved lyrics, understandably keen to step out of the shadow cast by his collapsed regime, but obviously not to the extent that it would ditch the tune altogether. Consequently, what remains is a surreal, hollow, harmonic vessel in which the ghosts of fascism reside sullen, an unwanted souvenir of national guilt and shame, a musical mirror to Picasso’s Guernica. Admirable in one way, absurd in every other.
Du Gamla, Du Fria – Thou Ancient, Thou Free
Sweden takes a much more relaxed (healthy) stance on singsongs, and no national anthem is written into their constitution. Du Gamla, Du Fria will do for a patriotic hymn, but any kind of official legal status has been deemed unnecessary on several occasions by the Riksdag, with the country’s supreme decision making body deciding that the people have established the song as such, not the political system, and thus it should remain that way. This is a refreshing approach and a rare voice that sees the ridiculousness of national anthems, as well as the pomp and ceremony that they inspire, for what they are. No good has ever come from making anything “legally official” anyway.
“With God I shall fight for home and for hearth,
for Sweden, the beloved native soil.
I trade thee not, for anything in a world
No, I want to live, I want to die in the North!”
Aside from the rapid and drastic change of heart in the final line, there is nothing particularly lyrically noteworthy. I didn’t think it was musically remarkable either, until I heard the following interpretation, and suddenly I want to become svensk, which is Swedish for “Swedish”.
Jeszcze Polska Nie Zginęła – Poland Is Not Yet Lost
Have you misplaced your Poland? Did you damage your Poland in an accident that wasn’t your fault? Did you forget to make a backup of Poland? Don’t worry, Poland is not yet lost!
The tune to Jeszcze Polska Nie Zginęła certainly marches along with gusto and energy, almost as if it is too keen to remind us all that Poland is unquestionably still there, the meat in a perfectly adequate central-eastern European sandwich. The words, as the title implies, are defiant yet still somehow drag a whiff of pessimism;
“Poland has not yet perished,
So long as we still live.
What the foreign force has taken from us,
We shall with sabre retrieve.“
The unsubtle intimation here is that Poland might at sometime be lost, might lose itself, or is generally easy to lose, which is frankly a worrying state of affairs for a country with the ninth highest surface area in the continent.
In one of those tales so gloriously delicious it seems almost too perfect to be true, the original manuscript on which Józef Wybicki wrote his national poem was in fact lost in the Charlottenburg home of his great-great-grandson during the Allied bombing of Berlin: a story which I am sure was sad for the family, but jackpot for those who like their national anthem history served prophetic with a side of pickled irony.
Nad Tatrou sa blýska – Lightning over the Tatras
Despite staking a claim to the most dramatic title on this godforsaken compilation, Slovakia’s effort isn’t pulling up any trees – it could barely unearth a spring onion. It just feels like a missed opportunity to reimagine weather through sound.
Where the arrangement does succeed is in shifting the emphasis to unexpected beats. In the refrain at the end of each verse, as the melody descends back down to the pits from whence it came, momentum is slightly arrested on the third beat of the bar, before the fourth beat bleeds seamlessly into the first of the following line. This might appear an inconsiderable point barely worthy of mention, and it is. But Nad Tatrou sa blýska does achieve differentiation from its contemporaries, which often employ the most basic rhythmic patterns conceivable.
Only two of the four verses in this hymn are legislated as bona fide national anthem, the second of which blurts;
“That Slovakia of ours
Had been sleeping by now
But the thunder’s lightnings
Are rousing the land
To wake it up.”
The country is in denial. Much like their football team, there is sadly very little rousing about any of this.
Himnusz – Hymn
FAO Slovakia: this is rousing. Simply climbing up and down a scale like a fervent tarantula is not enough to move a listener. There has to be heart, dynamic, the feeling that the piece is building to an emotional climax. Himnusz has these in buckets, spades, and those weird rake things that come with the set but most five-year-olds have no use for.
The hymn is also making up for lost time. It was not until 1989 that Ferencs Kölcsey and Erkel’s opus gained official recognition as Hungary’s anthem, and this was after a botched plan in the 1950s to replace music and lyrics with something altogether more communist. Classic ’50s! Thankfully, it is now given the recognition and reverence it deserves, played on public radio at ten minutes past midnight every day, as well as on state television stations at the close of broadcast. This is definitely because it’s such a peaceful, comforting melody, and nothing to do with the rampant nationalist agenda of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
The verse is a prayer, extolling the virtues of God rather than those of the state. In fact, Hungary is not portrayed in the most endearing light;
“O God, bless the nation of Hungary
With your grace and bounty
Extend over it your guarding arm
During strife with its enemies
Long torn by ill fate
Bring upon it a time of relief
This nation has suffered for all sins
Of the past and of the future!”
Compared to others that boast of its country’s bounties and triumphs, curating their image like that person from school you’re stalking on Instagram, this message of “haven’t we suffered enough?” should be commended for its honesty and humility. Every nation on Earth has beautiful hills and valleys and rivers – so what? It is equally true that every nation on Earth has witnessed the worst of humanity. It’s okay not to be okay, and Hungary is the only fool at the table acknowledging this. The rest of the world could take a leaf out of their mindful shrub.
A Portuguesa – The Portuguese
What do you do when the British ask you not to occupy the land between two of your colonies in Africa, because their version of colonisation in Africa is a better and more important version of colonisation in Africa than your version of colonisation in Africa? You write a bloody song, of course! Literally a call to arms (“To arms, to arms!” the chorus cries), the hymn evokes an almost desperate yearning for relevancy with which we have all personally grappled on some level, as the second verse begins;
“Hoist the undefeated flag,
In the lively light of your sky!
May Europe cry out to the whole Earth:
Portugal has not perished.”
Quite why this is Europe’s responsibility is anybody’s guess, but we get it; the periphery of a continent can be a lonely place, and it’s never nice to feel forgotten. Sadly, this anthem is not particularly memorable.
La Marseillaise – The Marseillaise
We arrive at the feet of The Artist Formerly Known As Gaul. Hear the revolution, this is its noise! A truly rousing tune, it is very easy to forget or disregard the sanguine meaning and implications of the lyrics when the music itself compels you to sacrifice yourself for a country to which you have no hereditary connection. As I have been researching and writing this nonsense, I have often asked myself – what motivates a nation into action? What inspires the will to serve a place to which only natal coincidence has tied you? La Marseillaise has the answer: the threat of graphic and imminent death to our nearest and dearest.
“Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers
They’re coming right into our arms
To cut the throats of our sons, our partners!”
Thankfully, the days of stoking provincial fear of a non-specific, imperceptible enemy from “out there” as a means to bend popular attitudes and action to the will of those who simply want the deeply entrenched power structures – of which they happen to be the largest beneficiaries – to remain in place, are well and truly behind us.
What is especially endearing is that Claude Joseph Ruget de Lisle’s words convey, if nothing else, a belief in the potential of children to achieve greatness, so much so that the seventh stanza is directed purely at les enfants;
“We shall enter the military
When our elders are no longer there,
There we shall find their dust
And the trace of their virtues
Much less keen to survive them
Than to share their coffins.”
Rock-a-bye Baby / On the Tree Top / When the Wind blows / You will gleefully embrace death because there is no greater honour than giving your life in vengeance for your ancestors, to paraphrase Wilfred Owen;
“Everyone is a soldier to combat you,
If they fall, our young heroes,
Will be produced anew from the ground,
Ready to fight against you!”
Like all the best lullabies, La Marseillaise balances the concept of falling to the floor with the eternal glory of martyrdom in a way that is both challenging and moving (see also; Humpty Dumpty). Vive la France! Vive la révolution! Bonne nuit!
Deutschlandlied – Song of Germany
Familiar and reliable, like a national team that has reached the semifinal stage at the very least in six of the last seven major international tournaments, Deutschlandlied carries a certain understated authority. That may be because only the third stanza is now sung and, in comparison to the first two verses (don’t mention the first two verses), it is rather mellow in nationalistic sentiment.
Let’s mention the first two verses. You may have heard the opening line of the hymn;
“Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
Über alles in der Welt.”
“Germany, Germany above all,
Above all in the world.”
In news that will come as a shock to you, the first stanza was the only one deemed necessary during the Nazi regime and, with the above call its opening statement, it is understandably often considered emblematic of specific ideologies of the era. That, however, is a little unfair to its authors; liberal revolutionaries who intended for this refrain to encourage national harmony and overcome provincial differences that were fracturing the country in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, as was their wont, the Nazis came along and ruined everything for everyone with their thoughts and actions and consequences. Therefore, post-war Germany discontinued these tarnished lyrics but boldly retained the tune (and third verse, expounding its progressive values of unity, justice and freedom – that’ll show the Nazis!), because Kraftwerk was not yet around to write a new jingle.
Far more baffling than the supremacist overtures of the first stanza is the bizarre brand of hubris of the lesser-spotted second;
“German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song
Shall retain in the world
Their old beautiful chime.”
It is telling that the most surprising thing here is neither the holiday-brochure patriotism nor misogynous objectification, but the eulogising of German wine as if it’s a thing. German wine? Two words that just don’t look right together, like Belgian spaghetti or Macedonian tacos. If only there were another alcoholic beverage for which Germany was actually renowned.