National anthems

by Chris Bertram on November 17, 2003

I’m not keen on national anthems, but I was struck before the England–France semi-final by the constrast between “God Save the Queen”: and the “Marseillaise”: . One a dirge like hymn to hierarchy and submission, the other an upbeat celebration of martial comradeship. There’s no question that

bq. Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé

are good lines to be singing before you take the field, even if — as it turned out — it hadn’t.



Doug 11.17.03 at 9:25 am

Or you can take the tune and write a song that plucks the king’s beard (non-Americans might have to change the bit about pilgrim’s pride, and modern secularists may take out the deist references, but it’s still about love of land and liberty):

My country, ’tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrim’s pride,
From ev’ry mountain side
Let freedom ring.

My native country, thee
Land of the noble, free
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills
My heart with rapture thrills
Like that above.

Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.

Our father’s God, to thee,
Author of liberty,
To thee we sing;
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by thy might,
Great God, our King.


Kieran Healy 11.17.03 at 10:46 am

Bloody French. You just can’t rely on them when it comes to putting England where they belong.


Hamishm00 11.17.03 at 11:35 am

Did you see that large hulk of a forward crying his eyes out to God Save the Queen?

He must have been a wreck when Diana died.

Let’s hope Australia can put the Lions to bed.


TomD 11.17.03 at 12:02 pm


How many dirges in minuet tempo do you know? And I’d hate to subject you to an adagio movement by Haydn or Beethoven, since there are even more “dirge-like”.

God Save The Queen is all about the tune, and it’s an exceedingly fine one by the well-known English composer Anon. No wonder it’s been stolen so often.

The Marseillaise is a fine tune so far as it goes, but it has an unmistakeable air of sabre-rattling and chauvinism which made it the perfect target for Schumann’s ironic “Zwei Grenadier” (about French soldiers returning home after Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign).

Britain has the best patriotic tunes that I know of: Rule Britannia, Jerusalem, Hearts of Oak, etc. (and Men of Harlech if we’re allowed to count Welsh tunes too). I agree that God Save The Queen doesn’t exactly make the pulses race, but there’s plenty that do.

Naturally it might be that everyone likes their own patriotic tunes best. Any offers? (The unsingable Star-Spangled Banner need not apply.)


Keith M Ellis 11.17.03 at 12:46 pm

Star Spangled Banner is very difficult to sing, yes (though, this matters little to me since Three Blind Mice is difficult for me to sing*), but I’ve always thought it was a splendid national anthem. The tune is nicely grand (though, it’s an old English drinking song, isn’t it?), and the lyrics—as is often discussed—are nicely patriotic in a significantly non-ethnic, non-geographical sense that underlines that American nationalism is about an ideal (or ideals) rather than blood and territory.**

Star Spangled Banner has the added personal virtue of having been written by a fellow alumnus. :)

* Musicologists will recognize that I chose that example with care.

** Well, it was or should be.


Doug Muir 11.17.03 at 12:55 pm

Yeah, the Marseillaise. That’s what you want in a national anthem, Chris — cut throats, torn wombs, following the ashes of your ancestors into the pit, and the impure blood of the “horde of slaves” spilling over the land.

Most anthems are dopey, and some are breathtakingly dopey (the old Yugoslav anthem famously began “Hey, Slavs!”). So at the end of the day it’s all about the tune anyhow. The Marseillaise is stirring for about six bars, and then it starts to loop; it needs a good bridge, and it doesn’t have one.

The _Star Spangled Banner_ is indeed difficult to sing, but at least its chord structure is interestingly complex (for an anthem). If you can play guitar, try it, and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

Doug M.


Nicholas Weininger 11.17.03 at 2:01 pm

The Star-Spangled Banner has its own, rarely-sung blood-and-guts verse:

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the horror of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave,
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

My favorite anthem is the Hungarian; non-dopey, solemn without a trace of bombast, breathtakingly sad. There is a line that translates roughly, “God give us a bright future, for we have suffered so much that we’ve paid in advance for all our future sins.”


Randy Paul 11.17.03 at 3:46 pm

I’m rather fond of the South African anthem that includes the lovely N’kosi Sikelel’I-Afrika.


Mr Spectator 11.17.03 at 3:59 pm

Verse 4:

Not in this land alone,
But be God’s mercies known,
From shore to shore!
Lord make the nations see,
That men should brothers be,
And form one family,
The wide world over.


Paul 11.17.03 at 5:08 pm

I won’t vouch for the translations but this collection of national anthems–with the anthems of non-sovereign and disputed areas, too–looks like a fun way to kill an hour or so. One thing you can say for The Marseillaise–it’s not just another dull hymn to a personified motherland.


Fazal Majid 11.17.03 at 6:11 pm

FYI, the German national anthem “Deutschland uber Alles” was indeed composed by Joseph Haydn (although the expansionist words of the original song are now banned).


harry 11.17.03 at 6:50 pm

Exactly because I don’t care for national anthems I favour the frivolous, dull, and unsingable. Should there ever be a move to adopt Jerusalem as the British national anthem I’ll go to the barricades with the Scots, Welsh and Irish to stop it; it is just too great a hymn to be allowed to play so vile a role. Similarly, in the US, This Land is Your Land.


Harry 11.17.03 at 6:51 pm

Sorry, This Land is My Land.


Keith 11.17.03 at 7:04 pm

I’ve always been a fan of my national anthem. Here’s a rather literal translation.

The old land of my fathers is dear to me,
Land of poets and singers, famous men of renown;
Her brave warriors, good patriots,
For freedom shed their blood.

Land, land, I’m for my land.
While the sea is a wall to the pure, dear country,
O let the old language continue.

How many anthems mention poets before warriors, eh?


William 11.17.03 at 7:13 pm

Vanessa Williams just slaughtered the Star Spangled Banner at Arnie’s inauguration.


laura 11.17.03 at 8:32 pm

Yes, the Star-Spangled Banner is set to an older tune, and it should be sung much faster. Rather than trying to sing it in the faux-operatic-I’m-going-to-sustain-this-note-forever way that’s always happening, you just bounce over that high note really quickly and maybe your voice cracks and it sounds a little funny, but hey, no big deal.

If you’re interested in reading up on national anthems, sociologist Karen Cerulo has written on them pretty extensively.


Mac 11.17.03 at 8:38 pm


“Jerusalem” is most definitely an *English* anthem — as such a much better choice for England internationals than GSTQ, the *British* national anthem (which we Scots could, but are unlikely to, get incensed at).


Mac 11.17.03 at 8:40 pm

Hey — it did funny things to my asterisks. (Yes I know there’s a Preview button.)


nick 11.17.03 at 8:45 pm

Billy Connolly had it right: it takes five times as long for British athletes to march around the track to GSTQ. His suggestion: change the national anthem to ‘Barwick Grove’ (the theme from The Archers) which is much more jolly. And immigrants can learn it in the cab from Heathrow.

Eddie Izzard was right about ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, as well: big mouth, just keep confirming and denying:

The American national anthem I’ve noticed is a bit hazy in the middle! Cause it starts strong and you finish strong, but the middle bit’s a bit, “And fish in the sky, and a big monkey pie…” I’ve seen guys up there, halfway through, just losing it. “What the fuck is it?” “I came second, I’m from Turkey – I don’t know! Would you like some furniture?”

As for ‘Jerusalem’, Harry, it’s so not a hymn, in spite of Parry’s intentions. Blake’s Milton is saturated with irony, which is why I look at the hordes at the Last Night of the Proms and wonder if they really know what they’re singing.


nick 11.17.03 at 8:48 pm

Oh, and GSTQ/K is itself a kind of ideological imposition from the days of importing fat Hanoverians: see Linda Colley’s Britons for all the gory details. The point being that having a patriotic song devoted to the person of the monarch sort of evaded the fact that he was a sausage-eating foreigner imposed by the Whigs. Ahem.


ben 11.17.03 at 9:07 pm

The Gambia, a small country in West Africa, has the most amiable anthem I know of. There’s some minor religiosity but its sentiments are otherwise very wholesome, and the tune is fittingly simple and upbeat. No warriors, blood, sacrifice, maiming, tyranny or violence.

For The Gambia, our homeland,
We strive and work and pray,
That all may live in unity,
Freedom and peace each day.
Let justice guide our actions
Towards the common good,
And join our diverse peoples
To prove man’s brotherhood.
We pledge our firm allegiance,
Our promise we renew;
Keep us, great God of nations,
To The Gambia ever true.


Eric Jablow 11.17.03 at 9:14 pm

You have Rule Britannia, we have Stars and Stripes Forever. I’ll take Sousa any day.


Martial 11.17.03 at 9:19 pm

The poor SSB. It gets more unsingable with every performance by another high-strung hysteric. Thank goodness for the Dixie Chicks and their plain, simple, singable song at the Super Bowl back in January.

As for the Marseillaise, I’m partial to the Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Elizabeth Shaw “translation”.

Ye sons of France, awake to glory!
Hark! Hark! the people bid you rise!
Your children, wives, and grandsires hoary
Behold their tears and hear their cries!
Shall hateful tyrants, mischief breeding,
With hireling hosts a ruffian band
Affright and desolate the land
While peace and liberty lie bleeding?

To arms, to arms, ye brave!
Th’avenging sword unsheathe!
March on, march on, all hearts resolved
On liberty or death.

Oh liberty can man resign thee,
Once having felt thy gen’rous flame?
Can dungeons, bolts, and bar confine thee?
Or whips thy noble spirit tame?
Too long the world has wept bewailing
That falsehood’s dagger tyrants wield;
But freedom is our sword and shield
And all their arts are unavailing.

O sacred love of France undying
Th’avenging arm uphold and guide
Thy defenders, death defying
Fight with Freedom at their side.
Soon thy sons shall be victorious
When the banner high is raised;
And thy dying enemies, amazed
Shall behold thy triumph, great and glorious.


Dave 11.18.03 at 12:45 am

The _SSB_ isn’t so old an english drinking song; “To Anacreon in Heaven” is late 18th century. That explains why it should be sung faster: it’s not mean to be all stuffy and patriotic, it’s a tune involving twining the Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ Vine.

As for the _M_, van Loon’s riff on that verse cautions us that whenever the pigs put fine sentiments up on the side of the barn it doesn’t hurt to keep a close eye on them:

The time in which he lived bore a close resemblance to our own. A brilliant beg
inning. The dawn of enlightenment had appeared above the distant horizon. The
brotherhood of man was to inaugurate an era in which freedom and an absolute equ
ality of opportunity were to be the birthright of every child.

_Allons, enfants de la patrie!_

But something went wrong. The procession, instead of arriving at the foot of th
e Statue of Liberty, must have taken the wrong turn somewhere along the road, fo
r it suddenly found itself facing the steps up to the scaffold.

_Le jour de gloire est arrive’_


JP 11.18.03 at 5:45 am

My understanding is that Deutschland Uber Alles wasn’t intended to be expansionist. The lyrics were supposed to refer to Deutschland over each of the constituent parts of Germany, which had just unified in the 1800s and was still trying to develop a sense of national unity (i.e. Deutschland over Bavaria, Deutschland over Baden, and so forth). Of course, it did start to take on a whole new meaning once 1914 rolled around…

By the way, in this American’s opinion, the textbook national anthem belongs to the Canadians. Nice tune, easy to sing, and straightforward, not-too-fluffy lyrics. Can’t ask for more than that.


Doug 11.18.03 at 7:48 am

Haydn didn’t write the lyrics to ‘Deutschland ueber alles,’ Google turns up Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798-1874) as the author. Haydn did write the melody, as a tribute to the Austrian emperor, and I have seen the tune referred to as ‘Austria.’ The third verse is the modern German anthem, roughly ‘unity, right and freedom,’ (Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit) mis-transcribed by some wags as ‘unity and the right to time off’ (Einigkeit und Recht auf Freizeit), or further mangled into ‘unity and the right to free beer’ (Einigkeit und Recht auf Freibier).


TomD 11.18.03 at 11:35 am

The tune Haydn wrote was “Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser” : “God Save the Emperor Franz”. The lyric was a straight steal from God Save The King…

To popularize it Haydn wrote a string quartet with the slow movement being a set of variations on the tune. The beginning of the *first* movement also starts with the notes GEFDC : G ott E rhalte F ranz D en C aiser. Later in the movement he introduces an imitation of Hungarian (or gypsy?) dance music. The first, and greatest, patriotic composition – although you’d scarcely know to listen to it, since Classical music *was* Austro-Hungarian music.

Concerning the history of GSTK and Jerusalem, the fact that their connotations have changed considerably over the years is entirely in tune with the nature of the English establishment: continuously evolving to subsume every rebellion into itself while keeping the same outward appearance. Irony comes with the package.


Jeffrey Kramer 11.18.03 at 4:45 pm

I think the American anthem most resembling the Marseillaise (as an”upbeat celebration of martial comradeship”) would be “Battle Cry of Freedom”:

We will welcome to our number
The loyal, true and brave;
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
And although he may be poor,
He shall never be a slave;
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!


Highway 11.18.03 at 6:24 pm

Since I’m usually listening to anthems at the end of sporting events (Formula 1 and the Olympics), I’m not too up on the words. But of orchestral versions, I have to throw some of my support behind the Star-Spangled Banner. I think it’s got a good uptempo beat without being so martial, and if the selectors get gutsy, they can use a version with cymbal crashes. Second on my list would be the Italian anthem, it’s a lot of fun to listen to (and it means Ferrari have won ;) ). But ones like the Finnish anthem and GSTQ really bring down the mood (they are playing them after a victory, after all).


Joshua W. Burton 11.18.03 at 11:49 pm

There are any number of magnificent anthem-worthy songs from the American Civil War, starting with the incomparable Battle Hymn of the Republic and including something for almost every taste: poignant (Tramp, Tramp, Tramp), sprightly (The Bonny Blue Flag), vengeful (Battle Cry of Freedom), crusading (We Are Coming, Father Abraham), defiant (I’m A Good Old Rebel), parodic (Maryland, My Maryland) or homely (Dixie).

And for sheer effectiveness in combining the martial and hymnal forms to drive a million feet in unison, what compares to the Internationale?

But too few white Americans know our “other anthem”, so my vote today goes to Lift Every Voice And Sing. It’s got everything going for it: a long pedigree, a distinct ethnic sound instantly recognizable worldwide, and words that start the tears flowing almost as reliably as Amazing Grace.


Anthony 11.19.03 at 8:45 pm

Nicholas Weininger posts the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the horror of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more –
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave,
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

without pointing out that “the hireling and slave” refers to the British Army.

The fourth stanza is similarly martial in spirit, though not really anti-British:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n – rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
And this be our motto–“In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Isaac Asimov wrote a paean to the Star-Spangled Banner, with directions for singing it.


Turk Shamil 02.04.04 at 12:08 pm


We were born at night, when the she-wolf whelped.
In the morning, as lions howl, we were given our names.
In eagles’ nests, our Mothers nursed us,
To tame a stallion, our Fathers taught us.

We were devoted to our Mothers, to people and the Native land,
And if they will need us – we’ll respond courageously,
We grew up free, together with the mountain eagles,
Difficulties and obstacles we overcame with dignity.

Granite rocks will sooner fuse like lead,
Then we lose our Nobility in life and struggle.
The Earth will sooner be breached in boiling sun,
Then we appear before the world; losing our honor.

Never will we appear submissive before anyone,
Death or Freedom – we can choose only one way.
Our sisters cure our wounds by their songs,
The eyes of the beloved arouse us to the feat of arms.

If hunger gets us down – we’ll gnaw the roots.
If thirst harasses us – we’ll drink the grass dew.
We were born at night, when the she-wolf whelped.
God, Nation, and the Native land –
We devote ourselves only to their service.

Words by Aydamirov Abuzar
Music by Dimaev Ali


Mak 02.05.04 at 12:13 am

Well, the BRITISH national anthem has some very interesting verses which are rarely (if ever) used nowadays. The word Poppish or Knavish in the 2nd verse for one – is definately not PC in todays society. And then there’s the final verse that speaks of crushing the sedition making Scots –
God grant that Marshall Wade,
May by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring,
May he sedition hush,
And like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to Crush,
God save the King. – Maybe this could be the reason why many scots refuse to sing-a-long,,,

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