National Anthems: Ancient Elements, Modern Resoundings

The_Star-Spangled_BannerLast Sunday, September 14th, was the 200th anniversary of the writing of the United States’ national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.  Inspired by the raising of the American flag at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, which signified a major victory by the Americans over the British during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key penned a homage to the “broad stripes and bright stars” he saw that night. This year, people celebrated across the land with concerts dedicated to the music of the United States.

While 200 years may seem like a very long time to many, most national anthems around the world are much older. Some anthems have ancient roots and many include ancient references. In fact, there is actually a disagreement over which musical piece can claim the title of the world’s oldest anthem. So let’s uncover the history behind the two top contenders for the title as well as ancient elements in a few of the world’s other modern anthems. And we will explore why singing a national anthem is more than a harmonious exercise. The evidence points to an unassailable fact—learning your own national anthem is good for you and yours.

Our first title hopeful is the Japanese national anthem. Kimigayo officially has the oldest lyrics of any national anthem. The words are taken from a poem written in the Heian era (794-1185 CE). The poem is included in a 10th century anthology called Kokin-wakashu (author unknown).[1] Though the words are ancient, the melody is a bit more modern. Written in 1880 by Hiromori Hayashi, the melody was later given a harmony by the German bandmaster Franz Eckert.[2] Due to the age of the lyrics, many claim that Kimigayo is the oldest national anthem even though it only officially became the national anthem of Japan in 1888. However, it does hold the title for shortest anthem. With only 11 musical phrases and 32 characters, it is repeated twice when performed in public.[3]

The next potential title holder in the contest of world’s oldest national anthem is the Dutch national anthem Het Wilhelmus. Interestingly, though its roots can be traced back to the 16th century, it only became the national anthem of the Netherlands in 1932.[4] The melody is based on a French soldiers’ song that was sung by the Huguenots during the siege of Chartres in 1568, but was further arranged by Dutch composer Adriaen Valerius in 1626 and by Walther Boer in 1932, the latter giving the Dutch the modern rendition. The text tells of William of Nassau, the Prince of Orange, who is referred to as the “Dutch Founding Father.”[5] Though the evidence is unclear it is believed that the text was written by Flemish and Dutch writer Marnix van St. Aldegonde between 1568 and 1572.[6] Perhaps the most intriguing fact about Het Wilhemus is that it is an acrostic, a type of puzzle. If you take the first letter of each of the 15 stanzas and combine them, it spells out “Willem Van Nazzov,” Dutch for William of Nassau.[7] Interestingly, if you translate the lyrics into English, the acrostic holds up and spells out “William of Nassau.”[8]

Although most national anthems are relatively modern, many of them reflect ancient themes or refer to the ancient glories of a nation. For example,

  • The Israeli national anthem Hatkivah– The title translates as “The Hope” and the words describe the wish of the Jewish people to return to independence in their ancient homeland.[9] Its theme arises from the Roman Emperor Vespasian’s conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE, exiling and scattering the Jews for centuries.
  • The Swedish national anthem Du Gamla, Du Fria- The title of the anthem translates directly to “Thou ancient, thou free.”[10] The melody is taken from a very old, possibly medieval, folk song from the region called Västmanland.[11]
  • The Italian national anthem Inno di Mameli– The second line of the song translates to “Scipio’s helmet is binding her head,” referring to Italy preparing for victory.[12] Scipio was a great Roman general, best known for defeating Hannibal during the Second Punic War around 202 BCE.
  • A secondary Romanian national anthem The Hora of Unity– The official anthem of Romania is Deșteaptă-te, române! but The Hora of Unity is considered a second unofficial anthem.[13] A hora is an ancient round dance that symbolizes unity and equality.
Ghana National Football team as their national anthem plays at the World Cup.. Image credit: Benjamin Mussler.

Ghana National Football team as their national anthem plays at the World Cup.. Image credit: Benjamin Mussler.

These patriotic hymns often seem dusty, stiff and out of time and place when we hear them performed in public, often at sporting events. We had the chance to hear a multitude of anthems at the World Cup a few months ago. Many of them make reference to the glory days of a nation, harkening back to times of peace, power and prosperity and declaring these times will return or that they will carry on into eternity. Perhaps it isn’t surprising to note that many athletes and fans don’t sing along to the anthem and several who try, don’t seem to know the words. Are national anthems just a perfunctory nostalgic tradition? Does it matter if we sing along? To some countries and even governments, it absolutely matters. At the last World Cup, the British team was strongly encouraged by their manager to sing God Save the Queen or face the infamously snarky wrath of the British tabloids.[14] In Kazakhstan, a law was recently passed that requires all athletes to learn the national anthem.[15] In 2012, Conservative parties in Germany attempted to make singing the national anthem mandatory for their footballers, hoping that this would spur them on to more wins.[16] And it isn’t just athletes that feel the pressure. This past May, French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira was slammed with calls for her resignation after she was caught on camera at a public event staying silent while La Marseillaise was played.[17]

Should people be required to sing the anthem of the nation they are representing? This question is becoming increasingly difficult as the globe becomes more and more connected and lines of nationality are crossed. For example, Taubira, while serving as a French minister, was actually born in Guiana and many athletes who participate in global games such as the World Cup or the Olympics are not even originally from the nation they are representing. It can certainly be difficult to learn the words to an anthem whose language you barely speak, if at all, let alone to sing it with conviction and pride. On the other hand, shouldn’t a person residing in a country at least in some way adapt and accommodate the traditions of his or her adopted country? It is a conundrum of lyrics and melodies that to some can be a combustible topic.

Image courtesy of Wired Magazine, "The Neuroscience of Music".

Image courtesy of Wired Magazine, “The Neuroscience of Music”.

We certainly can’t answer the question of whether or not a person should be made to sing, but we can say, which is perhaps more important, that it is beneficial for a person to sing if he or she is so inclined. Music is an emotional and psychological trigger. We discussed this in our blog, Music Origins: Mesopotamia, American Gospel and the Neurology of Faith, Part II, when we discovered that as a piece of music, or anthem in this case, reaches its climax, our brains receive a surge of dopamine activity where the reward center is located. Basically, as we sing along to our national anthem and the music rises toward its stirring conclusion, we feel good, elated even. We are joining together with those around us who are feeling that same surge of joy, all of us united in our pride and encouraged by an atmosphere of community. Music, in fact, has been shown to have remarkable powers to galvanize, to heal, to soothe…and the list goes on.  Maybe it can even give an athlete that winning edge in surging hormones and neurotransmitters- a natural performance enhancer, so to speak.

So if you do feel a closeness to the nation you are representing or the nation you support, be it your birthplace or adopted homeland, take the time to learn the words and melody of the national anthem. Sing along loudly and proudly at public events and know that you are participating in a historical tradition and celebrating ancient roots.

[1] Japanese National Anthem – Kimigayo. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Japan National Anthem. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2014, from

[4] Dutch national anthem. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Biografieën- Philip of Marnix van Sint Aldegonde. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2014.9

[7] Conradt, S. (n.d.). 6 Acrostics You May Not Have Noticed. Retrieved September 15, 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Israel National Symbols: National Anthem (HaTikvah). (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2014.

[10] Du gamla, Du fria (Sveriges nationalsång). (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2014.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Italian national anthem : Italian culture and traditions in words and music. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2014.

[13] “Hai să dăm mână cu mână, cei cu inima română”. Alexandru Flechtenmacher, compozitorul care a scris istoria ţării noastre. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2014.

[14] Tharoor, I. (2014, June 26). Does it matter if you sing your national anthem? Retrieved September 15, 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Footballers ‘should be forced to sing anthem’ (2012, July 2). Retrieved September 15, 2014.

[17] Shamsie, K. (2014, May 14). Don’t sing the national anthem if you don’t want to. Retrieved September 15, 2014.

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