Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Obligatory Olympics Post

I'm not a sports fan, except occasionally when the Mets are playing the Yankees and go into fifteen innings tied 1 - 1 and how often does that happen? But still, the Olympics are hard to ignore, especially when you walk into a bar or restaurant with a huge TV screen mounted on the wall showing a Mexican woman and Estonian woman locked in a deadly archery duel.

The Olympics do have a musical aspect, though, and that is the national anthems they play at the awards ceremonies. Here is an essay that tries to find a humorous take on them. There are two interesting things about national anthems, though. The first is that they are really a very recent phenomenon, closely linked to the conventions of nationalism that grew up in the 19th century. Secondly, most of them are marches. That is to say, national anthems, whether of European countries or not, follow the basic principles of the European anthem--an essential element of European nationalism. The oldest national anthem of all is probably God Save the Queen (King) of the United Kingdom and associated commonwealths. But it only dates from the middle of the 18th century and was only used as an anthem from the 19th century. One very unusual thing about this anthem is that it is NOT a march, as most are. It is, rather, a galliard, meaning that it is in triple, not duple, meter. One cannot march in triple meter!

Another venerable anthem was written by Joseph Haydn in 1797 for the Austrian Emperor and is now the national anthem of Germany. The same music is used in the second movement of his String Quartet, op 76, no 3. It is sometimes called a hymn, but is in the typical duple meter of a march. Haydn was instructed to write something that would rival in merit "God Save the Queen".

The music for Austria's national anthem also dates from the 18th century and for a long time it was attributed to Mozart's pen. Now it is attributed to Johann Holzer. Most appropriately for Austria, it is a very slow waltz in triple time. This is a quite recent anthem, only in use since 1946 for some odd reason. The old anthem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is now the German national anthem that we heard before.

One of the most venerable anthems is La Marseillaise, which came out of the fires of the French Revolution and is very much a march. It was written in 1792 by Rouget de Lisle and originally titled "Song of War for the Army of the Rhine" and became known as La Marseillaise from being sung on the streets of Marseilles by volunteers.

The interesting thing is that even anthems of non-European countries tend to follow the same forms. The national anthem of Japan in its current form dates from 1880 and here is how it is written:

Click to enlarge

As you can see, it is written in Western notation and is another slow march in duple time.

How about something exotic, like the national anthem of Cambodia?

Not exotic at all, of course, just another slow march in the usual style! Supposedly based on a folk song, this anthem has been in use, more or less, since the 1940s. The national anthem of the People's Republic of China is "March of the Volunteers". The music was written by Nie Er in 1934. Yes, another march in duple time. It sounds remarkably like La Marseillaise!

Let's see if we cannot find a national anthem that is NOT solidly in the European mold, i.e. that is not a slow choral march song. How about one from a country that was never conquered or invaded by any European country? How about Mongolia? Surely their national anthem, which only dates from 1950, must be truly indigenous? Here it is:

Nope, after the perfunctory gong clash intro, it sounds exactly like every European anthem. Even countries with a very powerful musical tradition like Indonesia have national anthems that sound very much like La Marseillaise:

It seems as if the cultural influence of European music and nationalism is absolute! The least Western sounding national anthem is that of India. It is very recent, being written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911 and adopted as the national anthem in 1950. The notation was set down by Margaret Cousins, an early campaigner for women's rights in Ireland and author of a book on Eastern music. Though sounding quite Indian in vocal performance, note that it too is in the duple time of a slow march.

Apart from the modern Austrian anthem, there is only one national anthem that I know that is, like God Save the Queen, written in triple time, meaning that you cannot march to it. The music dates back to 18th century England where it was called The Anacreontic Song written by John Stafford Smith. In 1814 new words were written by Francis Scott Key and it became the Star-Spangled Banner. Oddly enough, it wasn't until 1931 that it was officially proclaimed the national anthem of the United States:

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