Why didn’t famous composers write national anthems?
National anthems are among the most regularly heard and instantly recognisable pieces of music of all, so why have virtually none been written by well-known composers? Alex Marshall investigates...
In January 1797, Haydn wrote what was, in one respect, the biggest failure of his career.
Austria was at war with France, Napoleon’s cannons were threatening even Vienna and Haydn was commissioned to write a piece to keep them back. He thought of his time in London where he heard ‘God Save the King’ almost daily, and he thought of La Marseillaise, whose rousing, bloody call to arms seemed to be getting closer by the minute. And then he decided to write Austria its equivalent.
He had been given lyrics to write to – ‘Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser’ (God Save Emperor Francis) – and he sat down and penned a melody that he is said to have believed could ‘inflame the hearts of Austrians to new heights of devotion’ as well as ‘incite [them] to combat’. It debuted on 12 February, and was so instantly popular it was taken out of the theatre and straight into the streets.
• Read more: Five intriguing national anthems
But unfortunately for Haydn, it didn’t exactly have the effect he’d hoped for. Within weeks, Napoleon had invaded. Within months, Austria was forced to sign an embarrassing peace treaty. ‘Gott erhalte…’ was not Austria’s Marseillaise. But Haydn did at least enjoy a couple of achievements with that song. Not wanting to let a good tune go to waste, he used it as the basis for the second movement of his String Quartet Op. 76, No. 3.
More uniquely, he became the only famous composer to successfully write a national anthem. It is still in use today, albeit across the border in Germany and now known
as the Deutschlandlied.
It is surprising that out of the world’s 200-odd countries, Germany is the only one whose anthem has a star composer attached. It means that none of music’s great nationalists ever managed to give their homelands a song to bellow at football matches or turn to in times of need.
Finland’s anthem, for instance, is to the tune of a German drinking song, not anything by Sibelius; the Czech Republic’s is taken from a 19th-century comedy, not Dvorák or Smetana. Is it composers’ fault this situation has arisen, or is there just something about anthems that puts everybody off?
It would be wrong to say that Haydn is the only household name to have written an anthem. Several others have tried. In 1942, Stalin decided he needed a new anthem to replace the Internationale, apparently because Winston Churchill was refusing to let that song’s revolutionary message (‘Enslaved masses, stand up!’) be played on British radio. Soon, every Soviet composer you can name – Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shostakovich – was writing one piece of Communist bombast after another in an effort to conjure the winning tune.
It is impossible to know if any of them entered with genuine enthusiasm as they had little choice – who turns down Stalin? – but also because they all seemed to realise the competition was a money-spinner. Each entry earned 4,000 roubles – ten times the average monthly wage at the time – with bonuses for those that made the competition’s final. Shostakovich made 34,000 roubles for his multiple entries, none of which anyone has felt good enough to record since. Khachaturian made 30,000 roubles, including payment for one composition that went on to become the anthem of Soviet Armenia (it was discarded in 1991).
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Stalin’s lyricists were adamant a famous composer should be chosen. It would ‘be almost unique and raise the profile of the USSR on the world stage,’ they wrote. But Stalin ignored their pleas and picked a piece by a man called Alexander Alexandrov instead. He deserved the victory – his anthem, still Russia’s today, is so rousing and filled with threat it could inspire anyone to trudge across the Steppe. Although Shostakovich saw it differently. ‘A national anthem must have bad music, and Stalin didn’t break with tradition,’ he says in his disputed memoirs.
More surprisingly, Benjamin Britten once tried to write an anthem for Malaysia, a country he had only set foot in once and then only for a few harrowing hours (he spent most of the ‘really hair-raising trip’ fearing he was about to be shot by communist guerrillas).
In June 1957, the Federation of Malaya was about to become independent from Britain, but its government had somehow failed to find an anthem. As a last throw of the dice, it contacted Britten, Walton and Menotti and begged them to have a go. Only Britten took up the offer, producing, by his own admission, ‘a curious and I’m afraid rather unsuccessful job’. The Malaysian government evidently agreed, as a few weeks later they asked him to rewrite it so it sounded actually Malaysian, sending him several records of folk music as inspiration. He rewrote an entire section, but it didn’t help. The government ended up using the anthem of Perak, one of Malaysia’s states, instead – a piece of music better known in Malaysia as a cabaret tune.
There are also a few composers whose music has become an anthem without their involvement. In 1990, Boris Yeltsin chose Glinka’s Patriotic Song to be Russia’s anthem despite it having no words, something that made it doomed from the start (Vladimir Putin brought back the Soviet anthem almost as soon as he came to power). Similarly, during Biafra’s tragic, three-year existence in the late 1960s, the African country chose Sibelius’s Finlandia as its anthem, renamed ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.
And some composers are thought to have written anthems, but in fact didn’t. These include Thomas Arne, who was responsible for the first documented performance of ‘God Save our King’ on 28 September 1745 when he arranged it for London’s Drury Lane Theatre to inspire people heading off to fight Bonnie Prince Charlie. But when asked if he knew who had composed it, Arne said he ‘didn’t have the least knowledge, nor could guess’, an admission that opened the floodgates to the wildest of claims.
John Bull (1562-1628), the great organist, is the likely composer. But the better story is that Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote it in 1688 for some nuns so they could welcome Louis XIV on a visit to their convent (‘Grand Dieu, sauvez le Roy!’). A few decades later, Handel is said to have visited the convent too, stumbled across the song and, realising what a gem it was, rushed it back to England, his own name now attached. The story appears in the memoirs of a French noblewoman and is such fun, it’s almost a shame to learn they are fakes.
The other anthem that is frequently misattributed is Austria’s current ‘Land of the Mountains, Land by the River’ (the country dropped Haydn’s music after World War II). Many believe Mozart wrote it as part of a cantata for his Masonic lodge, but it doesn’t appear in his original score and even the Austrian government admits it is more likely to have been written by the somewhat less glamorous Johann Holzer (1753-1818).
So why have so few famous composers tackled these songs, instead leaving them to amateurs, everyone from teachers to musically inclined politicians? One possible reason is that many felt simply incapable of writing them. Coming up with a minute-long song that’s catchy and stirring enough to unite an entire country is a genuinely difficult task, not least if you are more used to writing symphonies or operas.
Just take Verdi’s experience. In 1848, when Milan threw out its Austrian occupiers, Verdi rushed to the city, but shied away from composing anything to celebrate, writing to one of his librettists: ‘You speak to me of music? What has got into you? There can be only one music grateful to the ears of Italians [right now]; the music of the cannon.’
A few months later, he appeared to have a change of heart after being asked by a leading revolutionary to write a hymn so powerful it ‘might become the Italian Marseillaise… in which the people might forget the composer and the poet.’ Verdi produced Suona la Tromba (The Trumpet Sounds), a march so plodding even he seemed to realise it was a failure. ‘I tried to be as popular and simple as is possible,’ he wrote. ‘Use it however you want. Burn it if you think it is unworthy.’ It got several airings, but it never caught people’s attention, and they kept singing the rambunctious Fratelli d’Italia – the song that is now Italy’s anthem – instead. Verdi clearly realised that was the better piece of music, as he used it to represent Italy in his Inno delle Nazioni (Hymn of Nations), written for the 1862 London Exhibition.
There are a couple of more likely reasons why few famous composers write anthems. The first is that most people – even egotistical composers – believe anthems are immovable. Replacing them is thought impossible, like altering a country’s flag or changing its very soil. It is untrue, of course – most countries change their anthems so frequently you wonder how people keep up (France has had three besides the Marseillaise) – but it’s a belief that’s unshakeable.
Then there is the biggest reason of all: politics. If you write an anthem, there is a strong chance that the very next day it will be sung by people you don’t like, or in a context you can’t bear – as soon as you write an anthem, it is out of your hands forever. When Haydn wrote ‘Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser’, he wasn’t to know that it would become the anthem of Nazi Germany, a melody Hitler would describe as ‘holiest to us Germans’. Would he have composed had he known? Unlikely, and few composers today would take the risk, too.
Alex Marshall’s ‘Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems’ is out now (Random House ISBN 9781847947413).
• Five intriguing national anthems