We’ve been listening to some of the best national anthems from around the globe. Here are 14 that have particularly sparked our curiosity and worth listening out for during the Olympics
The Netherlands: Wilhelmus van Nassouwe
For sheer longevity alone, The Netherlands’ ‘Wilhelmhus’ deserves a place on our list – in use since around 1570, it is the oldest national anthem in the world. The words are in the first person, as if spoken by William of Orange, who led the fight for Dutch independent from the Spanish in the 16th century.
France: La Marseillaise
After the US’s The Star-Spangled Banner, La Marseillaise is probably the most instantly recognised national anthem in the world. It is certainly one of the most rousing. Written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792 to inspire French troops against Austria, it was initially called ‘Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin’ (War song for the army of the Rhine) and marches in 4/4 time with an unmistakable sense of purpose and confidence: ‘Aux armes, citoyens; Formez vos bataillons, Marchons, marchons!’
Germany: Das Lied der Deutschen
For many English listeners, this fine anthem has become ominously familiar as the musical prelude to yet another German-inflicted exit from a major football tournament. Until recently, at least. It is also the only national anthem to have been written by a composer of significant fame. That was Joseph Haydn, who composed it in 1797 as an anthem for the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. Germany, which didn’t exist as a single country in Haydn’s day, adopted it as its anthem in 1922. More flowingly lyrical than most national anthems, its tune was used by Haydn in his Op. 76 No. 3 String Quartet.
Italy: Il Canto degli Italiani
Some countries have national anthems. Italy boasts what appears to be a Verdi opera in miniature. After a sizeable orchestral introduction, we get the sort of melodious chorus that could quite easily have found its way into, say, the great composer’s Il trovatore. As if this were not enough, we then move into a sturdy march, rounded off by a rousing ‘l’Italia chiamò!’ (‘Italy has called!). However, despite being a leading figure in the Risorgimento movement for Italian unification, Verdi did not write this 1847 masterpiece. It was, in fact, the handiwork of Genovese composer Michele Novaro.
Kenya: Ee Mungu Nguvu Yetu
In a world dominated by national anthems written in major keys, Kenya’s stern minor-key tune is a welcome rarity. Unlike many others, too, it was not written by a composer shipped in from elsewhere but, based on a traditional Pokomo tune, was the work of local people led by a government commission set up after independence from the UK in 1963. With opening lines that mean ‘O God our strength Bring a blessing to us’, expect to hear it regularly at the Olympic Stadium, often (though not exclusively) after long-distance track events.
Ethiopia: Whedefit Gesgeshi Woude Henate Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s jaunty national anthem – also a regular at Olympic track events – could scarcely be more different in style from that of neighbouring Kenya. It’s also one of the most uplifting of them all. Its tune was composed by Solomon Lulu Mitiku and adopted by the country following the fall of the Marxist government in 1992, and its title translates as ‘March Forward, Dear Mother Ethiopia’.
Jamaica: Jamaica, Land We Love
Another national anthem that has become very familiar to Olympics enthusiasts in recent years. The bursts of raw power and awesome speed displayed by the likes of Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce on the track are, though, a world away from this laid back, melodic tune. It’s really rather gorgeous. Like many anthems, it dates back to independence – on this occasion from the UK in 1962. Separate competitions were held to come up with words and a tune, the former being won by Hugh Sherlock, the latter by Robert Lightbourne.
The host nation of the 2020/1 Olympic Games also boasts one of the most arresting national anthems. Its words are among the oldest – dating right back to the tenth century – and the shortest too. The tune, possibly written by Hiromori Hayashi in the early 20th century, mixes western classical style with Japanese traditional court music and, rather disconcertingly for western ears, finishes not on the tonic note as we are accustomed to but instead on the super-tonic (the note above the tonic).
And four more quirkier national anthems to listen out for…
Liechtenstein: Oben am jungen Rhein
You don’t need to listen too carefully to Liechtenstein’s national anthem, Oben am jungen Rhein, to spot its similarity to Britain’s very own God Save Our Gracious Queen. This is because the two tunes are exactly the same, but sung with different words. The reason for this lies in the fact that, in the early days of national anthems, several countries started out by simply borrowing the British one – Blighty got there first when it came to such matters – and adapting it for their own purposes. One by one, other countries eventually got round to writing their own, but Liechtenstein chose to stick with what it was familiar with… and still does today.
South Africa: National Anthem of South Africa
How are your language skills? Most countries simply have one national anthem in one language. A fair few diplomatically have one anthem that can be sung in two or more different translations, depending on where (and by whom) in the country it is being sung. And then there’s South Africa’s, which has five different languages in one single hymn, beginning in Xhosa then making its way over the following three stanzas through Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The current anthem was adopted in its present format by president Nelson Mandela in 1997, derived initially from a combination of the Xhosa hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and the former Afrikaans national anthem Die Stem van Suid-Afrika.
Spain: Marcha Granadera
Of course, one way to avoid diplomatic pitfalls over the choice of language in one’s national anthem is to have no words at all. And that is exactly what marks out Spain’s Marcha Granadera. The anthem itself dates back to the 18th century and the years between have seen various attempts to add lyrics but, given a population that consists not just of Spaniards but also Basques, Catalonians, Galicians and others, choosing a language – not to mention national sentiment – that is acceptable to all has proved a nigh-on impossible task. Bosnia, similarly, has chosen to go wordless with its national anthem.
Uruguay: Orientales, la Patria o la tumba
You may want to sit down and make yourself comfortable before listening to Uruguay’s national anthem, Orientales, la Patria o la tumba. Do pour yourself a glass of wine and put the cat out too. Composed by Francisco Jose Debali in 1845, and inspired equally by bel canto opera and hatred for the Spanish, this is the longest national anthem in the world. By the time you’ve got through the orchestral introduction and 105 bars’ worth of Debali’s Bellini-style twists and turns, more than five minutes will have passed. That’s roughly nine God Save Our Gracious Queens end to end.
And here are two of the best national anthems in the world that won’t be played at the Olympics… or at least not Tokyo 2020
Russia: Gosudarstvenny Gimn Rossiyskov Federatsii
The banishment of Russia from the Tokyo Olympics is a source of regret for national anthem lovers, as theirs is an absolute stonker. Alexander Alexandrov’s stirring tune was originally chosen by Stalin as the music for the Soviet Union national anthem in 1944, but when the USSR dissolved in 1990, Russia turned to Glinka’s Patriotic Song instead. It was never a popular decision, not least due to the Patriotic Song having no words, and Vladimir Putin, knowing a good tub-thumper when he heard it, brought back the Soviet anthem soon after rising to power. The old Soviet words, however, have been replaced.
Here are the lyrics to the Russian national anthem
Wales: Hen wlad fy nhadau
Wales has not been banned from the Olympics but, like Russia, its anthem will not be heard at the games – as part of Team GB, its gold-winning sportsmen and women will have to make do with God Save the Queen. A shame, as ‘Land of our fathers’ is as stirring as it gets – even the stoniest-hearted Englishman surely feels the hairs standing on the back of his neck at the sound of ‘Gwlad! Gwlad!’ being belted out from a packed-out Principality Stadium during the Six Nations rugby tournament.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s acting editor, having initially joined the magazine as deputy editor in August 2004. Before that he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book A former chorister at New College, Oxford, he later returned to the same university to study classics. Choral music remains a particular passion, as do early 20th-century English composers.