O, Say Can You Hear?

When I was around eleven years old, one of my favorite video games for my already-outdated-in-1987 Commodore 64 was Summer Games and Winter Games. But I enjoyed them less for their highly unrealistic competitions in various Olympic sporting events than for the opportunity they afforded me to listen to the dozens of 8-bit synthesized national anthems.

This past week here at the American Academy in Rome, we the fellows played an historic soccer match against the Italian gardeners, housekeepers, and other administrative workers who make life easy and carefree on every other day but this one. They were out to destroy our team, as they have done every year for decades, save last year’s miraculous tied game. As the two teams stood on the field side-by-side listening to recordings of our two national anthems, I thought back to that video game and my fascination with anthems. I was struck by how good the “Star-Spangled Banner” is (keep in mind that I became a U.S. citizen one year ago, so I’m not the most objective reporter here) and how just-okay the Italian “Fratelli d’ Italia” is, despite the fact that it has the lines:

And the Austrian eagle
Has lost his plumes.
This eagle that drunk the blood
of Italy and Poland,
together with the Cossack,
But this has burned his gut.

I am just talking about the music (which, I’ve recently learned, was written in one night). It gets a lot of criticism in Italy for being a pretty bad representative of the grand Italian 19th-century music tradition, but my major point of contention with it is that it always sounds like stock opera choral writing—the stuff right before the big aria comes in. Every time I hear it I am expecting something to follow it. Hear what I mean?

There are several websites that feature live, not synthesized, recordings of anthems, and I decided to listen to seven and see if I could find any tips or hints for those of you who have been commissioned to compose an anthem for a new country.

  • Armenia: pretty bland, major key, 4/4 time, similar phrases, no interesting leaps or rhythms. Gets my award for Most Unimaginative Anthem. Come on, Armenia—you guys can do better!

  • Azerbaijan: minor key, rather “exotic” in a Mussorgsky-lite sort of way. Fabulous bridge section. Great harmonies. The composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948), is considered one of the most brilliant and beloved of Azeri composers. He’s often compared to the giants of Soviet music and some even suggest that he “led the pack.”

  • Bangladesh: 3/4 time, lovely short Elgar-ish tune. Its words and music were written by the Nobel Prize-winning author Rabindranath Tagore in 1906. It may be the only national anthem that includes the word “mango.”

  • Brunei’s “Allah Saves the Sultan“(1946) is another dis-anthem-ppointment. Straight 4/4, major, completely diatonic and remains solely within the confines of the scale. Melody is mostly triadic outlines. Rhythm is quarter and half notes. Bo-ring!

  • Cambodia’s “Nokoreach,” on the other hand, has a singularly beautiful, arching, longing melody, slightly pentatonic, based on an old folk tune and face-lifted with a gracefully noble bass line that seems to be an official part of the song, as I heard it in three different versions.

  • Stand Ye Guamanians,” the official territorial anthem of Guam, was adopted in 1919 and was written by Dr. Ramon Manalisay Sablan (1901-1970). I wondered if he was a medical doctor, and on checking Guampedia, I found that to be indeed true. He was the first Chamorro medical doctor who attended Oklahoma A & M and returned to his island to teach agriculture and music in 1924. The anthem sounds like something Austria might have considered but then passed on—lots of Haydn-like progressions with juicy secondary dominants. Very hummable, very marchable. Probably makes Guamanians feel a bit cooler in the hot summer months.

  • And finally, I just couldn’t resist checking out mysterious, wacky Turkmenistan’s anthem, written by Veli Mukhatov (1916-2005). Mukhatov was awarded the title of People’s Artist of the USSR in 1965, the Stalin Prize in 1951 and 1952, and the Order of Lenin (twice). He was also twice a member of the Supreme Soviet, which was the highest legislative body of the Soviet Union. The anthem is a strange amalgam of pseudo-exotic touches and lacks any sort of form, but it does sound kind of fun to sing. Unfortunately, the words are troubling (at least in this funky translation):
    Mountains, rivers, and beauty of steppes,
    Love and destiny, revelation of mine,
    Let my eyes go blind for any cruel look at you,
    Motherland of ancestors and heirs of mine!

In my extremely non-extensive survey I found several commonalities: snare drums and cymbals seem to be the way to go in virtually every anthem; sticking to 4/4 means your military band won’t have too much trouble; a nice key like F or Eb-major is a good tip, especially for those 4th chair euphonium players; and finally, write a tune that is easy enough for a kid to learn but is also flashy enough that it sounds impressive when Jessye Norman sings it before a baseball game.

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