Music and History, National Anthem Edition: Britain and France

Last week’s blog entry on the various Russian national anthems and their connections to historical events got me thinking about connections between history and the patriotic music of other European countries. National anthems are an expression of nationalism, one of the ideologies that arose in nineteenth-century Europe. Nationalism demands that an individual’s first loyalty should be to one’s nation—not to one’s family, or city, or religious denomination. Nineteenth-century nationalists understood the nation to be defined by shared history, customs and traditions, and especially language. 1 The national anthems of many nations arose out of their specific historical circumstances and reflect those countries’ own national identities. This is apparent in the anthems of Britain and France.

The oldest example of a tune with patriotic words being used in a public capacity (which can be our working definition of a national anthem) is probably Britain’s “God Save the Queen” (or King, as the case may be). It is first documented in 1745, during the Jacobite rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Here is how the British royal family’s website explains it:

In September 1745 the ‘Young Pretender’ to the British Throne, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, defeated the army of King George II at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh.

In a fit of patriotic fervour after news of Prestonpans had reached London, the leader of the band at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, arranged ‘God Save The King’ for performance after a play. It was a tremendous success and was repeated nightly.

This practice soon spread to other theatres, and the custom of greeting monarchs with the song as he or she entered a place of public entertainment was thus established.2

The tune is probably older than 1745. I found references to it as originating in medieval chant, but that doesn’t seem likely. It doesn’t sound at all medieval, to me at least, and I suspect this is an example of medievalizing—falsely attributing a medieval origin to lend antiquity and legitimacy. Interestingly, the British Parliament has never officially recognized “God Save the Queen” as a national anthem, but that seems appropriate for a country with an unwritten constitution.

Portrait of Charles Edward Stuart, aka the Young Pretender, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie, by Allan Ramsay, 1745

In the nineteenth century, other countries decided that they wanted national anthems just like Britain’s—and I mean just like Britain’s. It became the fashion for countries to write their own words to fit the tune of “God Save the Queen.” Russia did it; the imperial anthem of Russia from 1816-33 was “The Prayer of the Russians,” set to the tune of “God Save the Queen” (replaced after 1833 with “God Save the Tsar”). Other examples include various German states, Norway, Sweden, Greece, Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and (I didn’t see this coming) the nineteenth-century kingdoms of Siam and Hawaii. Even the United States got into the act, with “America,” usually referred to as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”3 Most of these countries eventually replaced the borrowed anthem with a homegrown one, although the English tune sometimes remains as an additional patriotic song (as does “America” in America).

The first song officially recognized as a national anthem was France’s “Marseillaise,” first sung in 1792 by soldiers from Marseilles marching to fight in the war to defend the French Revolution against the Austrian Empire. Strictly speaking, “God Save the Queen” is an example of a royal anthem, as is “God Save the Tsar” (the American equivalent is “Hail to the Chief,” played to greet the president). The “Marseillaise,” in contrast is truly a national anthem. Compare the lyrics “God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen,” to “Allons, enfants de la patrie.” Instead of being addressed to a royal him or her, the “Marseillaise” is addressed to a national “us.”

These two anthems not only had their origin in specific historical circumstances; they also reflect each nation’s national identity. Britain’s “God Save the Queen” is a royal anthem, appropriate for a nation united under a monarchy. This identity is found even in the name “United Kingdom.” More specifically, Britain is a constitutional monarchy created by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a constitutional settlement that was challenged (but not overturned) by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 (when the song originated). The “Marseillaise” is a revolutionary anthem, appropriate for a revolutionary nation—the French Revolution began in 1789 when the delegates of the Third Estate declared themselves to be the National Assembly. It is telling that during nineteenth-century regimes that were counter-revolutionary—under Napoleon and the Restoration monarchs Louis XVIII and Charles X—that the “Marseillaise” was not used.

Stay tuned for a discussion of the anthems of Germany and Italy!

Music and History, National Anthem Edition

Last week the Frederick Symphony Orchestra, in which I play viola, played our opening concert of the 2019-20 season. It was an all-Shostakovich concert, featuring the Festive Overture, the 2nd piano concerto, the Waltz from the Suite for Variety Orchestra, and the 1st Symphony. (I thought we should start referring to ourselves as a Shostakovich tribute band.) As is our custom for our season openers, we began the concert with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” At the dress rehearsal, the principal violist jokingly said to me, “maybe for this concert we should play the Russian national anthem.” He immediately thought better of his suggestion, but it got me thinking: what is the Russian national anthem these days? Some quick googling when I got home from rehearsal told me what I had suspected—the Russian (and Soviet) national anthem has changed several times to correspond with historical changes.

In the nineteenth century, the anthem of the Russian Empire was “God Save the Tsar.” You might be familiar with this tune from Tchaikovsky’s use of it in both the 1812 Overture and the Marche Slave. I first heard it as the theme music to the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace, starring a very young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov, which I watched in high school and which hooked me on costume dramas.

Obviously, “God Save the Tsar” was no longer appropriate after the Russian Revolution, and in fact a national anthem of any kind was thought to be inappropriate for a Marxist state. The Communist Manifesto, after all, ends “Workers of the world unite.” The new Soviet Union adopted the Socialist anthem, fittingly called the Internationale.

You might think that the Internationale would have remained as the Soviet anthem until the fall of the USSR in 1991—but you would be wrong. The anthem was changed in 1944, during what the Russians call the “Great Patriotic War.” Stalin set aside internationalist principles during the war and promoted nationalism to keep up morale; a new anthem was part of that strategy. 1 The new anthem, the “State Anthem of the Soviet Union,” composed by Alexander Alexandrov, is what we would hear at Olympic medal ceremonies. In 1991, it was replaced by a piece by the 19th-century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka. This “Patriotic Song” was a song without words, however, and Russian athletes complained that they couldn’t sing it at international competitions. In 2000, Vladimir Putin scrapped Glinka’s Patriotic Song and re-introduced the tune of the “State Anthem,” with new, less Soviet-sounding lyrics, now known as the “State Anthem of the Russian Federation.”

So if the FSO had decided to open our concert with the Russian national anthem, which one should we have used? Perhaps the Internationale, since the 1st Symphony was written in 1924 and the Festive Overture was commissioned in 1947 to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the October Revolution? Or should it have been “State Anthem,” since the Concerto and probably the Waltz were both composed in the 1950s? On the other hand, given Shostakovich’s troubled relationship with the Soviet state, it’s probably best that we stuck with the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Many other countries’ national anthems also reflect historical events; stay tuned!

Pumbaa the Philosopher

My favorite scene in the movie The Lion King is the one where the three friends—Timon the meerkat, Pumbaa the warthog, and Simba the lion—are lying on their backs looking at the night sky and discussing the stars. Pumbaa asks the others if they’d ever wondered what “those sparkly dots” are. Timon replies that he knows what they are—they’re fireflies that got stuck in “that big bluish-black thing.” Pumbaa answers that he always thought they were “balls of gas burning billions of miles away.” Finally, after much prodding, Simba says, “Somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there watching over us,” and the other two laugh at him.

This is my favorite scene because it’s the perfect way to introduce a class discussion of the beginnings of ancient Greek philosophy. Simba’s explanation is different from the other two. It is mythical, in the original ancient Greek sense of “storytelling”—a mythos is literally a story. Simba even presents it as a story that someone told him (the audience knows it was his father Mufasa): “Somebody once told me” that the stars were “the great kings of the past.”

In contrast, both Timon’s and Pumbaa’s explanations are what we could call scientific—based on observations explained rationally. Timon’s explanation is based on everyday sense experience. Fireflies are sparkly things that fly around at night, so the stars must be fireflies that got stuck in the dome of the sky. Pumbaa’s explanation (which, of course, is the right one—the stars really are “balls of gas burning billions of miles away”) depends on observations made at a distance incorporated into a rational framework. 1

Timon’s and Simba’s explanations are analogous to the ideas of the earliest Greek philosophers. In the 6th century B.C.E., some Greeks who lived in cities in the region known as Ionia (the west coast of Asia Minor, or modern Turkey) began to give rational instead of mythical answers to questions about the natural world. “Nature” in ancient Greek is physis, so they are called the “Ionian physicists”—the guys from Ionia who studied nature.2 These early philosophers were convinced that the universe, although apparently chaotic, is actually orderly and can be explained rationally. The Greek word for “chaos” was chaos; the Greek word for “order” was cosmos, which was then extended to refer to the orderly universe (the cosmos has a cosmos). The Ionian physicists thought that the apparent diversity and disorder of the universe could be reduced to a single underlying principle, which they called the arche. Thales, for example, proposed that the arche was water; for Anaximenes it was air.

Herodotus, the first Greek historian (literally, “inquirer”), mostly inquired about human events. But his curiosity was so omnivorous that he sometimes inquired about natural phenomena—physis—as well. For example, in book II of the Histories, where he discusses Egypt, he wonders about the annual flooding of the Nile. He presents three possible explanations, all of which he rejects, but which correspond well to the three friends from Lion King.

One of Herodotus’ explanations, like Simba’s “great kings of the past,” is mythical. The Nile “flows from Ocean,” which flows “round the whole world.” Herodotus says that this explanation “has less knowledge” and is “more wonderful in the telling” than the others because it has its source in poets like Homer: this “story . . . is indeed only a tale” [mythos]that “cannot be disproved. . . . . For myself, I do not know that there is any river Ocean, but I think that Homer or one of the older poets found the name and introduced it into his poetry.”3

In contrast, Herodotus’ other two explanations of the Nile floods are rational, similar to Timon’s and Pumbaa’s understandings of the stars. One is based, like Timon’s fireflies, on everyday sense experience. The Nile floods, some say, because winds from the north prevent the river water from flowing into the Mediterranean, causing it to back up and overflow its banks. Unfortunately, says Herodotus, those winds don’t always blow, yet the river still floods. 4 The other rational explanation, like Pumbaa’s, depends on processes that are far removed from what we can see. It is “more reasonable-seeming than the others yet is the most deceived; for it too makes no sense at all. It declares that the Nile comes from the source of melting snow.” But that is contrary to reason, Herodotus argues, because upstream the Nile flows through climates even hotter than Egypt’s—so how could there be any snow there to melt?5

After debunking the three explanations, Herodotus proceeds to give his own—which is also wrong, as it turns out.6 The Nile actually flooded because of monsoon rains far from Egypt.7 But the first three explanations are a textbook demonstration of the shift from mythical understanding of the cosmos to a rational one. It’s almost like Herodotus saw The Lion King.

Thanks to my colleague Michael Sollenberger for consultation on Herodotus’ language.