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!