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.
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!
- Marxism, by contrast, values class loyalty above all. To a Marxist, a French factory worker has more in common with a German factory worker than with a French factory owner. Hence the Communist Manifesto concludes, “Workers of the world unite,” and the socialist anthem is the “Internationale.”
- How many elementary school kids have grown up wondering what a “tizovthee” is?