Great empires have ended with a song

August 14, 2015
Britain's Queen Elizabeth (C) reacts as she arrives in the parade ring at Ascot racecourse on day one of the Royal Ascot horse racing festival, in Ascot in southern England June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth (C) reacts as she arrives in the parade ring at Ascot racecourse on day one of the Royal Ascot horse racing festival, in Ascot in southern England June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Toby Melville

I heard the British anthem “God Save the Queen” at a sporting event recently. I didn’t sing myself; I would rather the UK, of which I’m a citizen, didn’t have a monarch as head of state, but I’m a minority in this. The UK is as democratic and civil as any other state — which means it can, on occasion, be neither but always swings back.

The ragged chorus of the dirge-like national hymn prompted a melancholy thought: The anthem’s role in keeping the four nations — England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales — of the British state together is fading. My fellow Scots voted so overwhelmingly for the Scottish National Party in the last all-British parliamentary election in May that a break-up of the Union now seems quite possible — even likely.

The last verse of “God Save the Queen,” never sung today, is a prayer that the insurgent Scottish army, supporting the Catholic (Jacobite) claim to the throne of Great Britain, be defeated. They were, and with that, the Protestant monarchy continues to this day.

But if “God” can’t “Save the King” (Charles, now crown prince, presumably) from an ebb of support, the singing of the anthem will become more ragged still — and indifference, stronger than revolution, will swamp the gaudiest symbol of Britain’s past.

But even if the British can’t retain the Union and have an anthem whose ability to rouse and inspire is wholly contingent on the popularity of the monarch, still we have done well by others’ anthems. Not that we meant to.

America’s anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a product of the successful revolution against the British. Written as a poem by Francis Scott Key as he witnessed, in 1814, the British bombardment of Fort McHenry (whence the “bombs bursting in air”), it pressed a popular British tune into service to make a national hymn with enduring resonance.

India’s “Jana Gana Mana” was written in 1911, 36 years before India’s independence, by its most famed poet, Rabindranath Tagore, as an invocation to “the dispenser of India’s destiny.” Since the “dispenser” was un-named, the British imperialists claimed it was a salute to the British king-emperor at the time, George V.Tagore indignantly denied it, saying he was not capable of such stupidity and he was addressing God himself. The line “the saving of all people” is an appeal to God to end imperial rule.

Ireland’s “A Soldier’s Song” also has the British in its sights — no doubt, in the lines, “The serried ranks…shall set the Tyrant quaking.” Similarly, the proclamations of victory and freedom in many African states’ anthems are a reflection of the independence struggles against empires, of which the British was among the greatest. China’s “March of the Volunteers,” written some 15 years before the Communist assumption of power in 1949, has Japan as the (again un-named) enemy –but its plea that “a new Great Wall” be built, is a warning to all imperialists to stay away.

Anthems are often tortured things. The Soviet anthem was the “Internationale,” the hymn to world socialism, for the Communist state’s first quarter century. Then a more patriotic number was introduced – only to be banned by the successor state, Russia, in 1992 and replaced with “Patriotic Song” — a song without words, since none could be agreed. With a new President in Vladimir Putin from 2000, the music of the later Soviet hymn was revived, and new words – “Russia – our sacred homeland, Russia – our beloved country!” – substituted.

France’s “La Marseillaise” was originally aimed at the Austrians, with whom French armies were about to fight in 1792.Its rousing chorus and its overt call to French warriors to “water the furrows” with invading enemies’ blood has given it a popularity beyond France. It’s famously sung by the patrons of Rick’s Bar in Casablanca to drown out Nazi soldiers singing “The Watch on the Rhine.”

The Germans have had the hardest time reconciling their national anthem with their changing sociopolitical status on the global stage. They kept the old “Deutschland uber alles” after the war – but the first verses asserting universal German domination are never sung (one performer who inadvertently rendered it on radio had to make a humble apology before he was allowed to sing again).  After many polemics, and after the two parts of Germany were reunited in 1991, the anthem was declared to be only the third verse, which in place of claiming German world rule proclaims such virtues as “unity and justice and freedom.”

So back to Scotland: There’s no official national anthem but two songs that bid for the job – “Scots Wha Ha’e (who have)” and “Flower of Scotland” – both explicitly target the English in the figure of Edward II. He was the son of Edward I, known as the “hammer of the Scots.” But unlike his father, Edward II was defeated by a Scots army at Bannockburn in 1314, a victory still celebrated by nationalists with obsessive delight.

Thus does the bloodshed of enemies continue to nurture nation-building. It still seems to do the trick. Yet if Scotland ever goes independent, I’ll learn the Germans’ anthem, and sing that under my breath.

2 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

So very Scottish, and so very myopic – have fried mars bar…..

Posted by flowerpot-men | Report as abusive

The original meaning of the first verse in the “Deutschlandlied” (the German National Anthem) was not about “universal German domination” of other countries. Franz Josef Haydn wrote the melody in 1796. The lyrics by Hoffmann von Fallersleben were pointing to the utopian idea of a united German nation. The idea was that the concept of a united German nation was more important than the many states that made up a loose confederation of German speaking territories. The song was first played in 1841 and became the National Anthem in 1922, well before the National Socialists arrived on the scene.

Posted by PDX56 | Report as abusive