National anthems have fallen behind the times

From The Economist:

National anthems can be tricky. The funeral of Elizabeth II moved with military surefootedness in every aspect except one: the singing of the anthem. A nation that had dutifully sung the same words for 70 years hesitated. “God save our gracious queen” seemed wrong (clearly, it was a bit late for that). But “God save our gracious king” felt inappropriate, too: she was still lying there, after all. In Westminster Abbey, the congregation compromised. “Long live our noble keen,” they droned; “God save the quing.”

Britain’s anthem offers other thorny problems. When sung in full, it includes a second verse in which God is called upon to “scatter his enemies” and frustrate their “knavish tricks”. When the anthem was first sung in 1745, its sentiments were considered so splendidly sensible that they were greeted by “repeated Huzzas”, encores and “universal Applause”, according to the Daily Advertiser, a newspaper. In the more sensitive atmosphere of 2022, however, and in front of an international audience, such lyrics seemed rather less splendid. That verse was judiciously edited out.

The coronation of King Charles III, which will take place in May 2023, is a perfect opportunity for further updates. And Britain’s is not the only anthem that could do with a little editing. Many were written in the 19th century; few champion equality and diversity as modern minds might wish; and an improbably large number drip with blood. This variously streams generously (Algeria); spills purely (Belgium); dyes the flag red (Vietnam) or waters the furrows impurely (France).

Indeed, few nations present their best selves in their anthems. Consider the anthem of the contested region of Western Sahara. With its bright F-major key and jolly marching rhythm, it encourages patriots to “Cut off the head of the invader!”—and not just once, but twice, which is surely the very definition of overkill. Meanwhile the Vietnamese anthem also assures its people that “the path to glory is paved with the corpses of our enemies”; while the Algerian one opts for musical metaphor to explain (fortissimo) that the Algerians have taken “the sound of machineguns as our melody”. Simon and Garfunkel it ain’t.

Link to the rest at The Economist

8 thoughts on “National anthems have fallen behind the times”

    • Get past the first verse and it gets blustery. “…the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes” is over-wrought and not particularly accurate. And really, as a strictly military engagement, the Battle of Baltimore was a reconnaissance in force following on the similar advance on Washington. Baltimore proved better defended (with no Bladensburg Races), so the British withdrew. It was important as a propaganda victory for the Americans and it established the boundary of what the British could do with impunity, but it was in no sense a decisive action.

      As for revamping, the first verse is a grammatical disaster. What is the object of the verb “watch’d”? This question is a good party game, for nerdy sorts of parties. It is entirely possible that you think the answer is trivially obvious. Ask the question at that party and many of them will think the same thing. But don’t give your answers out loud. Have everyone write theirs down without comparing notes first. Come the reveal you can all bask in the array of answers and dive into truly nerdy arguments about syntax.

  1. I really fail to see how a national anthem that makes it clear that foreign invaders will receive a heated reception is not presenting a nation’s best self.

  2. Less than entirely seriously: I find the OP’s specific criticisms of former colonies’ anthems just a bit oblivious. Perhaps The Battle of Algiers should go on the OP’s Netflix list…

    Even less seriously: For our next trick, we’ll criticize the roccoco interior decoration of national seats of government worldwide. And flags — we can’t forget the flags, with their filigree often imposed by a current government to simultaneously continue the glorious past and demand allegiance to the present regime. Then we’ll work our way to distinguishing between foreign military uniforms inspired by banana republics… and Bananas.

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