'Bird's Nest' Ballads: Olympic National Anthems As medal-winners step up to the podium in this year's Summer Olympics, commentator Miles Hoffman says, we're bound to hear quite a few national anthems, some of which come equipped with bad poetry and stilted music.
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'Bird's Nest' Ballads: Olympic National Anthems

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'Bird's Nest' Ballads: Olympic National Anthems

'Bird's Nest' Ballads: Olympic National Anthems

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(Soundbite of song, "The March of the Volunteers")


This is the national anthem of China.

(Soundbite of song, "The March of the Volunteers")

MONTAGNE: You'll likely hear more of "March of the Volunteers" when the Olympics get under way tomorrow in Beijing. And you'll hear lots of other national anthems, as athletes mount the podium and accept the gold, silver and bronze.

What better time to ask MORNING EDITION music commentator Miles Hoffman for a primer on the form. Miles, welcome.


MONTAGNE: We're going to play some of these hymns, of course. But why don't we begin the conversation with the country that came up with the idea for a national song?

HOFFMAN: Right. This would be Great Britain. The earliest national anthem or national hymn that we know of is "God Save the King," which is sometimes "God Save the Queen." Nobody knows exactly who wrote it or when, but it was first used as a national anthem, Renee, in the 1740s, about 1745, when it would have been "God Save the King."

(Soundbite of song, "God Save the King")

MONTAGNE: Land of the pilgrims' pride.

HOFFMAN: Right, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."

MONTAGNE: Am I the only one who would think that national anthems had been around a lot longer than, let's say, if we date it to the 1740s with "God Save the King?" That seems rather recent.

HOFFMAN: Well, the thing is, Renee, that people just didn't think they needed national anthems. First of all, there would have probably been more empires at the time than nations. We think of the nationalistic movement, or the movement of nationalism as something more associated with the 19th century. That's really when more national anthems got going.

MONTAGNE: That brings us back to the first piece of music we heard, which is "March of the Volunteers." Was that anthem written when the People's Republic of China came into being in 1949?

HOFFMAN: Well, it became the national anthem in '49, but it was actually written in about 1934. It was the theme song of a movie.

(Soundbite of song, "March of the Volunteers")

HOFFMAN: The name of the movie was "Sons and Daughters in a Time of Storm," and the composer was somebody named Tian Han. It became a very popular song, but it wasn't until 1949, when the People's Republic was established, that this became the national anthem of China. And then there was a hiatus because Tian Han was actually thrown in jail during the Cultural Revolution. So while he was in jail, it wasn't permitted to play "March of the Volunteers," his song. But in 1978, the national anthem was rehabilitated, I guess you might say, and it became, again, the national anthem of China.

MONTAGNE: Is this the only national anthem that you know of that came from a movie song?

HOFFMAN: Ooh, that's a good question. I don't know the answer to that question.

(Soundbite of song, "March of the Volunteers")

HOFFMAN: Now Renee, there are really two categories of national anthems. There's the hymn, which usually has to do with God save our country or save our ruler. And then there's the martial, bloody, combative national anthem, and the Chinese really falls more into that category.

The lyrics include the lines: Arise all who refuse to be slaves. Let our flesh and blood become our new great wall. Brave the enemy's fire, march on, etcetera, etcetera.

MONTAGNE: It does seem, though, that there are a number of bloody national anthems out there.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, some of them are really bloody, Renee. I mean, the last line sung in the French national anthem is: May an impure blood soak our furrows. How'd you like to sing that for your national anthem?

(Soundbite of song, "La Marseillaise")

HOFFMAN: Now the Australian national anthem, Renee, is actually very sweet. The first lines are: Australians, all let us rejoice, for we are young and free. We've golden soil and wealth for toil. Our home is girt by sea. That's from "Advance Australia Fair."

(Soundbite of song, "Advance Australia Fair")

MONTAGNE: So is it all more or less sweetness and light, the "Advance Australia Fair" national anthem?

HOFFMAN: Yes, it's very sweet. And the one thing you have to say about most national anthems or national hymns is that the poetry is really bad.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about musical quality. I take it it's not the deciding factor in choosing an anthem or creating an anthem.

HOFFMAN: No. But there is one that's always cited, and justifiably so, as great music. It's the one national anthem I know that's actually by a great composer. The German national anthem was originally the Austrian national anthem. It was written by Joseph Haydn, and it was written originally as "God Save Franz the Kaiser," "Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser." He wrote it in 1797, and it's a beautiful, beautiful melody. It's just gorgeous.

(Soundbite of song, "Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser")

MONTAGNE: This is beautiful. If you don't know it, it's hard to imagine it as an anthem.

HOFFMAN: And what we're hearing is actually a Haydn string quartet. He used this tune later in one of his string quartets, which is known, in fact, as the Emperor string quartet. The Austrians used this national anthem. The Germans used it. The Germans had a problem with the lyrics, however, after World War II because the first stanza that used to be used by the Germans was Deutschland, Deutschland ├╝ber alles - Germany above all, above everything in the world.

Well, that didn't sit so well after World War II. They've kept the tune, but they used the third stanza, which starts: Unity and law and freedom for the German fatherland, etcetera, etcetera.

The Austrians actually dropped this melody and changed their national anthem after World War II.

MONTAGNE: Miles, let's go out on a national anthem that we're not likely to hear at the Summer Olympics.

HOFFMAN: Ah, okay. I'm going to make a rash prediction here, Renee. I'm really guessing that we're not going to see a lot of medals for the Principality of Monaco. Heaven knows I could be wrong, but I'm just guessing that this is not an anthem that we are going to hear a lot from Beijing. So why don't we listen to it now?

(Soundbite of Monaco National Anthem)

MONTAGNE: Miles, I am marching off now, but it's been a pleasure, as always, to speak to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: Thanks, Renee. You, too.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is a violist with the American Chamber Players and dean of the Petrie School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. You can hear these national anthems at the music section of our Web site, npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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