Olympics 2012: The secrets behind national anthems


They are songs of pride and patriotism, booming out at every international sporting fixture and medal ceremony. But behind the world's national anthems lurk some strange and surprising stories, finds Alex Marshall.

From revolution to risque

image captionClaude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (centre) wrote the Marseillaise in matter of hours

Thanks to its rousing tune, France's La Marseillaise is one of the world's most recognisable anthems.

After it was written in 1792, the song quickly spread across Europe, inspiring revolutionaries from Greece to Russia. It has even been part of recent uprisings. It was sung at the Tiananmen Square protests in China.

media captionListen to the French anthem

Unfortunately, its composer never managed a similar level of success. Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle wrote La Marseillaise in just a few feverish hours, after being asked for a song to inspire French troops preparing for war against Austria.

But over the next 44 years of his life, he never managed another memorable tune.

At one point, he even turned to writing somewhat bawdy lyrics, presumably because he was so desperate for money.

If you visit his museum in the town of Lons-le-Saunier in eastern France, you can see one of those songs on display. Unsurprisingly, half the words are hidden from view in case children are passing.

Same song, different country

image captionThe UK's national anthem - not be to be confused with Liechtenstein's

God Save the Queen, published in 1745, became the first recognised anthem when it was adopted by what was then the Kingdom of Great Britain.

The tune became so associated with nationalism it was soon used by other countries for their anthems too, just with different words.

Liechtenstein still uses it today for its anthem Oben am jungen Rhein (Above the young Rhine). This has led to a degree of confusion when Liechtenstein have played England at football.

media captionListen to the Liechtenstein anthem - which may sound rather familiar

You could criticise Liechtensteiners for not having the imagination to come up with their own song.

But then you would also need to criticise the many countries that have taken inspiration from the tune of La Marseillaise for their anthem. Oman and Zimbabwe are two such examples.

A poor man's game

How much do you get paid for writing an anthem, a song that could be played for hundreds of years? Not much, and that is if you are lucky.

George Kakoma, the composer of Uganda's anthem, sued his government for lost royalties shortly before his death. In 1962, he was paid 2,000 Ugandan shillings for the anthem, or just 50p (US78c).

Dusan Sestic, the man behind Bosnia's somewhat sad anthem, did slightly better with 6,000 Bosnian marks (£2,500). He also wrote lyrics for the anthem. However, he'll never be paid for those as, in July, the Bosnian parliament decided to reject them after several years of debate.

Mido Samuel, the composer of the world's newest anthem - South Sudan's - earned nothing except pride for his effort.

Forced silence

media captionListen to the Spanish anthem

Spain's anthem - originally a fanfare for the country's royal family - is famous for having no words. But there are several more without them.

Kosovo's does not have any because the government decided it could not risk offending Serbs who live in the country by having lyrics in Albanian (the language of the majority). What this actually means is that many in Kosovo ignore the song and sing the Albanian or Serbian anthems instead.

Maoist manifestos

media captionListen to Nepal's anthem

If you listen to Nepal's anthem, you would come away thinking it is just a gentle folk tune with lyrics about how all Nepalis are "woven from hundreds of flowers" into one garland. But, in reality, it is one of the most political.

It was written in 2006, at the end of a 10-year civil war and a Maoist-led uprising against the country's king.

The stormy atmosphere at the time goes some way to explaining the treatment of Byakul Maila, the poet who wrote the words.

He had to undergo interviews to prove he was not a royalist, while officials and journalists combed through his background and interviewed friends and family. It sounds almost like he was on trial. His mistake? He had once edited a book of poetry that contained a contribution from the former king.

Some of the Maoists now running the country would still prefer to have a stronger, more revolutionary song as their anthem. During the civil war, they sang the left-wing anthem The Internationale.

Missing verses

media captionListen to Argentina's anthem

Most anthems were originally very long, featuring six or more verses. Today, only a couple are likely to be sung. But the missing verses are often the most revealing about the history of a country.

Just take a look at the full anthems of South American countries. In those, you can see just how happy the countries were to be free of Spanish rule. In Argentina's, the Spanish get called everything from "bloody tyrants" to "vile invaders" who "devour like wild animals" anyone in their path.

In 1900, those lines stopped being sung to avoid causing offence.

100 million record sales and counting

If you read the list of people involved in anthems, three names stick out - Mozart, who wrote Austria's, Haydn, who wrote Germany's, and Lord Burgess, a calypso singer from New York who happened to write that of Barbados.

Most people probably don't know the name. But he has sold over 100 million records. Admittedly, only about 10 of those were under his own name, but he was the songwriter behind Harry Belafonte's greatest successes, including his version of Day-O and Island in the Sun.

He wrote the lyrics to Barbados' anthem simply because he happened to be on holiday in the country once and some people asked him to. There is a lesson in that story for any country looking for a new anthem - invite Coldplay to visit, and then politely harass them when they arrive.

image captionSome of Harry Belafonte's most well-known songs were penned by the author of Barbados' national anthem

Set to get longer

If anything is going to happen to anthems over the next 10 years, they are going to get longer as people look to make the songs more inclusive. In Israel, for example, there have been calls to change the anthem Hatikvah so it includes the country's Arab population as well as the Jewish one.

But it is hard to see how longer anthems will be accommodated. Under Olympic rules, anthems cannot last longer than 80 seconds so any new words would be in danger of not being sung.

Alex Marshall is writing a book about the composers of national anthems.