The Best National Anthems: Also-Rans

As I discussed Monday, song is often seen as an integral part of the project of constructing a nation, what Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community.” So as my Modern Europe class spends a few days on the history of 19th century nationalism, I’m inspired to settle, once and for all, the question, “What’s the best national anthem?”

Today I’ll reveal the six national anthems (out of fifteen nominees) that couldn’t quite get momentum and transcend their finalist status. Then tomorrow we’ll look at three that came this close to getting out of the first round and so earned honorable mention status.

Read the Monday post for a complete explanation of my not exactly rigorous methodology. In brief, I used four criteria as a preliminary filter: to get from fifteen down to six that my students voted on. The criteria:

  • Has it stood the test of time? (number of years it’s been the official anthem)
  • Is it singable, but challenging enough not to be dull? (number of semitones in the range of the melody)
  • Does it inspire excellence? (percentage won of Olympic gold medals available in years the nation competed under the anthem; number of men’s and women’s soccer World Cups won under the anthem)
  • And intangibles that could nudge the first round score up or down a point

Without further ado, the six also-rans — from lowest score to highest…

Bangladesh, “Amar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal)”
Longevity: since 1972
Singability: ranges from B3-F5 (C4 = middle C)
Inspiration: 0% of Olympic golds won; 0 World Cups won

Our South Asian representative has several things going against it: Bangladesh hasn’t been a country that long, and it’s so impoverished that there’s not a lot of money and infrastructure for developing internationally successful athletes. (Even in its most popular sport, Bangladesh has a Cricket World Cup record of only 8-17.) But that doesn’t excuse picking a melody that’s more challenging than all but two countries on my list (hint: they fought a Cold War). According to The Guardian the tune is attractive, but odd: “A wonderful anthem that sounds like it was written for a stroll along the Seine. It really needs Jacques Brel. Which is probably not what composer Rabindranath Tagore had in mind.” (Tagore, by the way, also wrote neighboring India’s national anthem, making him the only composer with two such songs to his credit.)

South Africa, “National Anthem of South Africa”
Longevity: since 1996
Singability: ranges from A3-D5
Inspiration: 0.1% of Olympic golds won; 0 World Cups won

South Africa’s rather unusual anthem is held back by similar factors (newness; fairly challenging range — it actually changes key halfway through, for reasons I’ll give soon; lack of sporting success). But it has a couple of intangibles going for it. First, it inspired the Springboks to take the 2007 Rugby World Cup. They also won (as host) in 1995, in a thrilling match documented in the Morgan Freeman/Matt Damon film, Invictus (and the superior book by John Carlin that inspired the movie). That predated this anthem becoming official, but the song is tied to the 1995 victory. It is composed of two separate anthems: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“Lord Bless Africa”), a Xhosa song that was used by the ANC during the apartheid years and is also the national anthem of Tanzania and Zambia; and the apartheid era anthem, “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” (“The Call of South Africa”), that was as cherished by conservative Afrikaners as it was detested by black and colored South Africans. But at the instigation of President Nelson Mandela (who advised his ANC colleagues that “You don’t address [the Afrikaners’] brains, you address their hearts”), both songs were used as co-anthems after the advent of multicultural South Africa (the 1995 rugby team made a point of singing both) and then a hybrid version was adopted in 1996. So, while it’s too new to rise far in these rankings, keep your eye on it for the 2021 edition of this blog’s national anthem rankings.

Turkey (and Northern Cyprus), “Istiklal Marsi (Independence March)”
Longevity: since 1921
Singability: ranges from A#3-E5
Inspiration: 0.9% of Olympic golds won; 0 World Cups won

Turkey’s 37 Olympic gold medals (many in wrestling) and the relative antiquity of its anthem (ranked in the top ten by the soccer writers at Goal.com) help push it just above South Africa. The winner of a competition that took place even before the creation of the modern Turkish nation-state was yet accomplished (in this region, World War I continued for several years), “Independence March” borrows a trick from the United States: one nationalist symbol (the anthem) extolls another (the flag). (“Fear not! For the crimson flag that proudly ripples in this glorious twilight, shall never fade, / Before the last fiery hearth that is ablaze within my nation is extinguished.”) I like the first line of the second verse even better, telling the flag’s “coy crescent” not to frown.

Nigeria, “Arise, O Compatriots”
Longevity: since 1978
Singability: ranges from C4-D5
Inspiration: 0.1% of Olympic golds won; 0 World Cups won

Adopted to replace “Nigeria We Hail Thee” (the post-independence anthem) after the country went through years of civil war, “Arise, O Compatriots” ranks this highly almost entirely on the basis of its fitting the optimal range for a national anthem: a major 9th interval — not too high, not too low, and not so easy that it doesn’t cause those singing to throw themselves into it. It also has a couple of other things going for it. First, like Turkey’s, this anthem’s lyrics resulted from a competition; but instead of picking one lyric, the organizers pasted together fragments of five different entries, showing that while democracy has had a checkered history in Nigerian politics, it’s alive and well in its anthem. Second, as The Guardian points out, what “should be an awful march” is redeemed by “relentless afrobeat percussion, which makes any tune outstanding.” Having Beyoncé sing it also helps…

Canada, “O Canada”
Longevity: de facto anthem since 1939
Singability: ranges from F4-F5
Inspiration: 2.2% of Olympic golds won; 0 World Cups won

The relatively low ranking for the True North (“strong and free!”) bothers me enough that I almost scrapped the whole system and started over. Now, I’ll admit that my love for “O Canada” is warped by the fact that my wife and I (home-bound and sleep-deprived with three-month old twins) spent a lot of time watching the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, when the anthem was played an unprecedented fourteen times. But I think any semi-serious observer of national anthems will admit that this is a good one: close to the ideal range, moving seamlessly between two languages, and (as anyone who watches international or north-of-the-border NHL hockey knows) unparalleled in its ability to inspire fans and athletes (though only in a handful of sports, and you can only win so many gold medals for hockey and curling — two each per Olympiad — and lacrosse — none). But while its origins date to the late 19th century, it didn’t actually become the official national anthem until 1980. I’m cheating a bit here by using the de facto date to calculate the longevity score. All in all, I’ll play this one under protest, since I was just too lazy to tweak and improve my system. Consistency is indeed the hobgoblin of small minds, least when it comes to something as important as ranking national anthems.

Greece (and Cyprus), “Hymn to Liberty”
Longevity: since 1865
Singability: ranges from F4-F5
Inspiration: 0.6% of Olympic golds won; 0 World Cups won

Basically in a dead heat with “O Canada” is this incredibly lengthy anthem (158 — !!!! — verses, written during the Greek nationalist uprising against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s). Identical in range to the Canadian anthem, the Greek one has the more spry melody. (It never fails to make me think of The Guns of Navarone, which is a good thing.) The near-total lack of Greek athletic success past the first modern Olympiad (Athens, 1896) holds “Hymn to Liberty” back, though it recoups a point as the only national anthem played at every Olympics, regardless of the outcome of any event.

Tomorrow: three honorable mentions. Then the top six will start counting down on Friday!

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