The Best National Anthems: Honorable Mentions

Today we get closer to settling, once and for all, the question, “What’s the best national anthem?”

On Monday I explained how this series stemmed from an exploration of 19th century European nationalism in my Modern Europe course. Yesterday I revealed six national anthems that didn’t really come close to making the cut for our six finalists. Today: three anthems that did come close, but fell just short of moving on to be ranked by my students.

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 three honorable mentions — from lowest score to highest:

Uruguay, “National Anthem of Uruguay”
Longevity: lyrics first adopted in 1833; music in 1845
Singability: ranges from Bb3-D5 (C4 = middle C)
Inspiration: 0.2% of Olympic golds won; 2 World Cups won (1930, 1950)

One of two South American anthems to make the top nine, Uruguay’s is the longest such song in the world: taking something like five or six minutes to perform. It scores well in most categories: remaining the nation’s anthem almost since the adoption of the constitution in 1830; very close to the ideal vocal range; and while Uruguay’s mere two Olympic gold medals hold it back from entering the finalist category, its two men’s World Cup victories (raise your hand if you knew Uruguay had as many titles as England and France combined) make it a close call. Hard to tell how my students would have reacted to it had made it into the final six. The Guardian (in an article on “best national anthems” preceding the 2008 Olympics) was enthusiastic: “One of the most euphoric pieces of classical music I’ve ever heard. Banks of trumpets play crescendos to false endings – for five minutes. But somehow it works.” But its lyrics… Well, maybe it works better in Spanish, but check out the “long version” English translation — it’s like a free association poem about South American history. Good luck memorizing those words. (Though, to be fair, every member of Uruguay’s 2010 World Cup team seemed to know them in the clip below; note that the lyrics don’t start until 0:50.)

Russia, “National Anthem of the Russian Federation”
Longevity: since 1944, except for the 1990s
Singability: ranges from C4-A5
Inspiration: 20.0% of Olympic golds won; 0 World Cups won

Wow – where to start with this one… On the plus side: under this anthem, Russia (or, until the 1992 Olympics, the Soviet Union, which used it as of WWII) has won one out of every five Olympic gold medals available, the best such figure in history. judged it the world’s best national anthem. A stirring rendition even shows up in the film adaptation of Hunt for Red October. After being temporarily shelved following the Soviet collapse, it was brought back by popular demand. (Its replacement had no words, and according to the Wikipedia page linked above, failed “to inspire Russian athletes during international competitions” — in case you think my Olympics obsession irrelevant.) On the other hand… First, I tend to look down on national anthems that don’t even have real titles, since it suggests the lyrics are so bland or generic that they can’t even yield a distinctive refrain or first line. (Wikipedia again: “A 2009 poll showed that 56% of respondents felt proud when hearing the anthem, and 81% liked it. Despite this positive perception, many people cannot remember the lyrics.”) Second, its range makes it borderline unsingable. The version I saw ended with a desperate reach for the high A; I’ve also seen an arrangement that gets no higher than F, which would still make the anthem about as hard to sing as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Third, I’m disinclined to honor any anthem that was (a) used by the Soviet Union and (b) brought back on orders of Vladimir Putin.

China, “The March of the Volunteers”
Longevity: de facto since 1949 (except for 1966-1978)
Singability: ranges from D4-E5
Inspiration: 7.1% of Olympic golds won; 0 World Cups won

Like Canada’s, this anthem wasn’t really given official status until the 1980s, though its origins went back to the 1930s and it was used from the beginning of the People’s Republic in 1949. (Except during portions of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when the author fell under suspicion.) Like the anthems of Nigeria and three of our final six, the singing range here is ideal: a major ninth. And while it is not used by Taiwan, the original lyrics contain no reference to Communism and were long used by Nationalists. And for bonus cool points, here’s the great singer/actor/athlete/activist/Stalin apologist Paul Robeson singing “March of the Volunteers” in Chinese.

Tomorrow we’ll reach the finalists, starting with the 6th best national anthem in the world!

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