The Best National Anthems: The UK

Getting closer to revealing the best national anthem… Before we get to #4, let’s recap the top ten so far:

10. Greece, “Hymn to Liberty”
9. Uruguay, “National Anthem of Uruguay”
8. Russia, “National Anthem of the Russian Federation”
7. China, “Song of the Volunteers”
6. Japan, “Kimigayo”
5. Brazil, “The Brazilian National Anthem”

If you’re just joining us, the ranking methodology consists of two parts: first, taking fifteen nominees and awarding points according to longevity, singability, inspirational quality, and intangibles (which will be very important today); then a subjective ranking of the top six by my Modern Europe students. All of which produces this, the 4th greatest national anthem:

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, “God Save the Queen
Longevity: in use since 1745
Singability: ranges from E4-D5 (C4 = middle C)
Inspiration: 4.1% of Olympic golds won; 1 men’s World Cup won (1966)
Student Ranking (number ranking it 1st/2nd/3rd/etc.): 2/1/4/5/1/2

Narrowly edging out China’s “March of the Volunteers” for the final spot in our top six, “GSTQ” (or “GSTK,” once Charles or Wills takes over) benefited from its unparalleled longevity and several intangible advantages to overcome the oft uninspired performances of British athletes and the song’s too-easy range (not even an octave — though, to be fair, one of its 1st place voters among my students found that an advantage, arguing that the song could “be sung reasonably well by a large crowd of people with different vocal ranges”).

First, it’s to the song’s credit that its tune is simple and flexible enough to have been adapted or at least cribbed by countless famous musicians (perhaps most famously, Beethoven, in tribute to Wellington, or the Beatles, during their rooftop concert). Moreover, it’s been the tune for national or royal anthems in Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the old kingdom of Hawaii, and remains the tune for the anthem of Liechtenstein and the alternative American anthem, “America” (“My country ’tis of thee / Sweet land of liberty”). It remains in use in several Commonwealth nations (e.g., Australia, Canada, New Zealand) during visits by the royal family.

So “GSTQ” is the rare national anthem that transcends its nation, though (like Japan’s “Kimigayo”) it may seem odd for a nation‘s anthem to ask a particular blessing for a single person. And, indeed, it’s not used as the anthem of the constituent nations of Great Britain during certain sporting competitions, as Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and even English alternatives sometimes get played. One of my students pointed in this direction in explaining why she voted the song the worst of the six finalists:

Although “God Save the Queen” is an accessible tune and carries with it a tremendous amount of English history, I think that it is also a less relevant anthem than that of many other nations. For one thing, it is meant to extend to a Commonwealth and not merely one nation. The fact that Scotland and [Northern] Ireland sometimes have different songs played for them at sporting events, for example, seems to suggest that there is a lack of unity behind it. Also, even though it is similar to the Japanese anthem in that they both refer to monarchical authority, the British anthem does not seem to capture the identity and culture of the United Kingdom as well as the Japanese anthem does for Japan. It appears limited in its meaning, perhaps because of the scope of its lyrics. To be honest, and apart from the idea that anthems reflect a sense of nationalism, I simply do not like the song very well.

In the Olympics, non-English athletes hear “GSTQ” on the now-rare occasions when Britain wins gold, but elsewhere even England teams occasionally use “Land of Hope and Glory” or “Jerusalem” instead of the royal anthem.

A second intangible benefit pushing “God Save the Queen” up in my estimation is its lyric. Not so much the first verse (half the lines end with the same word!), though my two students who ranked it tops both liked the song’s “constant call for God’s favor.” But this is the rare anthem whose verses don’t get demonstrably worse as the song goes on. (As opposed to, say, the American anthem, which gets into awkward lyrical territory around the third verse.)

Here’s the second verse of “GSTQ,” which just… Well, it makes me smile:

O Lord, our God, arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all.

Now, I struggle with the imprecatory psalms, and those are inspired and authoritative scriptures. So let’s just skip over those first three lines and savor the blissfully silly lines 4-6. Bravo, “composer unknown,” on rhyming “politics/tricks/fix” and making sure that “knavish” doesn’t totally disappear from common parlance. Huzzah!
Incidentally, I imagine that people in Uganda say “knavish” (and “huzzah”) all the time, even if they no longer ask the Almighty to frustrate such tricks by the enemies of an elderly Englishwoman named Elizabeth. According to a recent Facebook post from one of my former students, currently living in that part of East Africa, Ugandans regularly use 18th century words not commonly heard in the States: e.g., avail, hereby, whereby.
Tomorrow: we remain in Europe for #3 on our countdown.
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