The Best National Anthems: Special Olympic Edition

Okay, one more Olympic post…

Last fall I spent a couple of weeks attempting (with a big assist from my HIS354 Modern Europe students, and with tongue mostly in cheek) to determine the “best national anthem” — pointing out at least once or twice along the way that there’s really no objective way to determine such a thing, since any song can succeed very well as a nation’s anthem so long as enough members of the nation buy into it. Indeed, the serious (course-related) part of the exercise was to get my students to think about how national identity is constructed and reinforced through a cultural liturgy like the singing of an anthem at a sporting event.

Why it was only semi-serious is that I also factored in a silly set of quantitative factors to help narrow down from an initial set of fifteen or sixteen nominees, one of which was the performance of the nation’s athletes in the Winter and Summer Olympics. Here’s how I explained the rationale for such a consideration (again, tongue planted in cheek):

Flags at 2002 Winter Olympics
Licensed by Creative Commons (Dave O)

How well does an anthem move the members of its nation to strive for greatness? While it may be tempting to look to military performance as the best test of this category, I think I wisely steered clear of that path and instead looked at sports, since, if NBC Sports is to be believed, most world-class athletes are driven primarily by a desire to hear their nation’s anthem played as its flag is raised.

All of which has come to mind often during the ongoing London Olympics: not that NBC plays that many national anthems that didn’t finish #2 on my chart, but my national anthem posts started showing up with surprising frequency in my daily blog views report. (So far, ten of the nations I featured have had their anthem played at at least one medal ceremony.)

So I thought I’d go back to the well once more and offer some purely subjective impressions of the five songs that weren’t part of the 2011 “Best National Anthem” contest but have motivated the most victories (so far) at the 2012 Summer Olympics:

South Korea, “Aegukga

11 gold medals as of Monday night, August 6th

In writing about Brazil’s anthem (#5 last fall), I noted the lyrics’ emphasis on natural beauty (“almost like they were written by an early ecotourism agency”). Much the same is true of South Korea’s “Patriotic Hymn,” which conjures up a vision of piny mountains, flowing rivers, and hibiscus flowers resting beneath autumn moonlight. But among the pastoral images and patriotic but rather generic platitudes about resilience and loyalty are reminders that the lyric was written long before the post-WWII split of the Korean peninsula into two warring siblings. In the first verse, South Koreans ask God to “protect and preserve” their country “Until that day / when Mt. Baekdu’s worn away” — name-checking the highest point on the peninsula, which is found in North Korea. Verse three compares the moon “to our heart / Undivided and true.”

As for the tune… While the current music (adopted in 1948 when the Republic of Korea came into existence) is fine, I can’t quite get past the fact that, for the first half-century of its existence, the Korean anthem was sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”! And everyone needs to hear that collision of cultures at least once in their life, so…

Italy, “Il Canto degli Italiani

7 gold medals

“The Song of the” world’s foremost producers and enjoyers of opera is predictably awesome; its tune would easily make my top five “Most singable,” and that the words start in mid-song and are capped by a resounding “Si!” are nice touches. Indeed, the only reason I didn’t include it in my original “Best National Anthem” competition is that I was already devoting much of our Modern Europe unit on nationalism to the unification of Italy (and then to the emergence of the Italians as an “emigrant nation,” many of whose members no longer lived in Italy).

The anthem’s history is certainly bound up with the Risorgimento, as its words and music were written on the eve of the revolutions of 1848. Like its obvious model, the French “Marseillaise,” it takes aim at Austrian oppression (in the now-rarely sung verse three: “Mercenary swords, / they’re feeble reeds / The Austrian eagle / has already lost its plumes”) and calls all members of the nation to war (though the chorus’ boast of “We are ready to die / We are ready to die” is a little too on the nose for me — give me “To arms, citizens / Form your battalions” any day). And its first verse shows that Mussolini’s Fascists weren’t the only Italian nationalists to seek connections between modern-day Italia and ancient Rome (“Italy has woken, / Bound Scipio’s helmet / Upon her head”).

Kazakhstan, “Meniñ Qazaqstanim

6 gold medals

There’s not a lot to say about “My Kazakhstan” as a national anthem — it only dates back six years, and I suspect it’s still less famous than the mocking version from Borat (accidentally played earlier this year for a Kazakh gold medalist at a shooting competition). But then there’s the fact that the song itself was originally composed during the Soviet era, in 1956, to celebrate Nikita Khrushchev’s “Virgin Lands” campaign (“Sky of golden sun, / Steppe of golden seed, / Legend of courage – / Take a look at my country!”)…

Of course, Khrushchev’s attempt to increase the USSR’s arable land and jump-start its perennially underperforming agricultural sector (in part by harnessing the energies of hundreds of thousands of patriotic Young Communist volunteers) proved to be an embarrassing failure. So choosing a patriotic song about it half a century later as your national anthem seems akin to the USA suddenly deciding to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” with, I don’t know, a Lee Greenwood song trumpeting the virtues of James Watt-era strip mining.

Hungary, “Himnusz

4 gold medals

You’d never guess it from the legato strings (is “flowing like the Danube” too cheesy?) but the source text for this song is a poem subtitled “From the stormy centuries of the Hungarian people.” It’s a nice juxtaposition, though I suspect that the later verses (directly alluding to centuries of Christian-Muslim conflict in this part of Europe) aren’t performed all that often nowadays. Its Wikipedia entry describes “Himnusz” as having a “more solemn and dignified tone than many other lively national anthems.” And by comparison to the other European anthem on this list, it does sound solemn. But I think “dignified” is the more appropriate adjective, befitting a song known simply by the Hungarian word for “Hymn.” Indeed, the first verse frames the anthem as a prayer:

O, my God, the Magyar bless
With Thy plenty and good cheer!
With Thine aid his just cause press,
Where his foes to fight appear.

Interestingly, Hungary has what amounts to a de facto second national anthem, “Szózat.” I’m not sure it’s any more “lively,” but it features some drastic changes in dynamics and has a catchier (if trickier) melody.

North Korea, “Aegukka

4 gold medals

Yes, the same title as its southern neighbor/rival/sibling/mortal enemy (I’m sure the one letter difference is a matter of different transliteration — I’m no expert, but the Korean characters seem identical), but with a different tune and words. Though not so different a lyric as you might expect: it too emphasizes geographic landmarks and natural beauty, nodding ever so slightly to the difference in ideology (in the second verse, Mt. Baekdu becomes the “Nest for the spirit of labor”).

Frankly, I was astonished that the lyric didn’t run something more like this (try it to “Auld Lang Syne”):

O Kim Jong-un, like Kim Jong-il
And Kim Il-sung before
He is the greatest leader that
The world has ever known!

Oh sure, we’ve got no food
And yes, th’ economy’s a mess
But still there’s nowhere else
The Kims would ever let us live


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