An Olympian challenge: To record all 205 national anthems

That was the task set for the London Philharmonic in time for next year's Games. Adam Sherwin hears the results

It's been an epic musical journey, beginning in Afghanistan in April and concluding with Zimbabwe. The London Philharmonic Orchestra has finally recorded the last of the 205 national anthems to be played at the medal and welcoming ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics.

But the Arab Spring means the work, which ended at Abbey Road Studios yesterday afternoon, may be revisited. Libya's National Transitional Council has replaced the nation's Gaddafi-venerating anthem, while a new country, South Sudan, came into existence halfway through the sessions.

The musical marathon has taken 50 recording hours, with the LPO performing each anthem under the tutelage of composer and conductor Philip Sheppard. "I'll be perfectly happy not to hear another anthem for a long time," he admitted.

The orchestra's 36 musicians had just 12 minutes to sight read and master each anthem. Mr Sheppard had to track down recordings of some more obscure works himself.

"I actually hadn't heard of Bhutan and the only version of their anthem (Druk tsendhen –The Thunder Dragon Kingdom). All I could find was a field recording of a man singing it in a temple," he said.

Each version must be approved by the nation's sporting associations, forcing the arranger to keep a wary eye on the recent global instability.

Libya's NTC moved swiftly to replace the anthem introduced by Muammar Gaddafi, Allahu Akhbar, ("God is greatest above plots of the aggressors") and restore Libya, Libya, Libya, the anthem which marked the nation's independence in 1951 and which was used until the 1969 coup.

"The majority of anthems are about the country but Libya's was associated directly with Gaddafi," Mr Sheppard said. "It doesn't reflect the new government. I suspect Libya won't be the only nation that we have to find a way to accommodate. We can change the anthems if someone writes us a cheque to go back in the studio."

The LPO is waiting to learn the sporting aspirations of South Sudan. "I don't believe they have applied for the Olympic status yet," said Mr Sheppard.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is relying on the LPO to avoid diplomatic gaffes. "There have been occasions where the wrong anthem has been played when two countries have been at war with each other," the composer said.

Anthems have been recorded alphabetically to reduce chances of a nation being overlooked. "We have been very careful; there are three different countries with the name Congo. We started with Afghanistan and we end with Zimbabwe."

Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, recently complained that the British anthem was too short compared to those of other nations, which allows non-UK winners to savour their podium triumph for that little bit longer.

Mr Sheppard said the most difficult anthems to bring something unique to are God Save The Queen and La Marseillaise because they are so familiar to most people. The longest anthem is Uruguay's, which he tried in vain, to shorten.

"It runs to seven minutes and has seven different tunes. It's as if they couldn't decide which one to go with. I tried to chop it into bits," he said.

Even the smallest nations, who have little hope of winning a medal, will enjoy their moment of national pride.

Their anthem will be aired at the welcoming ceremony and at their arrival at the Olympic Village.

Mr Sheppard, a film soundtrack composer, admits the process of getting a thumbs-up for each of the recordings has been frustrating.

The LPO had to gain copyright approval for 80 anthems. "It's like having 205 film executive producers looking over your shoulder," Mr Sheppard said.

The London games are the first where one company, Universal Music, will write, record and publish all original music surrounding the sporting event.

The first official release, a Torch Relay song performed by Tinchy Stryder and Dionne Bromfield, Amy Winehouse's goddaughter, is being released today.

Tom Fletcher of McFly has written an Olympics' mascot theme. However Universal has no plans to compile the ultimate album of 205 national anthems. Such a release could swiftly be overtaken by global events.

Longest: Uruguay has the edge when performed but in lyrical terms Greece's "Hymn to Liberty" is the most elongated. An 1823 poem by Dionysios Solomos, it runs to 158 stanzas. Only the first three and last two are usually played.

Shortest: "Oh, Uganda Land of Beauty" runs to just eight bars. All three verses are performed at international football matches.

Blank page: Cyprus has no anthem, preferring to sing that of Greece. Afghanistan went without from 1999 to 2002, when the Taliban imposed a ban on music.

Oldest: Although "God Save the King/Queen" first established the notion of national anthems in the early 18th century, Japan's Kimigayo uses 9th century poetry.

One hit wonder: Somaliland's new wordless national anthem was played on the nation's independence day, 26 June 1960. But only five days later the new nation merged with the former Italian Somaliland, to become Somalia, and the wordless anthem was duly scrapped.

Least vocal: Spain's "La Marcha Real" has no words. Several attempts to introduce words have failed as many Spaniards more closely associate with their regions than with the nation as a whole.

Most familiar: Liechtenstein's "Oben amjungen Rhein" (Up Above the Young Rhine) is sung to the same tune as "God Save The Queen".

... And the best (or worst) of the lyrics

Uruguay

Liberty, Liberty, Orientals.

This is the outcry which our nation saved and its braves in fierce battles of sublime enthusiasm enflamed

This Holy gift of Glory we deserved

Tyrants: Tremble !

Tyrants: Tremble !

Tyrants: Tremble !



Algeria

When we spoke, nobody listened to us,

So we have taken the noise of gunpowder as our rhythm,

And the sound of machine guns as our melody,

We are determined that Algeria should live.



Bolivia

This land is free, free at last.

Its servile state has now finally ceased.

The martial turmoil of yesterday,

and the horrible clamour of war,

are followed today, in harmonious contrast,

by sweet hymns of peace and unity.



Columbia

In agony, the Virgin

Tears out her hair,

and bereft of her love,

leaves it to hang on a cypress.

Regretting her hope

is covered by a cold headstone,

but glorious pride

hallows her fair skin.



Hungary

Anger gathered in Your bosom

And You struck with Your lightning

From Your thundering clouds

Now the plundering Mongols'



Mexico

Fatherland, before your children become unarmed

Beneath the yoke their necks in sway,

May your countryside be watered with blood,

On blood their feet trample.



Burkina Faso

Against the humiliating bondage of a thousand years

Rapacity came from afar to subjugate them for a hundred years.

Against the cynical malice in the shape

Of neo-colonialism and its petty local servants.



Peru

For a long time the Peruvian, oppressed,

Dragged the ominous chain;

Condemned to cruel serfdom,

For a long time, for a long time, for a long time he moaned in silence.

But as soon as the sacred cry

"Liberty!" was heard on its coasts,

he shook off the indolence of slavery,

the humiliated, the humiliated

the humiliated neck he raised

the humiliated neck he raised

the neck he raised!



Republic of Tuva

When I walk in my forest

I will always be satisfied

Because my forest is rich with

animals and everything I need.



Republic of Kazakhstan

While honouring our mothers and respecting

The cream of cream of our rising nation

We welcomed all ill-starred and struck by ruin.

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