Were we singing with the enemy?

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On Saturday, on Radio 3's Jazz Record Requests, presenter Geoffrey Smith played a Ruby Braff recording of a hymn-like theme called "America the Beautiful". Just before putting the record on, Smith said that it was a fine tune and one that many Americans would prefer to have as the national song instead of "The Star-Spangled Banner".

He may well be right. As a foreigner, though, one should not really pass judgment on other people's anthems. I don't know "The Star-Spangled Banner" that well, but I don't think I would actually like to stand for it, fight for it or let a lump come into my throat for it. About all you can say for it is that it is at least better than our national anthem.

At least, so my music teacher at school would have said. He let me learn to play the set of variations which Beethoven wrote on our national anthem. When I played them through one day, he said quite unexpectedly: "I can't think what possessed Beethoven to waste his time writing variations on such a wretched tune."

I was taken aback at the time by his scorn for our national anthem. Until that time, I had just accepted it as a tune which you either stood for or went running out of the cinema for. It never occurred to me that it might be looked down on, musically speaking, but thereafter I couldn't help feeling that he was right. The tune is stodgy and funereal, and it doesn't help it much being a very slow waltz rather than a march. (Not even "Waltzing Matilda" is a waltz.) The words are dire as well. You can't help wondering if many countries wanted to leave the British Empire as much as anything in order to get away from the dreary task of singing our national anthem.

The trouble is that most other anthems are not much better. Or at least they weren't a hundred years ago. I know this because in a bound volume of Victorian piano music which has been knocking around our house for many years, there is a section called "National Anthems and Patriotic Airs Of All Nations". It is published by Metzler of 42 Great Marlborough Street and it must go back to Victorian days because our own anthem is listed as "God Save the Queen".

The book contains lots of surprises, one of them being that America's first song is given, not as "The Star-Spangled Banner" (that comes in at No 2) but "Hail Columbia!".

Another is that Austria's anthem has the tune of "Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles " and is entitled "God Preserve the Emperor", whereas the title of the anthem of the German Empire is "Heil Dir Im Siegerkranz" but the tune is exactly the same as that of "God Save the Queen".

Can this be true? Did we and the Germans have the same tune as our anthem? And if so, did this not cause some confusion at patriotic moments, especially battles? When the German Empire played the British Empire at football, did they play the same anthem twice before the match, or just once, with both sides singing different words?

And what happened if either nation met Norway at football? This question has to be asked because under Norway they give no music at all, just the cryptic note: "Norway National Anthem - the same as for Great Britain and Ireland".

Can this be true? The whole point of having a national anthem is that it is a national anthem, not someone else's borrowed song.

The longest in the book is the Japanese anthem, "Fou So Ka", which goes on for nearly three pages, as compared to ours, only two lines long. The best one, I think is the French anthem, but I have always liked the Marseillaise best since I heard the jazz version by Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, recorded when they reunited after the war.

The French anthem is the only one named after a woman from Marseille. Several of them mention emperors and kings and queens in their title, of course, but only one specifies him by name: the Danish National Anthem is entitled: "Kong Christian Stod Vor Hozen Mast".

Does this mean " King Christian Stood Before the Mast"? It seems odd to have a nautical tale in an anthem. But it does seem to confirm Alan Coren's story, which I had never believed until now, that the Danish word for "king" is "kong" and that therefore the film "King Kong" is known in Denmark as "Kong King".

This article, I have just remembered, was going to be a passionate plea for a new national anthem, funded by a big pay-out from the National Lottery, but once you get out an old volume of anthems, it's hard not to be sidetracked. Incidentally, can it be true that Switzerland also shared the anthem of the German Empire? Seems hard to believe.

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