National Anthems as Raw Material for Classical Compositions

The Rio Olympics will once again put national anthems in the spotlight, as winning athletes stand on the medal podium to hear their country’s song played over loudspeakers while their respective flag is hoisted above. The medal ceremonies can make for great television, though if past games are a precedent, American viewers will hear lots of the U.S. national anthem, to the exclusion of other countries.

But whether it’s the Olympics or more fraught issues like the European refugee crisis, nationalistic sentiments are dominating headlines, a fact that lays the groundwork for a new recording by New York composer David Lang. It features The National Anthems, a 24-minute composition made from anthem snippets taken from each of the 193 member states of the United Nations. Lang says that the 2014 piece, which is performed by the L.A. Master Chorale and the Calder Quartet, started as an effort to create “a kind of meta-anthem of the things that we all share.”

But as the composer began to write the piece, he found that “within almost every anthem is a bloody, war-like, tragic core, in which we cover up our deep fears of losing our freedoms with waves of aggression and bravado.” Yet not wanting to write an angry, morose composition, Lang drew on a larger realization. “Hiding in every national anthem,” he said, “is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose.”

The piece makes its points quietly and without obvious political drum-beating. Reviewing the work’s premiere, Los Angeles Times classical music critic Mark Swed observed, “It is a surprisingly sad text, and the setting for a small chorus and string quartet is hauntingly effective with vocal lines intoned on few pitches over a narrow range.”

Anthemic Sounds

Lang isn’t the first composer to use national anthems as raw material. Famous examples include “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly or “La Marseillaise” in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Then there’s Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen (Anthems), a four-channel electronic composition based on 40 of the world’s national anthems. Composed in 1966-67, today it can feel somewhat dated – a bit like twiddling the nobs on a shortwave radio. But it had a utopian aim, a “Hymunion in Harmondie Inter Pluramon,” as Stockhausen put it.

Listen to a portion below.


Top Photo: Medalists from the U.S., Italy and Korea at the Team Archery Final on Day 1 of the London 2012 Olympic Games (Wikipedia Commons)

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