National airs and graces

One of the side discussions during the Scottish independence referendum held last month focused on what that country’s national anthem might be, should the majority vote to separate from the United Kingdom. Following the outcome of the referendum, the question became redundant. It got me thinking, however, about the anthems of three European nations in particular—Britain, France and Germany—and how they keep popping up in works by classical composers.

UK150 France150 germany150

If you need a reminder as to how they sound, click on the country’s name to activate the audio link:

Britain (8.225357)
France (8.225357)
Germany (8.225357)

liberty-leading-peopleFrance’s national anthem, La Marseilleise, carries the most violent backdrop of the three: it was written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792, when the French Revolutionary Wars were beginning their ten-year rage, which accounts for its marching fervour.

Some sixty years later, Schumann used the melody to evoke the troubles of the time in his overture Hermann and Dorothea (8.550608). Written in response to Goethe’s epic poem of the same title, the anthem’s strains set the scene in the opening bars: Hermann, the son of a Rhineland inn-keeper, has fallen in love with Dorothea, a penniless girl caught in the shock waves of the French Revolution. Love conquers all, however, and the pair end up happily betrothed.

The German Schumann made a more enigmatic reference to the French melody in his Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Carnival in Vienna) (8.550783) for solo piano, written in 1839. The tune suddenly appears halfway through the first movement, unadulterated except for its unlikely transition into waltz time.

Debussy inserted a snippet of the French anthem at the end of Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) (8.553293) for piano solo, rounding off the spectacular keyboard fireworks in a ruminating puff of smoke.

brittaniaNational anthems are sometimes brought into conflict with each other. British composer Edward Elgar used the opening of La britannia Marseilleise in his cantata The Music Makers (8.557710), but you’ll need to have your ears cocked to spot it when the chorus declaim “We fashion an empire’s glory”; even more so to discern Rule Britannia which Elgar cheekily slips in at the same time. Test your perception skills by listening to this extract:

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory.

duke-wellingtonThe conflict is less subtle in Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory (8.550230) which graphically depicts the British general’s defeat of Joseph Bonaparte at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain in 1813, ending with this victorious reference to the British national anthem, God Save the Queen (or King, depending on the monarch of the day).

Beethoven had a certain fascination with the British air, having composed a set of Seven Variations on God Save the King (8.554372) in 1803. Here’s the bombastic Variation IV. Interestingly, in the same year, and clearly with a similar eye on financial gain from the amateur market, he had also written Five Variations on Rule Britannia (8.554372).

francis-iiThe German national anthem had its roots in the tune Haydn famously used in his Emperor String Quartet. He had been impressed on hearing the British national anthem during a visit to London in 1794 and returned to compose God Save Emperor Francis to celebrate the birthday of the Last Holy Roman Emperor. After the demise of the empire, it became the Austrian Empire’s national song, before ultimately becoming the German national anthem. Haydn wrote variations on the melody not only for his celebrated string quartet, but also a sedate set for piano (8.554372). Here’s the First Variation.

It’s a long journey from those laid-back sounds to how the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók used the tune in his tone poem Kossuth (8.573307) to represent the Austrian oppressors of his country. This is the composer’s summary of the piece:

Lajos-Kossuth1848 is a celebrated year in Hungarian history. Led by Lajos Kossuth, the nation fought for liberty from the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty. But Russia intervened and vanquished our army. The Hungarian nation appeared lost forever. Those events inspired this symphonic poem, and each section bears a descriptive title.

Bartók described the eighth section as follows:

“VIII. Enemy troops approach—Hungary is vanquished with terrible vengeance.”

Today’s final audio clip describes that dramatic scene.

And, after that colourful sample of the turmoils that took place in Europe in the nineteenth century and beyond, we end on a reminder that today officially marks United Nations Day.

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