National anthems: a brief consideration

At the moment I’m listening to a lovely orchestral tone poem by Sibelius called “Finlandia,” which sets out the tune that became Finland’s national anthem.

Me, showing off a surprising bit of knowledge I had to double check on Wikipedia: Did you know Finland was part of Russia until it became an independent nation only in the 20th century? And look at what I bolded! Can we assume that “all adult citizens” included women?

From the late 12th century, Finland was an integral part of Sweden, a legacy reflected in the prevalence of the Swedish language and its official status. In the spirit of the notion of Adolf Ivar Arwidsson (1791–1858), “we are not Swedes, we do not want to become Russians, let us therefore be Finns”, the Finnish national identity started to become established. Nevertheless, in 1809, Finland was incorporated into the Russian Empire as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. In 1906, Finland became the second nation in the world to give the right to vote to all adult citizens and the first in the world to give all adult citizens the right to run for public office.[10][11] Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Finland declared itself independent.

In 1918, the fledgling state was divided by civil war, with the Bolshevik-leaning “Reds” supported by the equally new Soviet Russia, fighting the “Whites“, supported by the German Empire. After a brief attempt to establish a kingdom, the country became a republic. During World War II, the Soviet Union sought repeatedly to occupy Finland, with Finland losing parts of Karelia, Salla and Kuusamo, Petsamo and some islands, but retaining independence.

Uh-oh note: “…the Soviet Union sought repeatedly to occupy Finland…” But it’s OK, unlike Ukraine, Finland is a NATO member so I think it’s currently safe.

Anyway, “Finlandia” is a fine piece of music.

So I started thinking: Why didn’t America produce an anthem created by someone of the stature and gift of Sibelius, rather than settle for a British tune composed for what Wikipedia says was a “London club” but I’d always heard was a British pub’s drinking song. Club, pub. You can understand the confusion, especially if you thought about it after having had a couple of drinks.

Oh, and our anthem has lyrics written by a guy who was an amateur poet–no kidding–but a professional (brace yourselves) lawyer.

Plus, I can aver as an ex-singer “The Star Spangled Banner” is a bitch to sing. Except before football games, when you have the choral support of 80,000 other people, most of whom can’t sing but have had a few beers. (See above, re drinking.)

Did no one in charge of our whatever they are–symbols of governance?–think to ask Stephen Foster to write a new anthem? Although a Northerner, some of his antebellum lyrics make you groan in pain. Yet he did compose beautiful melodies.

How about Scott Joplin, one of America’s great composers?

John Phillip Sousa–can you imagine what kind of anthem he would have written for America?

If someone could adapt Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” as an anthem, I’d sing it wholeheartedly. (Depending on what key it’d be played in. My voice has shifted down over the years; I’m now sort of a tenor.)

I’d even be satisfied with Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America or Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, as long as they take out “god” and insert, oh, I don’t know. “I”? “We?”

Maybe after we wrest our democracy back from the Koch Bros--who are planning to amend the Constitution–we can re-consider the anthem business.

That’s my big thought for today.



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