Teaching children to sing and play their country's national anthem—and those of other nations—can be a fun, effective musical lesson. National anthems can also serve as an effective means of connection between the arts and studies in geography and culture, at a time when educators are realizing the value of helping students build bridges between subjects.
Enriching the music curriculum through cultural geography
In units on patriotic songs, teachers have come up with rich curricula on the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and many other national anthems. Information on some of these is available through the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). The organization offers links to repositories of vocal and instrumental performances of these anthems, as well as sheet music and background summaries on hundreds of current and historic anthems.
In addition, several publishers offer engaging books for children explaining the origins and importance of national anthems. Also widely available are books for all ages containing sheet music of the world’s anthems. The book National Anthems from Around the World, prepared by well-known music publisher Hal Leonard, LLC, is just one example.
Thanks to the internet, recordings of these anthems in their original languages are only a few clicks away. Several versions are accessible on YouTube and Spotify. Public libraries are another rich—and free—source for streaming versions of the world’s national anthems.
Music is a truly universal language. On the other hand, a country’s national anthem presents its people’s viewpoint on their history and their hopes for the future. Let's take a look at a few contemporary national anthems and learn how the stories they tell demonstrate both the diversity and common experiences of the world’s peoples.
A poignant reflection on war
While it's notoriously difficult to sing well, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had become a time-tested American institution even before it became the country’s official anthem in 1931. President Herbert Hoover signed the congressional resolution declaring the song’s historic status on March 3 of that year.
Francis Scott Key famously wrote the words as a poem on September 14, 1814. Key drew inspiration from his sighting of a single American flag still flying over Fort McHenry in Maryland as the fort sustained British bombardment during the War of 1812. Key was an eyewitness to the attack, as he waited on board a ship only a few miles away with the friend he had just helped release from British captivity.
Key titled his poem the “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Years later, others set his words to the tune of the English drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” composed by John Stafford Smith.
A royal and national hymn that went around the world
The country from which the United States gained its independence has its own time-honored anthem in “God Save the Queen” (sung as “God Save the King” during the reign of a male monarch). This anthem is also often used throughout the British Commonwealth.
The song’s origins are obscure. The Oxford Companion to Music lists several early variants. Some authorities credit Henry Purcell or any of several other 17th century composers. Many music historians cite composer and keyboardist John Bull, who died in 1628, as the song’s likely author. Others point to a passage in an old Scottish carol as remarkably similar to the current version of the anthem.
In any case, the earliest known printing of the unattributed lyrics to “God Save the Queen” appeared in 1745. The song soon appeared on the English stage and found its way into the work of composers George Frideric Handel and Ludwig van Beethoven. American composer Samuel F. Smith borrowed the tune for “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” which appeared in 1832 and has become an unofficial second national anthem for the US.
A paean to the “True North”
Canada’s national anthem, “O Canada,” was first publicly performed in 1880. Its title in the original French, as written by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier to music by Calixa Lavallée, was “Chant national.” A special government committee approved the song as the country’s national anthem in 1967, and it was officially adopted in 1980.
The song’s lyrics celebrate the beauty and strength of this country of the “True North,” and express the hope that, through the help of God and “patriots,” it will remain “glorious and free.”
Born in revolution
France’s national anthem, the marching song “La Marseillaise,” literally calls citizens to arms in defense of freedom in the fight against tyranny. Amateur composer Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle came up with the song overnight in 1792, at the height of the revolution that overthrew the French monarchy. The song’s current popular name arose after troops from the port city of Marseille adopted it as a particular favorite.
The beauty of the land
Some national anthems focus less on military or sovereign power and more on the natural beauties of the lands they represent. Australia’s national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” exalts its people’s home “girt by sea,” with its “beauty rich and rare.” Similarly, the Czech Republic’s national anthem’s title translates literally as “Where Is My Home?” The song’s simple, meditative music and lyrics convey the loveliness of the country’s landscape of pine trees, mountain crags, and flowing streams.
A symbol of national reconciliation
Other countries’ national anthems focus on their diversity and hard-won unity. South Africa’s national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” is based on a 19th century hymn originally written in Xhosa that later became the anthem of the African National Congress. In the early 1990s, during the dismantling of apartheid, the country declared two national anthems: “Nkosi” and the Afrikaans apartheid-era anthem “Die Stern van Suid-Afrika” (“The Call of South Africa.”)
When the country won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, both songs were sung together. Today, South Africa's national anthem combines shorter versions of both songs into a single national hymn, with lyrics in five languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English.