Sunday, October 10, 2004

# Posted 6:02 AM by Patrick Belton  

SING A NEW SONG: National anthems are by far a fairly execrable lot. China's March of the Volunteers and Ireland's Soldier's Song are melodically unfortunate, and in those instances where the tune is halfway worthwhile, the wounded, martial, defensive nationalism of (royalist) Rouget de Lisle's La Marseillaise is typical of the genre (e.g., 'Entendez-vous, dans la compagnes. / Mugir ces farouches soldats / Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras / Egorger vos fils, vos compagnes', a.k.a., 'Do you hear in the countryside / the roar of these savage soldiers? / They come right into our arms / to cut the throats of your sons, your country.' They get worse: see Mexico's '¡Guerra, guerra! Los patrios pendones / En las olas de sangre empapad. ... Antes, patria, que inermes tus hijos / Bajo el yugo su cuello dobleguen, / Tus campiñas con sangre se rieguen, / Sobre sangre se estampe su pie,' a.k.a., 'War, war! The patriotic banners saturate in waves of blood.... May your countryside be watered with blood, / On blood their feet trample.') A very bloody lot, these songs.

There are better exemplars in the canon. Italy's actually sounds like a feisty Neapolitan number, and India and Pakistan have both done fairly well with theirs. For its part, America, I have always felt, would do much better with the stirring simplicity of 'God Bless America', echoing the godly simplicity of both the frontier and the first Puritan cities of New England, than the bombastic pyrotechnics of the current national anthem, with its melodic past as a drinking song, and its unfortunate susceptibility for mauling at the hands of minor-order pop stars clutching microphones at sporting games and political conventions.

I bring this up because I was just listening to Haydn's string quartet in C, Op. 76, No. 3, first performed in 1797 and most commonly known to all except Haydn scholars as the Deutschlandlied. In the more liberal spirit of 1848, Deutschland was not 'uber alles' with regard to, say, the remainder of Europe and lesser races of humanity to Germans, but rather to, say, Bavaria or Brandenburg in the loyalties of citizens of a country seeking unification. Also, while most second verses are embarrassing, q.v. those of God Save the Queen and the Star Spangled Banner, the Deutschlandlied's is rather nice - invoking Deutsche Frauen, Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang - while Deutchland uber alles may have to be consigned with its unfortunate associations to the symbolic dustheap of history, who could object to German women, German wine, and German song? Read against the European experience, it seems that from the perspective of her neighbours, keeping the Germans pacifically drunken, copulating and singing seems, by and large, A Good Thing. One of the more poignant conversations in contemporary Germany is the extent to which these symbols of German national identity can, at some point, be separated from association with the horrors of Naziism, without disrespect for the memory of those horrors' victims. It's hard to become too worked up, as an interested observer, over the ultimate disposition of the name of the state of Brandenburg, but the Deutschlandlied is preeminently from an artistic standpoint not only worth saving, but justified of being elevated, in its original Age of Enlightenment spirit, to a model. The world could make do with more national anthems of Haydn string quartets, and several fewer evoking a readiness to discard the nation's youth against invaders. There is enough blood of youth spilt in the world as it is.

The second anthem which has been on my mind lately is Virginia's state song emeritus. For practical purposes, however Virginia has not at the moment got a state song, as the present one is generally regarded as unperformable at the moment - mostly because of its references to 'old massa', which clearly have got to go. Ditto, of course, for 'old darky' - the lyrics clearly require a rather massive scrub. But what's interesting to me, at least, is that no one has ever pointed out the extraordinary potential, from the standpoint of racial integration and recognising the contributions of Virginia's quite substantial black population to the state's history, in having a state anthem in the voice of a black Virginian, and furthermore written by a black Virginian, James Bland. It's usually, and quite justly, been criticised for nostalgic references to slavery, of which the principal reference is 'Massa and Missis have long gone before me, Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore.' The question, though, is how much these references contaminate the entire song, and to what extent these can instead be excised and it can be made to about something else entirely - not nostalgia for segregation and slavery, but instead one of the few recognitions in America at the level of state symbolism of the experience of the African-American people who live there. For my part, I would be rather saddened to see the nation's canon of symbols stripped of one of its few examples of the latter. Attempts to come up with a bland, saccharine cookie-cutter anthem have, for their part, by and large been predictably execrable; witness, for a particularly apropos example, sausage maven Jimmy Dean's attempt to bribe official status for his own forgettable anthem 'Virginia'. My impression, however, is that symbolic lines are probably far too firmly drawn in the American south, and aligned with emotionally laden positions (which are often quite reactionary - see, of course, debates over other much more discardable symbols in other states in that region), for any sort of creative updating of a tradition to make it cohere with modern aspirations while engaging the history of the region.

So there, that's the liberal case for 'Deutschland Uber Alles' and 'Carry Me Back to Old Virginny'. I think I'll unplug my computer before I can get myself into any more trouble today.
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