On National Anthems

This past weekend, I visited Baltimore for the week-long Star-Spangled Spectacular. Tall ships and navy vessels were moored in the Inner Harbor, open for tours from the public; there was a small carnival, a beer festival, concerts, and crafts; and on Saturday, they put on the biggest fireworks display in Baltimore’s history. The festivities were in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore. During the War of 1812, the British, who had wreaked havoc up and down the Chesapeake Bay, were repulsed as they tried to sail past For McHenry and into Baltimore. It was on the morning of September 15th that Francis Scott Key, on a ship in the harbor, witnessed the twenty-five-hour-long bombardment of the fort and then saw the “star-spangled banner” still waving in “the dawn’s early light.” The day had been won by the Americans. Key penned the words that would become our national anthem.

All this stuff about the US national anthem naturally got me thinking of the Marseillaise, which is France’s national anthem.

The Marseillaise was created during the French Revolution (which the Affair of the Diamond Necklace played no small part in sparking). The song was first popularized by a group of young volunteer revolutionaries from Marseilles. It quickly caught on (hey, it’s catchy). Its strains are familiar all over the world. It’s even part of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. (The 1812 Overture commemorates Napoleon’s defeat in Russia; ironically, at the same time an ocean and a continent away, America was declaring war on Great Britain. That war—which was waged from 1812-1814, in spite of being called the War of 1812—would give birth to our own national anthem.)

Some people seem to think that the Star Spangled Banner is too marshal and bloodthirsty. I have to disagree. I mean, have these folks read the lyrics of the Marseillaise? Because the good old Star Spangled Banner ain’t got nothing on the Marseilles for bloodthirstiness. The Marseillaise is all about spilling the blood of “impure” folks and raising the “bloody banner”. The words are literally bloody. It’s intensely aggressive. This was hardly empty bluster. Thousands of people were basically murdered for their political beliefs during the Revolution. They call it The Terror because it was, well, terrible.

The first stanza of the Star Spangled Banner,  by contrast, mentions bombs and rockets but is really just an extended question: is the flag still flying over Fort McHenry? The answer in the coming stanzas (which are admittedly less innocuous, but are also rarely sung) is yes. The flag was still there. This, also, wasn’t empty bluster. The Americans braved out the War of 1812, which they were woefully unprepared to fight, and in spite of some humiliating moments like the burning of Washington, came out intact. In this case, that was basically a win. Unlike the Marseillaise, the words aren’t a war rally but a cheer for the end of a battle.

So, I don’t really hold with those who might want America the Beautiful to be our national anthem, or any other song. The most valid reason to ditch the Star Spangled Banner is that it’s hard to sing. Fair enough, but frankly, I can’t sing America the Beautiful very well, either, because I am a terrible singer. Besides, the Star Spangled Banner is so much more rousing! There’s a special something that sends shivers up your spine. How much of that is conditioned? Who knows, but it’s there, and it’s there to stay.

 

The Marseillaise [from Wikipedia]:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,

[Arise, children of the Fatherland,]

Le jour de gloire est arrivé !

[The day of glory has arrived!]

Contre nous de la tyrannie,

[Against us tyranny]

L’étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)

[Raises its bloody banner (repeat)]

Entendez-vous dans les campagnes

[Do you hear, in the countryside,]

Mugir ces féroces soldats ?

[The roar of those ferocious soldiers?]

Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras

[They’re coming right into your arms]

Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes !

[To cut the throats of your sons and women!]

 

Aux armes, citoyens,

[To arms, citizens,]

Formez vos bataillons,

[Form your battalions,]

Marchons, marchons !

[Let’s march, let’s march!]

Qu’un sang impur

[Let an impure blood]

Abreuve nos sillons ! (bis)

[Water our furrows! (Repeat)]

 

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