Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© ErN 164 Jeff Matthews entry Jun 2013    

The National Anthem of Naples & Other Musical Curiosities
contains audio

The most curious thing I know on the topic of national anthems is that at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, the band leader couldn't find the music to the Royal March, the national anthem of Italy, so he struck up 'O sole mio! After a few moments of confusion, the crowd got the idea and stood up. (More at this link.) I don't know how the Italian contingent at the Olympics felt, whether they were offended, amused, irate or what, but with patriotic music, you never know. Some music is so political it can cause trouble. I was surprised to learn that US military bands, for example, are not allowed to play Dixie! There are many such cases. To the case in point, a recent internet version of the old national anthem of the defunct Kingdom of the Two Sicilies attracted such nasty comments that the website had to disable the "comments" section.

Patriotic music stirs great emotion. In the film Casablanca, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) gives the go-ahead to the club orchestra to strike up La Marseillaise, thus drowning out a pack of Nazis yodeling one of their Hun marching songs (Die Wacht am Rhein—hey, I do my home work!). By the time the strident "aux armes…!" clarions forth ten measures from the end, everyone in the movie theater and on the screen is either in tears or goose flesh —proof, once again, of the emotions unleashed by the right music at the right time. La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, is, in fact, perfect: a stirring, thunderously eloquent melody built around an opening bugle-like call. It is memorable, too, in that is was the product of a moment of pure genius. For a few short hours in April 1792, an otherwise mediocre musician, Claude Joseph Rouget de L'Isle, searching for music to accompany the French into battle against the Austrians, caught the strange fire of inspiration and wrote both words and music.

I've always been interested in anthems and, thus, have always followed the award ceremonies at the Olympics whenever I can. Back in the bad old days, when there was a thing called East Germany, their women had a patent on gold medals for events held anywhere near chlorinated water. It got so I could hum their hymn in my sleep. That was fair, since the music had put me to sleep in the first place. The USSR had a great anthem that the new & improved Russia still uses (with a modified lyric). It goes back to 1944 when Stalin announced a song writing contest to replace the Internationale, adopted by the USSR after the October Revolution (old calendar) of November 1917 (new calendar). It is one of the most stirring marches ever written, the song of international socialism, a rousing paean to the working class, one that had aristocrats begging to send their very own children down into coal mines. Uncle Joe, however, figured the anthem wasn't nationalist enough, (hardly surprising since it was written by two Paris Communards to celebrate the withering away of the nation-state). Today, you can still hear the Internationale in Cuba or if you move to the Anarchist Republic of Nowherestan and sing it with other aging idealists, all of you sitting around the barricades (now flower boxes) in the warm summer evenings, sipping Molotov Cocktails. Sniff.

At the time of the demise of the USSR I actually called the new Russian Embassy in Rome and had a long talk with an exotic ex-KGB femme-fatalsky with smokey green eyes, probably named Tanya. (You may be asking yourselves why a woman would give both her eyes the same name. I don't know, either.) She assured me that the new anthem was not going to be the old Czarist hymn (itself the result of another competition held in 1833. Great tune!)  I asked about other important national anthem matters. What about all the new ex-USSR countries? Was it true that Georgia On My Mind was the new anthem of Georgia? If so, how was Hoagy Carmichael's estate going to collect royalties? Did this mean war?

We haven't always had national anthems or even royal marches or hymns. There may have been a few royal fanfare toots once someone invented the trumpet, but a "song" that is iconic of the state goes back only a few centuries. In Europe, perhaps the most recognized anthem is Great Britain's God Save the Queen (or King). It is stately, of hymn-like simplicity, and is the workhorse of patriotic music, having been used by twenty different nations, including the USA, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Russia as an anthem or other patriotic song. The melody almost certainly goes back to Elizabethan times. The "God Save..." text has been joined to the melody since the late 1700s.

Most Italians can correctly identify their national anthem as L'inno di Mameli, referring to Goffredo Mameli, who wrote the text, "Fratelli d'Italia" (Brothers of Italy), his poetic contribution to the Risorgimento, the nationalist movement for the unification of Italy in the 19th century. It is, however, a safe wager that not many know who composed the melody. Since your next bar-bet victim may be reading this over your shoulder, you'll have to find out for yourselves. It has been the Italian anthem since the proclamation of the Republic in 1946.

I mentioned royal marches and hymns. Indeed, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples), had such an anthem. It was composed by Giovanni Paisiello in 1787 on commission of king Ferdinand IV and became an important part of the repertoire of patriotic music in the kingdom. It didn't become the national anthem, however, until 1816, at the restoration of the monarchy after the Napoleonic wars. Paisiello, one of the great names in Neapolitan music, lived through two great times of turmoil — the collapse of the kingdom in the face of the French-supported Neapolitan (Parthenopean) Republic of 1799 and the full-scale takeover of the kingdom by the French in 1806. In the first case, he stayed in Naples and kept working. He was then tried for treason by the returning Bourbons later that year because he had composed music for the traitor Republic and had even been its maestro di cappella (roughly, Minister of Music). True, he said, but that is what I do. I write music. I wrote the hymn to King Ferdinand, too, remember? They did and let him go. He died in 1816, the year in which his hymn redeemed his name in the eyes of the monarchy.

This is the King's Hymn by Paisiello

So, if our species ever gets this swords into plowshares thing off the ground, and nation-states go the way of city-states, and we become one happy bunch of Earthlings, all for one and one for all, we may decide we need a One World Hymn. We could do worse than Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy.* We have already proclaimed our good intentions to the rest of the cosmos, at least the ones with ears, with the "Golden Record" aboard two Voyager spacecraft that left earth in 1977. Let's hope that whoever is out there finds Voyager before a late night TV broadcast of Rollerball reaches them. That was a 1975 science fiction flick in which loyalties to nation states are, indeed, things of the past, their place taken by — well, one scene from the film says it all: it shows the crowd before the start of the game rising as the announcer solemnly intones, "Ladies and gentlemen, our corporate anthems."
*added: 1 Feb 2021] The German word, Freude (joy), has two syllables, as does the German for 'freedom'/Freiheit, a word that would really fit nicely. That doesn't mean in spite of much speculation that Schiller (1759-1805) actually wrote "An die Freiheit" and changed it under pressure from censors. The chorale of the last movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony has, in fact, been sung with "Freiheit" at least once, in 1989, (with the line Freiheit, schoener Goetterfunken instead of Freude, schoener Goetterfunken, making the text a hymn to the "divine spark of freedom"). The conductor, Leonard Bernstein called it conjecture whether Schiller used "joy" as code for "freedom".  Most musicologists sidestep the question and say, "Whatever. It's a great story." In any event, the first  published form of the poem was as "An die Freude". It appeared in the journal of general culture Thalia  in 1785. I love great stories.

It is ironic that Schiller, himself, didn't like the poem! In a letter dated 21 August 1800, Schiller writes to a patron who had praised "An die Freude": "The way I feel about it now, it's just a bad poem. There is a certain "fire" in it, but  that
shows what I had to overcome, leave behind, in order to do something worthwhile. It's now a bit of 'folk poetry', I know, and your praise is likely due to when I wrote it. That is its only merit, but only perhaps for the two of us, certainly not for the world or for the art of poetry." That was in 1800, five years before his own death and 20 years before Beethoven's 9th was first performed (in Vienna, 7 May 1824). Schiller couldn't know what would happen to his "bad poem." Build a time machine and go back and tell him that "The Ode to Joy" is the most famous piece of poetry in the history of the German Language, not just for foreigners who want to learn German culture, but among native speakers of German. Everyone knows it, and it's all Beethoven's fault. Friedrich's reaction? Hard to say. ("Beethoven, huh? It figures.  I always knew he was strange. Wait'll I find him!")

Finally, anthems are not for everyone. They say a late King of Spain was so tone-deaf he had an aide who poked him whenever the Spanish anthem was played so he would know when to stand.

to music portal                    to top of this page

© 2002-2023