If you listen to a bunch of national anthems one after the other, they all start to sound pretty much alike. The typical anthem is in the musical style of a march or a hymn and the lyrics have to do with struggles for freedom and independence, beautiful landscapes, and symbols of unity and pride. But every anthem has a story—not just of its nation's history, but of itself and how it came to be. The fascinatingly comprehensive site nationalanthems.info has the full background, lyrics, and music on "over 400 anthems, past and present." Here are some interesting facts about 10 of them.
1. Malaysia: an on-the-spot decision
The national anthem of Malaysia originated in a moment of panic for an aide to the Sultan of Perak. When the Sultan arrived in London at the invitation of Queen Victoria in 1888, the aide was asked for the music to the anthem so that it could be played during the welcome ceremony. He thought it would look bad to admit they had no anthem, so he hummed the melody of a popular tune from the Seychelles. He then told the Sultan what he had done, and reminded him to stand when the tune was played. It remained the official anthem of the state of Perak, and when Malaysia became an independent nation in 1957, it was chosen as the national anthem and new lyrics were written for it.
2. Mexico: written under duress
In 1853, Mexico held a contest to see who could write the most inspiring poem to serve as the lyrics of an official national anthem. The girlfriend of the poet Francicso González Bocanegra tried to convince him to write something, but he wasn't interested, so she locked in him a room in her parents' house filled with pictures of scenes from Mexican history until he came up with something. She let him out after he slipped a ten verse poem under the door. The poem went on to become the national anthem, and the girlfriend went on to become the poet's wife.
3. St. Helena: never been there but it sounds nice
The tiny South Atlantic island of St. Helena is under British rule, but they have an anthem that is played when the RMS St. Helena (above) leaves port. It was written by an American named David Mitchell who had never been to St. Helena. He was working on the nearby island of Ascension (only 800 miles away) when a friend who had been to St. Helena suggested he write an anthem. Inspired by looking at some postcards of the island, he came up with "My St. Helena Island," the only country-western style national anthem in the world.
4. Netherlands: fun with word games
The anthem of the Netherlands did not become official until 1932, but the song had been around for at least 300 years before that. The lyrics consist of 15 verses and makes up an acrostic for Willem van Nassov, a hero of the Dutch revolt against Spain. Taken together, the first letter of each verse spells out his name (though in modern orthography it comes out as "Willem of Nazzov").
5. Andorra: a first-person narrator
Many national anthems tell a story about the nation's founding or history. Only Andorra's anthem tells its story in the first person, with the nation referred to as "I." The "I" of Andorra is imagined as a princess being protected by her princes (the people):
The great Charlemagne, my Father, liberated me from the Saracens, And from heaven he gave me life of Meritxell the great Mother. I was born a Princess, a Maiden neutral between two nations. I am the only remaining daughter of the Carolingian empire
6. Cook Islands: making beautiful music together
The national anthem of the Cook Islands, officially adopted in the early 1980s, was written by a husband and wife team. The music was composed by Sir Thomas Davis, the Prime Minister at the time, and the lyrics, in Maori, were written by his wife, Pa Tepaeru Terito Ariki, a tribal high chief.
7. Czech Republic and Slovakia: a 50-50 divorce
When Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, it created an anthem by combining one verse from a Czech opera (Fidlovačka) and one from a Slovak folk song ("Kopala studienku"). When Czechoslovakia split up in 1993, the anthem was simply split up too, with the first verse going to the Czech Republic (above) and the second going to Slovakia (below).
8. France: parental discretion advised
Lots of national anthems are about the violent battles that gave rise to nationhood or liberation, but they usually focus on the glory more than the blood. France's anthem, "La Marseillaise," doesn't sugar-coat, keeping things incredibly gory, especially in its full version, which refers to blood-soaked flags, soldiers slitting throats, fields being fertilized with the blood of enemies, and metaphorical tigers tearing apart the breasts of their mothers.
9. South Africa: bringing it all together
Until the end of apartheid in South Africa, the official national anthem was the Afrikaans "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika," but a different song, "Nikosi Sikolei' iAfrika," served as the anthem for the African National Congress and the anti-apartheid movement. In 1997, both melodies were united (resulting in an anthem that begins and ends in different keys) and new lyrics were written, incorporating five languages. The song begins with two lines of Xhosa, followed by Zulu, Sethotho, Afrikaans, and English.
10. United States: not declared until 1931
"The Star Spangled Banner" was a popular choice for official state occasions in the 19th century, but it wasn't the only one. "Hail, Columbia" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee," among others, also served as anthems until 1931, when congress declared "The Star Spangled Banner" official. The tradition of playing it before every baseball game didn't start until WWII.