Shortly after the 2004 Olympic Games, a large box of CDs arrived for review. It was an eight-disc set of all the national anthems of the world, and it was suggested that these were the recordings prepared for the medal ceremonies at the Olympics. I had no idea how to go about reviewing this release; if I singled out a particular anthem for praise I would be accused of ignoring other countries, while if I criticised a country’s anthem, I would be seen as offending national sensitivities. National anthems inspire enormous emotional responses, and while the Americans seem to like nothing better than to hear their anthem grotesquely disfigured and distorted by hopeless personalities masquerading as vocal artistes, the merest hint of altering the state-sanctioned version of the Malaysian National Anthem prompts sinister threats of punishment and encourages politicians to make public demonstrations of anti-foreigner contempt. In the end I took the coward’s option and never submitted a review.As it happened, the discs arrived on the same day that I was hosting a party for several members of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra at the Kuala Lumpur apartment in which I then lived (vast areas of outside balcony and virtually no areas of covered floor space, making it the perfect party venue). I thought it might be fun to challenge them to recognise some of the more obscure national anthems. So the assembled throng sat through Kiribati, Nagorno-Karabakh, Aruba; and recognised none of them.
Then, as the drink flowed, we tried the more familiar ones. Would, for example, the Americans recognise “Advance Australia Fair”, or the Hungarians “Kimigayo” (the Japanese anthem)? None did. But, and this will delight all those who always maintained that the Malaysian Philharmonic was just a bunch of overpaid foreigners with no interest in the country which gave them so much, nobody recognised “Negaraku”. Finally resorting to one for the British, I played “God Save the Queen”. And, would you believe, nobody recognised that either, myself included – and I had the disc track list in front of me.Perhaps it was down to the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, not perhaps one of the great bands of our time, making a hash of the job in the recording sessions. And who could blame them? This is a project which would surely have driven any orchestral musician up the wall; 380 tracks lasting in total 9 hours, 15 minutes and 51 seconds. (The disparity between the number of tracks and the fact that most lists identify only 206 countries in the world is down to the placing of abbreviated versions of the anthems played at the Olympic Games alongside the complete versions.) But I suspect the real reason these anthems are all but unrecognisable is down to the arranger, for nearly all of them appear with peculiar harmonies and ornately-filled in textures which just about obliterate any sense of a dominating melodic line.
National Anthems are designed to be sung (well most of them, anyway) by large numbers of untrained voices, so they require as an absolute pre-requisite a readily identifiable and followable tune. Of course, some of these tunes do outlive their natural life by quite a lot of minutes - Uruguay’s anthem, for example, lasts a whopping five minutes – but in any performance of a national anthem, it really is essential that the melody is what we hear. Simply put, these eight discs are models of heavy over-arrangement.Being in the UK for this year’s Olympic Games, I had not got much chance to see or hear any medal ceremonies; after all British television is never too keen on showing them unless, of course, British athletes have won gold. Surprisingly, though, a very large number of British athletes has won gold, and over the past few days television and radio have been swamped with ecstatic reports of medal ceremonies crowned with “God Save the Queen”. And, would you believe it, I barely recognise it; and when I do, it’s because the hugely partisan crowds sing the anthem with such gusto that the pre-recorded orchestra has been all but drowned out. Thank God for that, I say, for when we do hear the anthem, the harmonies are so astonishingly weird that you are brought up short.
Presenting the National Anthem with unexpected harmonic twists and turns is like trying to follow a croquet match (why is it my favourite sport is excluded from the Olympics?) when you do not know anything about the game and its manifest idiosyncrasies. Why couldn’t the IOC simply give us the anthems in the straight-forward harmonization everyone normally hears? Am I to take it that national anthems are copyright and cannot be played in public without payment of a large fee which the IOC side-steps by employing their own arranger? Or, perish the thought, has some scheming orchestral arranger decided he could make a big buck out of the Olympics by making his own arrangements of all the world’s anthems and then charging royalties on every performance?