Top Five National Anthems by Notable Composers

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

There are a lot of anthems being sung this month with Canada Day on July 1st, Bastille Day on the 14th and Belgian National Day on the 21st, not to mention our own 4th of July. Most of these well-known tunes were written by relative unknowns: John Stafford Smith wrote the music to “Star Spangled Banner” (initially as the song “To Anacreon in Heaven”) and Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, who penned the Marseillaise, was a one-hit wonder.

However, there have been some famous authors of national anthems. Here are our top five anthems written by notable composers.

1. Haydn: Deutschland Über Alles (Germany)

Franz Josef Haydn intended to write a  anthem of sorts when he penned “God Save Emperor Franz” and presented it to the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire (later Austria) on his birthday. With that title, it’s no surprise Haydn was inspired by England’s “God Save the Queen” and the patriotic stirrings it ignited. The composer eventually reused the regal melody in his ‘Emperor’ String Quartet. The tune, with its famous lyrics “Deutschland Über Alles” by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, officially became Germany’s national anthem in 1922.

2. Pablo Casals: "A Hymn to the UN" (United Nations)

One of the few composers actually commissioned to write an anthem, Pablo Casals composed the UN Hymn. Secretary General U Thant wanted Casals to write an ode to peace as a counterpoint to all the works commemorating valiant military campaigns at the time. Thant also suggested scoring the UN’s official preamble. When that didn’t work, Casals asked the English poet W.H. Auden to supply lyrics. "A Hymn to the UN" premiered in 1971 at the organization’s headquarters.

3. Charles Gounod: "Pontifical March" (The Vatican)

Charles Gounod, a devout Catholic, wrote his Pontifical March as a tribute to Pope Pius IX in 1869. The music was immediately admired: the seven pontifical bands were encouraged to play several encores of the march following its premiere before an enthusiastic audience. However, it took until 1950 for Gounod's anthem to replace Viktorin Hallmayer’s Triumphal March as the official Vatican City-State anthem. 

4. Ferenc Erkel: "Himnusz" (Hungary)

The Hungarian composer Ferenc Erkel is credited with translating his national identity into music. The 19th-century figure founded a National Hungarian Opera and also ran the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hungarian Academy of Music at times. So it’s poignant that he would also contribute "Himnusz," the country’s national anthem. The piece, which begins “O, God bless the Hungarians,” was set to a poem by Ferenc Kolcsey.

5. Mozart? Or Johann Holzer? “Land der Berge, Land am Strome" (Austria)

Austria would have rated higher on our scale if its signature “Land der Berge, Land am Strome" (Land of Mountains, Land of River) weren’t steeped in controversy over whether or not Mozart wrote the piece. Some claim the melody was taken from the composer’s Freimaurerkantate, the last piece he wrote before his death in 1791. Others believe that his lesser-known contemporary Johann Holzer should be credited with the tune. Without a doubt, its lyrics come from poet Paula von Preradovic, who won a 1947 competition to supply words for the hymn.

What's your favorite-sounding national anthem? Leave a comment below:


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Comments [17]

Darryl from Usa

I just love the anthem period. Have you heard this one yet?

Sep. 13 2016 08:10 AM
Silversalty from Didgeridooland

How about a true "people's" anthem - Waltzing Matilda?

Jul. 19 2011 11:33 AM
David from Flushing

While on the subject of the Russian anthem, I once encountered the old Czarist anthem rewritten as "God bless America" long before Kate Smith was on the scene. Of course, we did that to the British anthem as well.

Jul. 18 2011 02:20 PM

I nominate as a grand anthem, the current national anthem of Russia. It's the old Communist anthem, but with new words. When performed properly, one can only see fields of grain waving gently in the breeze, rivers running freely over dark-earth steppes and blue skies with light clouds.

But the Marseillaise beats 'em all!

Jul. 18 2011 01:57 PM
Jay V

Well, having been born in the Netherlands, I am partial to the Dutch national anthem.

Het Wilhelmus is considered the oldest national anthem and is based on a French soldier's song.

Since July 1, the right-wing government in a fit of patriotic hysteria requires that foreigners learn it before becoming citizens. I find that amusing since many Dutch themselves don't know it (there are 18 verses!)

Jul. 18 2011 10:16 AM
Johannes from Freiburg, Germany

oh and let me add, that the European Union actually uses an instrumental version of Beethovens Ode to joy as their anthem, this one should definetely be added to the list.

I like the the music of the former East German Anthem composed by Hanns Eisler (

Jul. 18 2011 08:38 AM
Johannes from Freiburg, Germany

regarding the German national anthem it should be noted that the first two stanzas are not sung anymore - not only was "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles - Germany, Germany above everything" after the Third Reich seen as problematic, the geographic descriptions of Germany "von der Maaß bis an die Memel, von der Etsch bis an den Belt - From the Meuse to the Memel, From the Adige to the Belt," were totally inadequate after World War II. Today only the third stanza is sung, and I actually like the text and what it says:

Unity and justice and freedom
For the German fatherland!
For these let us all strive
Brotherly with heart and hand!
Unity and justice and freedom
Are the pledge of fortune;
|: Flourish in this fortune's blessing,
Flourish, German fatherland! :|

Jul. 18 2011 08:34 AM

Thanks for the link for the South Korean anthem, David! I'd never heard it before. It's lovely. Very hymn-like. To think the words were once sung to Auld Lang Syne!

Jul. 17 2011 05:09 PM
David from Flushing

As others are posting links, here is one for the South Korean anthem that I find to be admirable. It was written as part of a suite in 1935 and adapted for the official anthem in 1948.

Jul. 17 2011 03:46 PM
Julie from Hastings-on-Hudson

What about WNYC's own Oscar Brand: didn't he have a role in his native country's anthem (Canada)?

In general I wish WNYC treasured/showcased/honored him more...

Jul. 17 2011 02:59 PM
Avshalom from NYC

"Moldava", by Smetana, is the music for the Israeli anthem - "Hatikva". Sure thing!

Jul. 17 2011 02:37 PM
Dillon from Olympia, WA

I love the Canadian anthem. A couple of weeks ago I was playing in an orchestra festival in British Columbia on Canada Day, and we played "O Canada" at the beginning of the concert. It was one of the best feelings I ever had to playing such a regal anthem with all the Canadians in the audience standing and singing their anthem proudly.

Jul. 17 2011 12:58 PM

Er, has anyone noticed that the opening of the Scottish national anthem sounds like "Va pensiero"???

A link to the anthem, if I may:

Jul. 17 2011 11:56 AM

Still have no idea who wrote this, but it sounds grand: the Welsh national anthem. A link, if I may:

Jul. 17 2011 11:48 AM
Pauline Park from Queens

Most of the national anthems of the countries of the world are rather banal copies of just a few of the oldest national anthems. There are only a few truly great national anthems, including the South African national anthem ("Nkosi sikele Afrika"), the German national anthem (the only one composed by a great composer) and the Star Spangled Banner. But one national anthem stands above all the others, in my view, and that is the French national anthem. Not only does 'La Marseillaise' have astonishingly vivid lyrics (certainly the most violent of any national anthem) set to stirring music, the song actually played a role in the French Revolution. And of course, there's that great scene in "Casablanca" where the Marseillaise arouses the denizen's of Rick's American Cafe~!

Jul. 17 2011 11:47 AM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

Mine's "La Marseillaise," but equally loved is the fragment Verdi wrote in his "Hymn of the Nations" for Italy. If only it had been a bit longer!

Jul. 17 2011 09:52 AM
David from Flushing

The beginning of the Canadian national anthem has always struck me as sounding like the act 2 entrance of the priests in Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Likewise, the Israeli anthem calls to mind the "Moldau" by Smetana. There are probably other classical references in tunes out there as well.

There are several operatic "anthems" in praise of rulers. Puccini wrote one for the emperor of China and Berlioz for Queen Dido of Carthage. I am not aware of any national use of these ready-made pieces.

Though by a person unknown outside the country, I find the anthem of South Korea to be particularly pleasant and dignified.

Having read the lyrics of many anthems online, I find the great majority to be disappointing and not what a modern person would want to represent their country.

Jul. 17 2011 07:13 AM

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