For Americans, the US national anthem feels almost sacred, woven into our country’s fabric as deeply as the Constitution itself. But “The Star-Spangled Banner” didn’t actually become the official national anthem until well into the 20th century. Inspired by the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem called “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” published to the suggested tune of the song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and it only became our national anthem in 1931. For over 150 years — the majority of American history — US citizens instead belted out “Hail, Columbia!” or “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” to show their patriotic pride. Like nations themselves, anthems are constantly evolving, often reflecting a country’s culture and relationship to its past. Whether it’s China’s anthem, originally written for a movie, or South Africa’s which is sung in five languages, national anthems are a unique window into another nation’s traditions. Here are the nine most fascinating national anthems around the world.
1.Czech Republic and Slovakia
When Czechoslovakia split in 1993, more than just land was divided between the two countries. Czechoslovakia’s anthem, “Where my home is,” was originally written in 1918 by combining verses from a Czech opera and a Slovak folk song. When the country split in two, so did the anthem. The Czech Republic adopted the first verse as its new anthem (also called “Where my home is,” and Slovakia adopted the second verse as its new anthem (now called “Lightning over the Tatras), and added an additional verse to extend the piece.
The lyrics of Japan’s national anthem, “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign,” have the distinction of being the oldest in the world. It was written by an anonymous author between 794 and 1185 with lyrics based on a waka, a form of classic Japanese poetry. The song didn’t officially become the national anthem until 1888, with the original lyrics set to a melody written in the 19th century.
If you find yourself having trouble memorizing all the words to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” a move to Spain might be in your future. Spain’s national anthem, the “Royal March,” is one of very few national anthems with no words at all. It was originally a military marching tune played on trumpets or fifes, and though there have historically been lyrics adopted and changed, since 1970 the anthem has been completely wordless.
4. The Netherlands
Whoever wrote the Netherlands’ national anthem was really trying to one-up every other nation. Whether or not the author was an aspiring poet or just a witty nationalist, the “Wilhelmus” is one of the most uniquely-structured in the world. It’s an acrostic, meaning the first letter of each of the 15 verses spells something of meaning. In this case, the acrostic spells “Willem van Nassov,” a revolutionary hero of the Dutch revolt against Spain.
Andorra’s national anthem, “The Great Charlemagne” is one of the world’s only first-person anthems. Rather than hail its nation in a general, collective sense, “The Great Charlemagne” refers to the nation as “I,” and makes several allusions to the Carolingian Empire’s role in Andorran history. The second verse, for example, reads, “Princess, born Heiress, Into two nations, in neutrality; I am the only remaining daughter, of the Carolingian empire.” It was adopted as the official national anthem in 1921.
6. South Africa
The national anthem of South Africa is the perfect reflection of its complicated history and diverse population. Adopted in 1997, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” is a song combining English lyrics with parts of a 19th century hymn and an Afrikkans song called “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika.” This anthem might be one of the most difficult to learn in its entirety, as it incorporates five different languages — Xhosa, Zulu, Sethoto, Afrikaans, and English. All five languages are always sung regardless of the singer’s native tongue.
Myanmar’s national anthem sounds like two totally different songs, depending on which verse you listen to. “‘Til the End of the World” has been the national anthem of Myanmar since 1947, and it consists of two parts. It begins as a traditional Burmese folk song, and then transitions into a military march, played alongside orchestral music. It’s tradition for those singing the song to bow at the end, out of respect for the nation.
It’s easy to think that all national anthems were composed with nationalistic intentions, but China is the perfect example of why that’s not true. The song, called “March of the Volunteers,” was originally composed for a 1935 film called “Children of Troubled Times.” The film was a love story set during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The film’s song was so popular that it evolved from a simple movie score into a national anthem in 1949.
Nepal’s national anthem, “Made of Hundreds of Flowers,” adopted in 2007, sounds like a catchy pop song. Its light, bouncy lyrics, and the fact that it’s the only anthem typically played on a keyboard, make it truly unique. Although some of Nepal’s Maoist leaders preferred a more ceremonial, revolutionary anthem, their efforts proved unsuccessful.