The World Cup is an occasion to hear and compare national anthems that range from inspiring to absurd. Redolent with sabre-rattling, some express nobility, others come straight out of an opera, but all are patriotic in a god-is-on-our-side kind of way.
A national anthem is a musical composition that intentionally mythologizes the dominance of a particular people. Sanctioned by a nation’s government, it is used to mark state occasions and patriotic events. The majority of national anthems are military marches or fervent hymns, although a handful of countries use a simple fanfare.
National anthems rose to prominence in Europe during the 19th century, but a handful originated much earlier. The oldest national anthem, the Dutch Wilhelmus, was written between 1568 and 1572 and became the official anthem in 1932. The lyrics of the Japanese anthem originate in a Heian period (794-1185) poem, but it was not set to music until 1880.
Uganda has the shortest national anthem – just eight bars of music – while Greece claims the longest with a total of 158 verses. The shortest lived national anthem is that of Somaliland (which lasted five days from 26 June to 1 July 1960) and the only nation without a national anthem of its own (perhaps obviously) is Cyprus, which uses the national anthems of both Greece and Turkey.
Of all the national anthems played during the World Cup, Uruguay’s is the most memorable. Known to Uruguayans by its first line – “Orientales, la Patria o la Tumba” – it is 105 bars long and lasts over four minutes. On first hearing it brings to mind the Grand Duchy of Pontevedro (think Merry Widow), or Ruritania. The World Cup version is much shortened and usually hashed up since the players hardly know the words and the crowd roars them two bars behind. On second hearing it sounds more like Rossini or Donizetti, especially the middle section which consists of a soprano aria!
The anthem’s lyrics are by Francisco Acuña de Figueroa, who was also the author of the lyrics of Paraguay’s national anthem. The words were approved on 8 July 1833, while the musical composition was made official only on 25 July 1848. The music was written by Francisco José Debali (photo right), a Hungarian-born composer who emigrated to Uruguay in 1838 and was director of the orchestra at the Sala de Comedias in Montevideo from 1841 to 1848.
Apparently Debali’s assistant, Fernando Quijano, who had submitted the composition to the government selection contest, was credited with its authorship because Debali had failed to grasp the content (written in Spanish) of the government decree naming his composition as the country’s anthem. First performed on 19 July 1845, the anthem’s theme recalls the chorus of gondoliers in Donizetti’s opera Lucrezia Borgia, written in 1833, but its operatic provenance is unmistakable and it is surely one of the jolliest and most bombastic national anthems ever penned.