Some thoughts on the National Anthem
"...A national anthem is an icon. It is a symbol of all that a nation is and wishes it to be. The outward form of the text and music point to deeper realities. A national anthem is about national belief, soul and ultimate meaning just as a liturgical anthem is about Christian belief and ultimate meaning...."
For sheer ubiquity, the British national anthem takes the cake! Not only is it the oldest such work (dating back to at least 1744), but at one time or another the melody has been used as the national anthem of Britain and its colonies as well as the United States, Russia, several independent German states, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark. It also influenced Haydn to compose the tune which we know as 'Austria' for the Austrian national anthem (now used by Germany for its national anthem).
The characterising of a national song as an 'anthem' is a practice that appeared in English speaking countries in the nineteenth century. From a scholarly point of view the nomenclature is incorrect. An anthem originated as a choral setting of a religious or moral text in England, generally designed for liturgical performance (New Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians). National anthems are not choral but communal, they are not religious but patriotic (though they may include religious elements), and they are not used for liturgical purposes but national ones.
In a deeper sense there is wisdom in the name. A national anthem is an icon. It is a symbol of all that a nation is and wishes it to be. The outward form of the text and music point to deeper realities. A national anthem is about national belief, soul and ultimate meaning just as a liturgical anthem is about Christian belief and ultimate meaning.
Advance Australia Fair has an interesting history. Although there is some argument about its origins, it was most probably written by Peter Dodds McCormick, a Scottish immigrant who was born in 1834(?) in Port Glasgow and died in 1916. He seems to have been an energetic and public-spirited man whose life was devoted to teaching, the church, children and music. He had arrived in Sydney in 1855 and was soon pursuing a school teaching career.
He became an elder in several Presbyterian churches in the Sydney area and was still giving religious instruction in public schools in the year of his death at the age of 82. He was the founder of many children's choirs and on several occasions organised and conducted massed choirs of quite mamoth dimensions. The first was in 1880 when he conducted a choir of 10,000 children and 1000 teachers (think of having to rehearse such a group without a microphone!) and for the laying of the foundation stone of the Queen Victoria statue he formed an ensemble of 15,000 school children!
A year before he died he wrote that he had attended a concert where national anthems were sung and felt very aggravated that there was not one note for Australia. On the way home in the bus, I concocted the first verse of my song, & when I got home I set it to music.
The first performance of the song was in 1878, and it subsequently became popular in schools. It was sung at the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The path from patriotic song to national anthem took almost one hundred years. Prime Minister E G Whitlam gave notice that he wished to change Australia's national song in 1972.
A contest was held, but though it attracted many entries it did not produce any suitable work. The country then held a referendum to decide among four songs including Advance Australia Fair and Waltzing Matilda. Advance Australia Fair was instated as national anthem in April 1974, withdrawn in 1976, and reinstated in 1984. The musical character of a national anthem is governed mostly by its melodic contour and rhythm. On the one hand God Save the Queen has a grandeur which is the result of its steady rhythmic pattern of mostly even crotchets.
The melodic contour consists of notes which are mostly a step apart and the range (the distance from lowest to highest note) is not very wide, so it is easy to sing. It is inspirational but the inspiration is not the result of its musical construction - it is the result of its long history and association. At the other extreme, the music of The Star Spangled Banner or La Marseilles stirs up national fervour: each is a call to arms and action (A beleaguered French general is reputed to have asked his superiors for either a few thousand more troops or a few copies of La Marseilles!). The stimulating quality of these two is related to the insistent dotted quaver/ semiquaver rhythm which pervades the music, the consistent use of triadic leaps which remind us of the bugle call, and the wide range. Consequently while both anthems are inspiring they are also difficult to sing.
Advance Australia Fair sits between the two extremes with some triadic leaps but much stepwise movement, a fairly wide range, but an even note rhythm. The music stirs us but is more 'user friendly' for amateur singers. Australians are ambivalent about their national anthem. Why? National anthems are often triumphalist in tone, and society at the beginning of the twenty-first century is uncomfortable with triumphalist statements whether in religious or cultural contexts.
Secondly, while civilised people today are not unhappy to be nationalist, that is, proud of their nation's culture, this nationalism is balanced by a new strong international outlook within both the national and the individual psyche. When my neighbour is middle Eastern, my television set is Japanese, my entertainment is American, and I take a vacation to Europe, it is hard to accept the somewhat parochial sentiments and moods of certain national anthems.
Thirdly, Australians generally are very uncomfortable about wearing their heart on their sleeve; they have opted not to demonstrate strong political or religious emotion in public. Interestingly they have channeled much of public expression of feeling into spectator sport. One football team even used the melody of La Marseilles as its theme song.
Fourthly, national anthems are also about common beliefs and unity. The advent of a multi-cultural society and the contemporary speed of change place the idea of eternal self-evident and commonly-held truths in doubt, or at least in flux.
And finally, Australia and its national anthem are young. They have not gathered the rich associations with history and culture of those of certain other countries. An atheistic and republican English person may sing God Save the Queen with perfect integrity. Why? Because he or she understands the 'meaning' to be neither a prayer nor an allegiance to a particular political structure but an expression of a rich history of nationhood through an infinite number of national experiences - good and bad. Australia may have to wait a century or two for that!
What then can be said about singing the national anthem in the liturgy? After the terrorist attacks in 2001, some churches grappled with the question of whether to sing or play The Star Spangled Banner or Advance Australia Fair in Christian worship. Because even national anthems which have religious imagery are as much secular and patriotic as they are sacred, it becomes a question of how to view the issues of 'church and state' or 'sacred and profane'. On the one hand we do not want to lend the support of the liturgy merely to promote nationalistic ideals. On the other hand we do not want to exclude our nation and national well-being from the intentions of our prayers. Does it matter to liturgical use if the national anthem carries with it secular associations, for example, of success at sporting contests? Is singing the national anthem an aural equivalent to displaying the Australian flag in the sanctuary?
Perhaps the question is not so much whether we can/should sing the national anthem but rather why we would sing it in church and what it would mean if we did. I suspect that most Christian communities would find it appropriate and helpful on certain occasions. For example, it might make a very suitable recessional song at the end of Mass on Australia Day and Anzac Day. One way around these potential problems is to recognise that Peter McCormick wrote more than two verses of Advance Australia Fair.
Here is his third verse which might be especially suitable for use when sung in church:
With Christ our head and cornerstone,
we'll build our nation's might
whose way and truth and light alone
can guide our path aright.
Our lives a sacrifice of love
reflect our Master's care.
With faces turned to heaven above
Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing
Advance Australia Fair.
Melbourne Anglican Dr Robin Sharwood wrote another version in 1988. He described it an 'alternative version of Advance Australia Fair for use in Divine Service'.
o God, who made this ancient land,
and set it round with sea,
sustain us all who dwell herein,
one people, strong and free.
Grant we may guard its generous gifts,
its beauty rich and rare.
In your great name, may we proclaim,
'Advance, Australia fair!'
With thankful hearts then let us sing, 'Advance, Australia fair!'
Your star-bright Cross aslant our skies
gives promise sure and true
that we may know this land of ours
a nation blessed by you.
May all who come within its bounds
its peace and plenty share,
and grant that we may prayerfully
Advance Australia Fair.
With thankful hearts then let us sing, '
Advance, Australia fair!'
The author in whom copyright is vested gladly gives permission for the wider use of these words, without fee, provided their authorship is acknowledged and no alterations are made.
Adapted from an article by Ralph Moreton for Liturgy News