The national anthem we sing nowadays was originally the anthem of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Because many people can't identify with this song, for years now many groups have called for a new national anthem. Recently, the Taiwan Peace Foundation (台灣和平基金會) announced a competition inviting people to compose lyrics and music for a new national song. As the cash prize is quite generous, a lot of people are participating, and the competition has drawn a lot of attention.
The national anthem represents the country. Within the country, it can bring the hearts of the people together and unite them. To the outside, it represents the country, its history and special characteristics. Everyone therefore has high expectations of the words and music of a national anthem. A look at the history of the anthems of other countries might provide some ideas.
The German anthem has had a complicated history. It started out as a song written by the Austrian composer Franz Josef Haydn in 1797 in praise of Emperor Franz the Second of Austria. This ode to the emperor became the anthem of the Austria-Hungarian empire until its collapse in 1918. In 1841, professor August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote a poem titled Das Lied der Deutschen. The poem was published to the melody of Haydn's eulogy of the Emperor. In the Weimar Republic, this Lied was chosen to be the German national anthem.
When the Nazis took over, they retained the song, but only sang the first of its three verses and played Das Horst-Wessel-Lied after that. After World War II, to avoid controversy, it was decided that only the third verse be sung as the national anthem, which went: "Unity and rights and freedom, for the German fatherland." Germany has been an empire and a republic, ruled by the Nazis and divided into East and West Germany and reunited in 1990. Through all this time, although the words of the anthem changed, the melody remained the same, because of Haydn's deeply touching music and the Germans' identification with the song. This history shows that the lyrics of an anthem can be changed according to whoever rules the country.
The British national anthem is even more interesting. Great Britain's God Save the King/Queen is a very old song known by many around the world. It is not only the national anthem of Great Britain, but has also been the anthem of other Commonwealth countries, and its melody has at times also been used for the anthems of other countries, including Norway, Germany from 1871 to 1922, Russia until 1833, Sweden, and Switzerland. It is still used by Liechtenstein. Even the patriotic American song My Country, 'Tis of Thee uses the same melody, as does a song of an independence movement in French New Caledonia. This shows that the melody of a national anthem does not have to be unique.
The lyrics of the South Korean anthem were written at the end of the 19th century, but the words were set to a Scottish folk song, until composer Ahn Eak-tae composed a melody for the song. This is a case in which the lyrics stayed the same while the melody changed.
Some national anthems are laid down in law, some naturally became a song that all the people could identify with.
Can a national anthem be changed? Of course it can. How can it be changed? All the people can participate. I invite everybody to compose lyrics and show their love and hope for our homeland Taiwan.
Yan Lu-fen is a professor in the Department of Music at the Taipei National University of the Arts.
Translated by Anna Stiggelbout
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