FIFA World Cup 2014 has been by far the most exciting one I have ever watched. One of the pleasant fringe-benefits has been listening to the national anthems of the participating countries. For various reasons, most of us are quite well acquainted with the anthems of Portugal, the United Kingdom, the USA, France and Germany. But so many others, especially from Asia, Africa Central and South America, are not heard so often. A lot of them are really quite beautiful.
I was particularly taken by the Himnos Nacionales of Central and South America. It is striking to note how many of them sound like the sort of music that Rossini, Donizetti or even Verdi would have written as an operatic overture, aria or chorus.
Let’s take host country Brazil for starters. The Hino Nacional Brasileiro was composed by Francisco Manuel da Silva (1795-1865) in 1831, a few years after Brazil’s declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. Unsurprisingly, Silva was also an operatic composer, with one major work ‘O prestigio da Lei’ (The Prestige of Law) to his name. He was also one of the founders of Imperial Academia de Música e Ópera Nacional (National Imperial Music and Opera Academy), of the Rio de Janeiro Philharmonic, and of the precursor of today’s Escola de Música da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Brazil laid down the foundations of music pedagogy and performance right at the very beginning of their existence.
The Hino Nacional is certainly inspired by Italian comic opera, with a Rossinian introduction (The Barber of Seville comes to mind) before the lyrics begin, with references to the Ipiranga, the stream from which Dom Pedro I proclaimed the independence of Brazil. It is two stanzas long, and with the intervening instrumental interludes make the anthem’s performance time twice as long as our Jana Gana Mana.
Even more reminiscent of Italian bel canto opera, and my favourite of the lot is the Himno Nacional de Uruguay. The anthem’s theme is supposedly ‘inspired’ by the Prologue of the opera Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). Its introductory preamble is a mini-overture, and over a whole minute long. When fully performed, it is the longest national anthem, with 105 bars of music and lasting six minutes. It was composed by Hungarian-born émigré Debály Ferenc Jószef, whose name was Latinised to Francisco José Debali (1791-1859).
Controversy still surrounds the origin of the music of Paraguay’s national anthem, which bears quite some similarity to Himno Nacional de Uruguay. It is believed at least by some that Debali was the original composer (but not credited at that time, due to his difficulty in understanding Spanish!), and that it was later modified. The lyrics for both the Uruguayan and the Paraguayan anthems were written by Francisco Acuña de Figueroa, Uruguayan poet and writer.
The music to Himno Nacional Mexicano was written by Spanish composer Jaime Nunó Roca (1824-1908), who had studied under Italian opera composer Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870), and a contemporary of Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini and Verdi. His 58 operas (one of which interestingly is “Il Vascello de Gama”, on the life of Vasco da Gama) have faded into obscurity. However Mercadante’s writing served as an antecedent to the now-famous dramatic ‘Verdi baritone’ role. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that an anthem written by his pupil Nunó should sound so Verdian, with segments highly suggestive of the Triumphal March from Aida. After the overthrow of his friend the President of Mexico (under whose tenure the anthem was commissioned from him), Nunó emigrated to the US, where he found work as a conductor and opera director. Although he died in New York, his remains were exhumed and interred in the Rotonda delos Hombres Ilustres (Rotunda of Illustrious Men) in Mexico City, where they remain. The original anthem had a staggering ten stanzas interspersed by a chorus. Even though it is usually shortened to include just stanzas 1, 5, 6 and 10, it is still rather long. The version we heard at the World Cup had just the chorus, first stanza and the chorus.
Himno Nacional de Chile was composed by Ramón Carnicer (1789-1855), a Catalan composer and opera conductor who never set foot in Chile. His 13 operas are out of the popular repertory and his fame rests solely on the anthem. General Pinochet reintroduced the excised third stanza of the anthem praising the armed forces and the police (surprise, surprise) which was removed again after his ouster.
Himno Nacional de la República de Colombia (titled “İOh Gloria Inmarcesible!” or “Oh Unfading glory!”) has as its lyrics a poem by former four-time Colombian president Rafael Núñez and set to music by Italian-born composer Oreste Sindici (1828-1904) who arrived in Bogotá as tenor in an opera company and never left. The operatic influence is clear from its almost von Suppé-esque trumpet fanfare beginning.
The Costa Rican national anthem has its music composed by Manuel Maria Gutiérrez Flores (1829-1887), regarded then as the country’s foremost musician. It is said that when he modestly declined the order to write the music for the anthem, he was thrown into prison and told he would not be released until a usable piece of music had been composed by him! Whether the story is true or not, it is a rousing if somewhat conventional labour of national pride.
The music to Himno Nacional Argentino was set by Spanish composer Blas Parera ((1777-1840), who spent some of his life in Buenos Aires. He was a music teacher, and the piece betrays both his acquaintance with the sonata form of Haydn and Mozart and with contemporary Italian opera.
(An edited version of this article was published on 20 July 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)