Music
4:59 pm
Sun August 12, 2012

The Olympic Soundtrack: A Story Of National Pride

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. A potential moment of awkwardness at the Olympics. A British athlete stands proudly on the medal's podium and beside him or her, an athlete from Lichtenstein. First, Britain's national anthem rings out...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN")

RAZ: ..."God Save the Queen." And then it's Lichtenstein's turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OBEN AM JUNGEN RHEIN")

RAZ: A mistake? No, that is Lichtenstein's anthem. It's called "Oben am jungen Rhein." Both songs have the same exact tune. And how could this be? Well, to find out, we called Alex Marshall. He recently wrote an article about the Olympics and anthems for the BBC, and he's now writing a book on the history of national anthems.

ALEX MARSHALL: The world's first national anthem was the U.K.'s "God Save the Queen" back in, I think it's 1745. And the song was so popular it spread across Europe. And other governments and other monarchs started taking it up for their own. So the tune to "God Save the Queen" became this sort of symbol of nationalism. And for some reason, Lichtenstein has kept it and never changed. Most other countries, Russia, Germany, obviously wrote their own tunes.

But Lichtenstein, for whatever reason, they have just kept "God Save the Queen." So it leads to these very embarrassing situations when the English soccer team plays theirs in international tournaments.

RAZ: You just hear "God Save the Queen" twice.

MARSHALL: You just hear it twice. Yes, indeed. And you often hear the English soccer fans sing it twice. And honestly, because there's normally far more of them than there are of Lichtenstein, they tend to drown out the poor Liechtensteiners' who are singing their own anthem with their own words.

RAZ: Let's move on to another anthem you write about. This is a famous one, as well, pretty recognizable. This is France's national anthem. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LE MARSEILLAISE")

RAZ: And I was surprised when I read this article you wrote that there are other anthems that are completely derivative of this one, including Zimbabwe's...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLESSED BE THE LAND")

RAZ: ...and Oman's.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NASHID AS-SALAAM AS-SULTANI")

RAZ: That's amazing.

MARSHALL: "Le Marseillaise" is a fantastic tune. You know, if I was a country, and I wanted to steal a tune, I think I'd go for it first. I'd probably steal the lyrics, as well, because they're fantastically bloodthirsty.

RAZ: What are the lyrics?

MARSHALL: It was written at a time when France was expecting to go to war with Austria/Hungary, and they wanted a song to sort of inspire the army. And so most of the lyrics are about how invading soldiers are going to go and slit the throats of peoples' wives and children. And so it's basically trying to encourage people to fight by scaring them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LE MARSEILLAISE")

RAZ: So I understand that the IOC, they limit the length of anthems to 80 seconds. They will only play 80 seconds of an anthem. Are there any anthems that are, like, 12 minutes long?

MARSHALL: The longest one's Uruguay's. which is about six minutes, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORIENTALES LA PATRIA O LA TUMBA")

MARSHALL: Uruguay, you know, an outstanding tune. I mean, all the Latin American ones go on for a very long time, sort of five, six minutes. They're all basically mini-symphonies composed by failed opera composers. And they have fantastic crescendos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORIENTALES LA PATRIA O LA TUMBA")

MARSHALL: They're incredibly dramatic and romantic and, you know, I could happily listen to most of them, including Uruguay's for their full length.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORIENTALES LA PATRIA O LA TUMBA")

RAZ: Do you know if there ever - if there have ever been awkward moments at Olympic medal ceremony because of national anthems?

MARSHALL: You know, I wouldn't be surprised if there are, because there are anthem mistakes all the time. Kazakhstan, that's been the most infamous example recently. At a skiing tournament earlier this year, they played, for some unknown reason, Ricky Martin's "Living La Vida Loca" rather than the anthem.

And there's a clip on YouTube of the Kazakhstani officials, hands on chest, trying to stop laughing as Ricky Martin starts up in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING LA VIDA LOCA")

RICKY MARTIN: (Singing) She's into superstition, black cats...

MARSHALL: But as a sort of salutary note at the end of that, the Kazakhstani government has now passed this law where anyone who desecrates the national anthem will get a year in jail. And so I'm not too sure whether you're going to get many mistakes at all in the Kazakhstani anthem again.

RAZ: That's journalist Alex Marshall. He's writing a book about the composers of the world's national anthems. Alex, thanks so much.

MARSHALL: Great. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING LA VIDA LOCA")

MARTIN: (Singing) She'll make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.