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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Month of Anthems Away

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With May well under sail, Victory Day in Russia (May 9) and Memorial Day in the United States (May 28) will soon be offering up stirring renditions of the two countries' national anthems. Or not. If the holidays evoke both triumph and solemnity, the anthems evoke a good deal else, and the evoking is frequently done with unfeigned indifference or way off key.

The Russian anthem boasts a history as strange and ambiguous as its putative subject. The Soviet Union functioned without a national hymn from its origin until 1944, when music by Alexander Alexandrov was joined to words extolling Josef Stalin to make the first Soviet anthem. De-Stalinization in the 1950s meant that the tyrant-friendly lyrics of Sergei Mikhalkov and Gabriel El-Registan had to go; they did, only to be replaced by ... nothing.

The music-but-no-words limbo served for several decades as eloquent testimony to the Soviet state's inability to define itself publicly in noble terms, or even try. In 1977, a set of new and resolutely soporific lyrics by the same Sergei Mikhalkov was finally plugged into the gap, giving Soviet Olympic winners a musical option other than humming on the victory podium.

After Mikhalkov's "indissoluble" Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, some 6,000 hopeful proposals for a new anthem poured into Moscow, the torrent ending only when newly anointed President Vladimir Putin took things in hand in 2000. To the dismay of some and to the bewilderment of others, Putin decided that what the new Russia needed for its new anthem was the old Soviet music plus the old Soviet lyricist, then pushing 90, giving it one more bash.

The result was, predictably, a discouraging hodgepodge -- more blandly generic Mikhalkovian versifying ("Be glorious, country!") chained to the theme tune of a failed state that richly deserved its failure. Few people know the lyrics; some pointedly do not rise when the music is played; still others sing a spirited satirical rendition by Vladimir Voinovich extolling a citizenry that changes national symbols because "they have nothing more important to do." Yet Putin seems unwilling to admit the obvious -- that this song is an uninspired and uninspiring flop -- and has even criticized the national football team for chewing gum during its ceremonial playing. He's lucky they didn't doze off.

The story of the U.S. anthem is also representative of the country, in this case because the saga involves three things America has in overabundance: rockets, bombs and lawyers. During the War of 1812, attorney Francis Scott Key wrote an ode on the explosion-enhanced defense of Baltimore's Fort McHenry. Key gave the poem to another lawyer, Joseph Nicholson, who set the words to a popular British pub song. The song steadily gained recognition, but the "Star Spangled Banner," as it came to be called, did not become the official anthem until the anthill of lawyers comprising the U.S. Congress passed a law to that effect in 1931.

Today, few Americans are even aware that there are four verses to their national anthem; fewer still can sing the words they actually recognize ("the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air") because the song's 1 1/2-octave range and standard setting in A-flat or B-flat make it notoriously difficult for nonprofessionals. Indeed, in the anthem's most famous renditions, the performers discarded its hidebound rigidities for a slow and bluesy motif (Jose Feliciano), an anti-war guitar fusillade (Jimi Hendrix) or intentional musical ineptitude (Leslie Nielsen, Roseanne Barr) -- and each caused considerable controversy.

Do Americans want or need an unsingable anthem best known for rockets, bombs and scandal because some jacklegs in Washington officially stamped it three generations ago? Better anthems are certainly available, with "America the Beautiful" leading the list. How great would it be if instead of explosive devices, the first thing that non-Americans thought of at the mention of the United States was "good" crowned with "brotherhood," particularly after a U.S. team has just pummeled one of theirs in an Olympic final?

If it's true that nations get the governments they deserve, maybe some get their national anthems tossed into the bargain. While Russia and the United States both deserve better songs, the point may soon be moot in at least one respect: At the 2008 Olympics, the tune most often bursting in air may well be the Chinese national anthem -- a catchy little number which, if you can believe it, was apparently produced entirely without professional legal assistance or a single syllable from Sergei Mikhalkov.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.