Pride and joy

Earlier this week, India went down <g data-gr-id="133">fighting to</g> much higher-ranked Oman in football World Cup qualifying match. When I mentioned this to my father, he asked, “by how many goals”, and was pleasantly surprised to learn of the solitary goal difference, AND of captain Sunil Chhetri’s scorcher to put India on the scoreboard! The Internet was buzzing with reports about India’s spirited outing at the Kanteerava Stadium in <g data-gr-id="108">Banaglore</g>, and I knew I had to watch a replay. It was a match that saw four footballers debut in national colours, a wonder goal from Chhetri who, capitalizing on a poor defence clearance sent a stunner off his left foot past the Omani goalie’s right and into the net, and a deft touch by striker Robin Singh ruled out, rather controversially, as offside. But, I’m not here to write a match review, don’t you worry. Please excuse <g data-gr-id="129">the verbal</g> diarrhea above; being a die-hard footie fan, I was dying to gloat about my country’s <g data-gr-id="130">much improved</g> show. But, today is about something that, in fact, struck me before kick-off. It was the moment when the national anthems were sung, and what I felt I’m not sure can be described in words.

Since childhood, I’ve been spellbound by national anthems. Not because I’m fervently patriotic but, because I come from a family of passionate football fans; combined with my love of music and my general fondness for anything a bit sentimental, that seems to have made my penchant for a good anthem inevitable. Plus, I’m Bengali, and we love to love anything that has even the slightest Bengali touch. Ergo, my love for our beautiful national anthem, a creation of Rabindranath Tagore.

My experience with national anthems began <g data-gr-id="138">early,</g> when my father sat me down to watch the football World Cup in 1990. I might have only been a child, but I didn’t miss a thing, especially the host team Italy’s long-haired Roberto Baggio’s sublime goal against Czechoslovakia and <g data-gr-id="137">21 year-old</g> future captain Paolo Maldini’s blue eyes! But, what fascinated me was to hear the players and thousands of fans proudly singing their anthem at the start of every match. I, for most part, didn’t (still don’t) understand most, but there’s something so magical about them that till date I get goosebumps all the time, every time! Just last month, I was watching the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Aston Villa, and my chest swelled with joy and shared pride to see all of Wembley singing the British national anthem along with soprano Laura Wright! 

The anthems at the 2012 London Olympics were performed by members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the man responsible for arranging all 205 of them was composer and cellist Philip Sheppard. “There is definitely a national anthem formula”, the BBC quoted him saying, “and it’s a westernised format, as if people have just gone through a Methodist hymnal and picked a march with dotted rhythms, often in B-flat major and a clichéd trumpet tune. It’s the anthems that are anomalous to that which tend to be brilliant. Songs that come up from the street, rather than being imposed by the state, can be kind of magical and genuinely stirring.”

Like the French anthem, La Marseillaise, which was a revolutionary song, an anthem to freedom, a patriotic call to mobilise all the citizens and an exhortation to fight against the tyranny and the foreign invasion. It acquired its nickname after being sung in Paris by volunteers from Marseille marching on the capital. The anthem’s evocative melody and lyrics have led to its widespread use as a song of revolution and its incorporation into many pieces of classical and popular music. Django Reinhardt released in 1946 a jazz version of La Marseillaise in his song Echoes of France, and the Beatles’ hit single of 1967, “All You Need Is Love”, used the opening bars of “La Marseillaise” as an introduction!
Sheppard reckons anthems are hard to judge from an objective musical standpoint. “The reason so many anthems are marching tunes is because that’s often a reason for it existing: it is literally something to rally people behind,” Sheppard points out. “So, like a flag, it becomes an instrument of the state. And, it’s potentially dynamite: you mess with an anthem at your peril, because people will live and die for them. So you can have a social opinion, but you can’t put a value judgement on an anthem. It would be like having an opinion about oxygen. This might be the lifeblood of someone’s nation, so who’s to say if it has musical merit?”

When asked about his favourite anthems, Sheppard admitted to being a fan of many of the Latin American national anthems. “You have this Italianate opera tradition in South America,” he explains. “Many of their anthems wouldn’t sound out of place in La Scala (famous opera house in Milan); they’re fabulous. You hear those anthems, Brazil, Bolivia [and] Uruguay, you’re up on your feet!” he chimes happily! Uruguay, he particularly feels, has a lot of, er, bite (my apologies, Luis Suárez!), in its anthem! “Their anthem is six minutes, 50 seconds long and it has about six different tunes inside, it’s like an entire overture in the Verdi (Italian Romantic composer known for his operas) style!” he laughs. 

Great operatic singer Placido Domingo performed before the World Cup final on 11 July. “I always think music and sport are the two great things many people can understand without any need to really speak the language,” the 73-year-old legend said when asked why he wanted to be involved. Sheppard – like me – agrees <g data-gr-id="107">whole-heartedly</g>, “It’s social glue!” he enthuses. “Music and sport are the two great uniters of the world.”

The author is a snotty single child, mountain junkie, playback singer, Austen addict and dreams of singing alongside Buddy Guy
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