The 10 best national anthems
23 November 2023, 17:14 | Updated: 15 December 2023, 17:09
What are the 10 best national anthems?
From sports podiums and pitches to state events, national anthems form a central part of a nation’s identity. But which one is the best? Anne-Marie Minhall picks her Top 10, from a classical music perspective.
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No matter which country they belong to, national anthems are all sung with fervent passion and patriotism.
In times of triumph and trouble, on royal or state occasions and on the sporting pitch, these anthems lay bare the beating hearts of a nation, united in song.
But putting passion aside, which national anthems top the chart on musical merit alone...?
We put the question to Classic FM presenter Anne-Marie Minhall – and here is her Top 10.
It’s France’s epic march, La Marseillaise that tops the list. Anne-Marie describes it as “bold, catchy and revolutionary in every sense of the word.” It was created during the French Revolution, after all.
Appointed national anthem in 1795, it was banned in 1804 by Napoleon Bonaparte, thanks to its revolutionary origins, and was finally reinstated in 1879.
It’s since been quoted by Verdi, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, and even The Beatles. Praise indeed.
WWI armistice centennial: Army choir plays French anthem 'La Marseillaise'
“I’ve learnt so many interesting things about this iconic piece of music,” she says. “Beethoven was so impressed with it – describing it as the best national anthem he had encountered – that he wove it into his orchestral work, ‘Wellington’s Victory’.
“It’s timeless. Enduring. Evergreen. An anthem that is a constant in good times and in hard times.”
‘God Save the King’ sung by The Queen's Six at Windsor Castle
It’s certainly one of the best-known national anthems, but is The Star-Spangled Banner up to the task musically? Yes, says Anne-Marie.
“Instantly recognisable. Pretty much straight to the vocal and we thank the poet Francis Scott Key for that.
“He was inspired by the sight of the American flag flying over Fort McHenry in Maryland during the British bombardment of the fort and he scribbled the initial verse of his song on the back of a letter.”
Here’s one of the most moving and quintessentially American renditions, by country legend Chris Stapleton to open the 2022 Super Bowl:
Chris Stapleton Sings the National Anthem at Super Bowl LVII
No other national anthem is quite like South Africa’s national anthem, ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (Lord, Bless Africa)’.
A multilingual masterwork, the lyrics feature five of the country’s 11 official languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. It’s also the only ‘neo-modal’ national anthem in the world – meaning it begins and ends in different keys.
Anne-Marie says: “A stirring barnstormer from the get go. This combines ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ and ‘Die Stem/The Call of South Africa’. Definitely one to make the spine tingle.”
South Africa's passionate national anthem | Rugby World Cup 2023
Brazil’s gloriously orchestral national anthem could easily be mistaken for a work by Rossini.
It has two lengthy verses, and Brazilian law insists that any vocal performances of the anthem must include both of them in full.
Luckily for the vocal cords of the Brazilian football team and their fans, singing along with the instrumental version doesn’t count as a ‘vocal performance’, and they only need to sing the one verse.
And if you’re a football fan, you’ve probably heard it quite a few times. As Anne-Marie notes: “Brazil has won more FIFA World Cups than any other country (five!) and their anthem effuses unfettered joy.”
Brazil: An Anthem for the Ages | FIFA World Cup
Chosen to represent the nation of Australia by national poll, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was written by its composer, Peter Dodds McCormick in 1878.
He was on the bus home from a concert that featured ‘all the national anthems of the world’, feeling fairly miffed that nothing had been played for Australia, and began writing it in his head.
Home to Melbourne, the ‘sporting capital of the world’, Australia dominates the sports landscape from pool to pitch, meaning that its national anthem is heard often.
It’s cricket that cemented an appreciation of the melody for life-long cricket fan Anne-Marie: “The Ashes is the ultimate series. The rivalry between England and Australia dates back to 1882 after the home side lost to the Baggy Greens on home soil at the Oval for the very first time.
“There was a mock obit in the Sporting Times for the end of English cricket, and so the Ashes urn came to be.
“It’s always the most exciting, engaging summer/winter of cricket – drama guaranteed. Hearing ‘Advance Australia Fair’ sung during an English or Australian summer means a great deal!”
Australia's rugby union team the Wallabies sing anthem in Indigenous language for first time
“Dare I say that there’s something Christmassy about this beautiful tune?” Anne-Marie says.
‘Der er et yndigt land’ translates to ‘There is a Lovely Country’, and is one of two national anthems for Denmark.
“This is the one you’ll hear at sporting occasions,” Anne-Marie explains. “The other, ‘Kong Christian stod ved højen mast’, is the unofficial royal anthem.”
Denmark National Anthem | The Queen Margrethe II 50th Golden Jubilee
Norway’s national anthem was written by Rikard Nordraak, a friend of Edvard Grieg. Although it has been sung since the mid-1800s, it wasn’t officially recognised as the national anthem until 2019.
It’s a snapshot of Norway’s proud identity, with nods to its complicated history with its Scandinavian neighbours. Fitting, then, that its premiere performance should take place during a celebration of 50 years of Norwegian independence.
“Our national anthem is that of a small, peace-loving anthem,” its lyricist, Bjønstjerne Bjørnson said. “But if it is sung in the hour of danger, determination clad in armour speaks from every line.”
“There’s a definite contemplative vibe here,” Anne-Marie concurs.
Ja, vi elsker dette landet (2020)
If you’ve ever watched the Spanish team ahead of a football match, you might have noticed that they won’t sing along, unlike all the other teams.
It’s not because they don’t know the words – in fact, it’s because there aren’t any.
“There are no official lyrics for this anthem,” Anne-Marie says. “Though many have tried to bring some.
“This is also one of the oldest national tunes around dating back to the 18th century. It’s short, too, coming in at around forty seconds in its shortest form.”
National Anthem of SPAIN at Royal Palace of Madrid
Somewhat unusually, Finland’s national anthem wasn’t originally in their native language, but in Swedish.
For more than 500 years Finland existed under Swedish rule, so when poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg was born, just five years before Finnish independence, he grew up in a Swedish-speaking family.
Runeberg would go on to be considered Finland’s national poet, only writing in his first language. So when German composer Fredrik Pacius set his poem to music, it was the Swedish Vårt Land, or ‘Our Land’).
It was translated to Finnish in 1867 by Julius Krohn, now called Maamme.
“There are some eleven verses to the national tune of Finland,” says Anne-Marie. “However, usually it’ll just be the first and last sung at special events.
“The debate continues though as to whether or not the blaze of sound that is Finlandia by Jean Sibelius should actually be Finland’s calling card...”
Tarja Turunen - Maamme (Finnish national anthem)