FEBRUARY 10, 2011 1:16PM

The devil gets all the good tunes

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Why do the worst regimes have the snappiest anthems? 

Just last Monday, in a chivalrous defense of Christina Aguilera, Slate re-ran a piece, "Our Irrational Anthem," in which Jacob Weisberg argues that the "Star-Spangled Banner" casts vocalists into a grammatical and compositional minefield. It’s too long, too larded with clunky Augustan constructions, and sets its high notes too high, Weisberg says. Only a mutant could get it right.

Call me a sentimentalist, but I like to think the booby traps in our national anthem mirror the benign chaos of our society. We Americans love freedom; too much order goes against the grain with us. Conversely the really slick productions have always emerged from the cruelest, most tyrannical societies. As a general rule, if a country’s national anthem is too easily sung or too stimulating for the soul, chances are somebody envisioned it emerging from the throats of a marching, panting mob.

Ir all started with "La Marseillaise." In 1792, aiming to inspire revolutionary France's Army of the Rhine, Captain Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle penned lyrics so bloodthirsty that all of General Patton's speeches seem an homage to them:

The bloody standard is raised!.Do you hear, in the countryside/The howling of those ferocious soldiers?/They're coming right into your arms/To slit the throats of your sons and lady friends!

To arms, citizens!/Form your battalions!/Let's march, let's march!/Let tainted blood/Water our furrows!

Some scholars contend that Mozart's piano concerto no. 25. inspired the song's rousing melody. If so, the "Mozart effect" seems to have taken hold. Later that year, at the battle of Valmy, French armies prevailed -- against Germans, no less. In 1795, France's ruling Directory adopted "La Marseillaise" as the national anthem. If Barnes & Noble had existed, surely the song would have turned up first on the "Baby Needs Revolutionary Spirit" CDs on sale in the music section.

In 1871, "La Marseillaise" gave birth -- sort of. Eugène Pottier, a transport worker elected to the municipal council of the Paris Commune, expressed his revolutionary ideals in verse, which he intended to set to the tune of "La Marsellaise." Pottier titled his creation "L'Internationale." Though his lyrics softened somewhat the genocidal edge of Rouget de Lisle‘s, their adversarial spirit makes them worthy heirs to his melody:

Hideous in their apotheosis,/The kings of the mine and of the rail!/Have they ever done anything other/Than steal work?/Inside the strongboxes of the gang,/Which work had created melted,/By ordering that they give it back:/The people want only their due.

In the event, "L’Internationale" was snatched in its infancy, so to speak, from its parent. In 1888, Pierre De Geyter set Pottier’s lyrics to a tune of his own composition -- if anything, even more of a toe-tapper than "La Marseillaise." In 1922, the Soviet Union adopted "L’Internationale" as its national anthem, but not before translators had daubed on an extra coat of class resentment:

Enough blood-sucking, vampires!/With prison, with taxes, with poverty!/All power, all the world's blessings are yours,/Whereas our right is an empty sound!/But we will build life differently…

The Nazis, when their time came, could hardly hope to compete. But to their credit, they tried. In 1929, twenty-two-year-old Horst Wessel, who had dropped out of school to work as a full-time Brownshirt, captured the National Socialist spirit in the following lines. Alongside their counterparts on the Left, they sound positively banal:

Clear the streets for the brown battalions!/Clear the streets for the storm troops!/Already, millions, upon seeing the swastika, are filled with hope;/The day for freedom and bread is dawning.

The song, which Nazi Germany proclaimed its co-national anthem (alongside "Deutschland, Uber Alles") in 1933, is best known as "Der Horst Wessel-Lied," after its lyricist. Its melody, however, is of obscure origin; some researchers claim it began as a nineteenth-century Viennese folk song. This sounds about right. Simple, sweet and not especially martial, it could, if played at two-thirds Nazi speed, pass for a Teutonic "Darling Clementine." Before Wessel’s time, it was seized by the Imperial German Navy, who set to it these sentimental verses:

Gone, gone are all the happy hours/That we spent on the beautiful Baltic shore./Things were so beautiful there between us./And it was the best time for us all.

But for an ugly accident of history, it could have been remembered fondly as the "Hoist Vessel-Lied."

It was during their death match against the Nazis that the Soviets abruptly switched gears. For all its ardor, "L’Internationale" had come to seem awfully international for what had already been dubbed the Great Patriotic War. Cleverly fusing socialist solidarity with Russian nationalism, Sergei Mikhailov and Gabriel El-Registan penned the following opening:

Unbreakable union/Of free Republics/Joined together/By great Rus'/Long live/the (Created by the will of the peoples)/Soviet Union!

Titled "Soyuz Nerushimyi," or "Unbreakable Union," after its first words, the song owes its power to Alexander Alexandrov’s melody, which, for sheer majesty, can hold its own against any baroque Te Deum. But its appeal doesn’t end there. Alexandrov, who began his career as a boy chorister in St. Petersburg’s Kazan’ cathedral, infused it with a uniquely Russian quality: dushevnost'. Combining spiritual receptiveness and emotional honesty, dushevnost' is hard to translate with a single word, but its presence rescues the tune from arrogance. Like murals of brawny peasants and factory workers snapping allegorical chains, it shows communist triumphalism at its most fetching.

"Aegukka," or "Patriotic Song," North Korea's national anthem, isn’t as close a match for "Soyuz Nerushimyi" as "My Sweet Lord" is for "He's So Fine." Nevertheless, the two bear a close enough family resemblance to raise the question of whether composer Kim Wongyun was influenced -- consciously or unconsciously -- by his Soviet predecessor. The arrangements share a certain soulful bombast, a hectoring earnestness calculated to shame the bourgeoisie. .At least to my ear, "Aegukka" is the inferior model, but then hearing "Soyuz Nerushimyi" at the impressionable age of thirteen, on the Rocky IV soundtrack, may have spoiled me.

If any totalitarian society could be expected to represent itself with a hymn both catchy and ground-breaking, it would have to be Cuba, home of Jose Marti and the rumba. No such luck. "La Bayamesa," composed by Perucho Figueredo in 1868 during the battle of Bayamo, is nothing more or less than your boilerplate to-the-barricades number. Even arranged by bandleader Jose Norman, author of "Cuban Pete," it sounds no jazzier than a Moorish "Marseillaise."

But Cuba has always been the exception that proves the rule. (For example, it’s still totalitarian after all these years.) The point is, we should take the same pride in our hard-to-sing anthem as we take in our easy-to-beat legal system. As Judge Learned Hand might have said, it’s better for ten good singers to botch the thing than it is for one bad singer to die trying.

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