Last Friday Sam Roggeveen called on Interpreter readers to nominate their pick for the best national anthem. This is the first response.
Judging national anthems without context is akin to asking whether the madeleines baked by Proust's Aunt Leonie were the best sponge-cakes ever. It's not just about the music, and certainly not about the words. A lot of what moves us to emotion is context: what are the circumstances in which we experience the anthem, or remember past renditions?
Who can forget the scene in Casablanca when Victor Laszlo orders the band to play La Marseillaise, Ric nods, and the café patrons rise up to drown out the German carousing?
For me, The Star Spangled Banner wins, because of circumstance. The context was Saigon in 1970. The PX cinema was filled with US service personnel — enlisted and conscripts. Half the audience stood up for the anthem and half of those who remained seated heckled the first group with loud calls of 'lifer, lifer'. For some standing, and for many more who remained seated, this was an emotion-filled moment, with US soldiers torn between observation of a deeply-held ritual and unhappiness about where their country had taken them.