Whose Country ’Tis Of Thee?

Jun 30, 2016

As our nation gets decked out in red white & blue to celebrate Independence Day, have you ever wondered what qualifies as the most patriotic song? I do think about these things. It’s the rabbithole I usually find myself going doing when sitting in 100 degree heat watching a parade go by while waving a little flag and slowing dying of heatstroke.

Originally when I put my fingers on the keyboard to pound out this column, I was planning to put together a list of classical pieces that incorporate patriotic or American themes, like Henri Vieuxtemps’ “Greeting To America,” Earl Wild’s “Doo-Dah Variations” and pretty much everything John Philipp Sousa ever wrote.

But — and this can sometimes be my downfall — I like to research. For me, embarking on a simple research jaunt often becomes an epic journey. For example, I found out that “Yankee Doodle,” the song liberally quoted in the piece Belgian composer Vieuxtemps wrote for his 1843 tour of the U.S.A. was originally sung by British military men to mock us Yanks (although American rebels turned lemons into lemonade by changing the lyrics and singing their own version that made fun of the English right back at them).

I also discovered that our official national anthem is a contrafactum (setting new text to an existing tune). I didn’t know what that word meant, of course, until I was researching the song and found out that while the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” were written by American born Francis Scott Key after witnessing the British bombarding of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in 1814, that the words were set to a song that had already been written decades earlier by — hold on to your hats — a man who hailed from the country that bombed us! A Brit! Not only that, but the tune had already been around since 1773 when it was called “To Anacreon in Heav’n,” a bawdy drinking song that invoked a “Yellow-Hair’d God and his nine fusty Maids.”

There are plenty of other fascinating tidbits about American patriotic themes, but you could’ve knocked me over with a dandy’s feather when I realized that one of this country’s most long-lived songs of patriotism, the song that had the distinction of being America’s de-facto national anthem before “The Star-Spangled Banner” got the official designation, is not only a contrafactum as well, but it might just be the most often used theme in classical music.

The tune has long served as the United Kingdom's national anthem.

That song is “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” This song is also known as “America,” even though the word is never uttered in the original four verses, or in any of the other nine verses added later. Samuel Francis Smith wrote the lyrics while he was a seminary student in Massachusetts in 1831. But the song had already been around for several hundred years, the theme being used over and over again for other compositions.

This song also traces its roots back to England. The songwriting credit often goes to keyboard virtuoso and composer John Bull (1562–1628) who worked for King James, and penned a little ditty the English like to call “God Save the King” (or Queen, depending on who’s currently got the job). Others believe the original source was from an old Scots carol, “Remember O Thou Man.”

Whoever hummed it first, the tune has long served as the United Kingdom’s national anthem. And that’s not the only country that’s using it. Australia, Belize, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Liechtenstein and Norway have all borrowed the song, but set their own lyrics to it. And that’s not all. About 140 composers in all (so far) have used it as a jumping off point (but usually as a finale) in works they put their name for the past few hundred years.

Around 1763, Johann Christian Bach included a set of variations on the song in the finale to his Keyboard Concerto No. 6. About 30 years later, Papa Haydn heard the anthem during his visit to London, and on the way back home used the song to write “God Save Emperor Francis,” and later it became used as the German national anthem as well. You’ve heard Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory”? Right after the drum roll at the beginning, he incorporates it too.  He even did it again, more obviously, in 1802 with a set of piano variations. There are also pieces by Henry Purcell and Thomas Arne that use some of the tune. But none of these variations point to the inspiration for the American version of the song.

That honor goes to Italian composer Muzio Clemento, who spent most of his life in England. While there, in 1816, he wrote his third symphony, the “Great National Symphony,” which paid tribute to his adopted country. It was this particular work that Samuel Francis Smith heard, inspiring him to write new lyrics and call it “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”.

Around the same time, Fernando Sor worked the theme into one of his guitar studies, then Carl Maria von Weber used it at the end of his “Jubel Overture”. Copycat Joachim Raff used the same idea in his own “Jubelouverture” about 50 years later.

Donizetti and Rossini both used “God Save The Queen/King” in their operas (“Roberto Devereux” and “Il Viaggio a Reims”), and a few other Italians included it in their works as well, including Verdi’s “Hymn of the Nations” and Paganini’s Op. 9 variations. Throughout the second half of the 19th century Franz Liszt, Johann Strauss Sr, Arthur Sullivan, Sigismond Thalberg and Charles Ives all used the very same tune in pieces, and in 1912 Claude Debussy quoted from it in the opening of one of his preludes.

Perhaps the strangest use of this hymn in classical music dates to sometime before 1835, when South Indian composer Muthuswami Dikshitar composed some Sanskrit pieces using “God Save The (…well, you know).” If you’re a fan of Carnatic nottu swaras, the composition is called “Santatam Pahimam Sangita Shyamale,” and no, I don’t have it in my music library.

However, a lot of the other works mentioned in my musings do reside in the JPR library, and in the week leading up to the 4th of July, I’ll share as many of them as possible, even though many of them, ironically, are showing patriotic support to the very country that the USA is celebrating its independence from.

Valerie Ing is the Northern California Program Coordinator for JPR, and can be heard weekday afternoons hosting Siskiyou Music Hall on the Classics & News Service from our Redding, California studios.