Next Monday, Placido Domingo was supposed to stand up in Madrid and sing some proposed new words to the Spanish national anthem. The winner of a competition organised by the Spanish Olympic Committee, they are, at least in the English translation, of irredeemable banality:
Long live Spain!
From the green valleys
To the wide sea,
A hymn of brotherhood
Etc, etc ... But in a country whose inhabitants can't agree how many nations they are, the leaking of this anodyne text provoked a wave of controversy. "It's absolute drivel," said a leading commentator. Anyway, shouldn't it be sung in Basque and Catalan as well? Or perhaps in a medley of five languages, like the South African anthem? Wouldn't it be wiser, after all, to leave the historic Royal March as a song without words - as it has been ever since the words, approved by General Franco, were abandoned when Spain moved to democracy? And so yesterday the Spanish Olympic Committee suddenly withdrew this proposal, although insisting that the hunt for new words goes on.
Meanwhile, in another corner of Europe, a Committee for the Selection of a Kosovo National Anthem is reportedly at work, preparatory to a declaration of independence expected in a matter of weeks. The international community would appreciate it if the new statelet does not adopt exactly the same flag and anthem as neighbouring Albania. Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo's former president, once tried his own hand at a new anthem: When the war-cry descends on Kosovo. War-cry! Just what we need. But since there are still a few Serbs living in Kosovo, shouldn't part of the new anthem be in Serbian? Maybe, in the true spirit of radical multiculturalism ("you have your culture, we have ours"), it could have an Albanian verse vowing death to their (unspecified, but clearly Serb) enemies, followed by a Serbian one vowing death to their enemies (unspecified, but clearly Albanian).
The history of national anthems is a history of embarrassment. They show up, like an x-ray, all the weaknesses and fracture-lines in the body of a state. As a general rule, when a nation doesn't sing its anthem, that's a sure sign of trouble. For some two decades after Stalin's death and disgrace, the Soviet Union did not sing the words of its anthem, since they declared (in Paul Robeson's catchy rendition): "And Stalin our leader with faith in the people/Inspired us to build up the land that we love." East Germany anticipated its own demise by banning the words of its anthem, because they celebrated "Germany, united fatherland". (When the text was written in the 1940s, the idea was that the fatherland would be united under communist rule.) More recently, Bosnia's constitutional court declared unconstitutional the old Serbian nationalist anthem adopted by the so-called Serb Republic inside Bosnia.
Rare and happy is the country which has an agreed anthem, in a single language, that is (a) tuneful; (b) non-controversial; and (c) non-banal. In the banality stakes, those short-lived Spanish words face stiff international competition. I remember, for example, the tones of hooting derision in which a young Australian sang to my family, as we walked the streets of Sydney, the lyrics of Advance Australia Fair. But the Bahamas surely take the biscuit:
Lift up your head to the rising sun, Bahamaland;
March on to glory your bright banners waving high.
See how the world marks the manner of your bearing!
Frankly, the first verse of God Save the Queen is pretty banal too. It only really gets going in the second verse:
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks
Now that's worth singing; but usually we don't.
Yet even the banal national anthems can produce moments of collective emotion which have those proverbial hairs standing on the nape of your neck. How much more so when it's one of the few great ones. A South African friend described how moved he was the first time he saw a white South African rugby team singing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. So tragic was the circumstance, one barely dares to mention the Jews of Europe singing the Hatikvah in the shadow of the Nazi extermination camps.
The Star-Spangled Banner must also be counted among the greats, but the greatest of them all is La Marseillaise. There are several good reasons to want to be French; singing La Marseillaise is perhaps the best. If you ask "what does it mean to be a nation?" this is what philosophers would call an ostensive definition. Everyone knows the scene in Casablanca when the resistance hero Victor Laszlo tells the orchestra in Rick's Bar to play La Marseillaise, so as to drown out the Germans singing Die Wacht am Rhein.
I have long been convinced that the screen writers of Casablanca stole the idea from what is, in my opinion, an even greater film, Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion - made five years earlier. Here, French prisoners of war are performing a revue, some dressed in women's clothes, before German officers, when one interrupts to say: "We've recaptured Douaumont." The orchestra instantly strikes up the tune, the "women" tear off their wigs and stand to attention, and the whole hall belts out "Aux armes, citoyens/Formez vos bataillons" - and, staring at their captors, on to the bit where it demands that the "impure blood" of the invaders soak the furrows of France's fields. (If this column does nothing but send you back to that movie, it will have done a better day's work than most columns ever do.)
National anthems are not just tokens of statehood; at best, they are part of the nervous system of a living political community. In which regard, it's striking how few successful international anthems there are. The Madrid experiment is apparently prompted by the Beijing Olympics. The Olympic movement actually has its own anthem, but few people know it and the words are purest candyfloss. What people actually wait for at the Olympics - not to mention at football matches, or at war - is their national tune.
The EU has a great tune, the music to Beethoven's Ode to Joy, but no official words. The UN has none. The unofficial protest song We Shall Overcome enjoys a certain international currency, but probably the most successful international anthem in modern history (leaving aside religious ones) was global communism's rallying song, the Internationale. Even those who hated the reality of communism could sometimes enjoy singing it. There were stirring versions in many languages. And why did it come closest to competing with the great national anthems? Because it is martial, bloodthirsty and presents a heroic "us" trumpeting defiance at an evil "them".
The conclusion is plain. If the world is to have the anthem it deserves, we need a big fat common enemy. I'm afraid inanimate challenges like climate change, Aids or meteors won't do the trick. What we need is some really nasty aggressor to be repulsed. When the Martians invade, the world will get its Marseillaise.
· This article was amended on Friday January 19 2008. An editing error led to the meaning of a sentence about the lack of successful international anthems being altered. This has been corrected.