Animadversions on the Dutch and the Greek National Anthems

By: | Post date: March 27, 2009 | Comments: 9 Comments
Posted in categories: Countries, Greece
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George asks me in comments whether the Greek suburb of Oakleigh put on any kind of a big deal for Greek Independence Day, on the 25th—or whether moving to a Greek suburb was all in vain. Well like I said, the point of moving to Oakleigh wasn’t that it was Greek, but that it was what I could afford. But no, I saw no blue and white bunting when I walked out the house in the morning, and no parade of folk dance troupes when I walked back into the house.

It’s something George is familiar enough with from his time in “the foreign” (στα ξένα), but which he may have thought relieved in places with a higher concentration of Greeks. In Greece, time is punctuated by Greek holidays. More punctuated (at least I remember it in the ’80s) than Australia is now by Australian holidays—although I vaguely remember Australian time used to be more punctuated as well. There was a clear sense that time was suspended when there was a holiday, secular or religious (and there was no shortage of saint’s days): work stopped, if work didn’t stop the holiday was still publicly acknowledged, there’d be parades or special masses that people turned up to or different salutations in the street; the holiday was something that you noticed, something that delineated the time around it.

It was noticeable to me when we moved back to Australia (before I stopped noticing at all), that time did not stand still in this country on Greek Independence Day, or the Feast of the Dormition, or the Commemoration of the Athens Polytechnic Uprising. These were just another day in this country. You went to school or work in the morning, you went home in the evening, there was no blue and white bunting. The first generation Greek grumbled that their time in Australia was joyless, and this was some part of what they meant: the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, or the Greek Declaration of War on Italy, were not punctuations in the month, were not acknowledged in the street or on the telly. They did not change the world around them.

Melbourne town used to do some token stuff around the Antipodes Festival, the celebration in the CBD Greektown, the weekend after Greek Independence Day, of souvlaki and folk dance troupes and Greek pop stars looking to diversify their income stream. I’m not even sure it’s still on: I’ve stopped paying attention. It did punctuate the roads around Lonsdale St: they became quickly impassable. But the sense of occasion was much diluted.

Since I had just blogged about the Dutch National Anthem, I spent an afternoon on Greek Independence Day checking out the manifestations of Het Wilhelmus on YouTube—to confirm the diphthongs of the Dutch. (As I predicted, the diphthongs really did set my teeth on edge.) On YouTube, there was much diversity of riches to behold. There was the inevitable slideshows on the anthem, against pictures of windmills and clogs. There was the backlash pomo remix version, with windmills burning down. There was the way overliteral slideshow. There was the historically informed version, with the anthem sung like the 16th century canzon it was, and pop-up notes on the engraved propaganda of the time. There was the 17th century clavichord version. There were several more contemporary renderings: the boy band on the chat show, the pop musician in concert, the dance remix. A *lot* of soccer game versions. And then there were those having (even more) fun with it: the death metal version, the guitar hero version, the Bohemian Rhapsody version, the pastiche piano improv version, the soccer club song version, the gospel version. The hooligans on a bus version, which makes the pledge of allegiance to the king of Spain sound even more odd.

And the Hendrix fingerpuppet version. ZOMG, I was rolling on the floor with this one: it’s its own special kind of sublime. All the more because it was vestigially plausible: Hendrix could have played Amsterdam after he did the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Although he just wouldn’t have the same emotional investment with it.

But there are mountains of depth to the Dutch National Anthem. The Dutch will tell you (through the Wikipedia article) that this is a gentle, peaceful song, devoid of nationalist aggression and arrogance. Yet the song was begotten in the start of the Dutch Revolt. William protests that he has always honoured the Spanish King, because at the time the text was written in his name, he was on the run from the Spanish King in Saxony; his Catholic peers were being executed because they weren’t genocidal enough against their Calvinist compatriots smashing up churches; and halfway through the song, William proclaims he is David to Philip II’s Saul, who one day would have his realm in Israel.

Not to mention the ambiguity of the second verse: William may well be singing that his blood is German, not Dutch—Nassau is in Germany; but in 1574, the difference between Dutch and Deutsch wasn’t as salient as it is now. And the tune, so majestic and serene, was passed from Catholic to Protestant French soliders as they fought over Chartres, before it become the Calvinist rallying cry. Things are complicated with the Dutch National Anthem, which makes it all the more great a song.

I YouTubed further south, to see how the erstwhile Southern Netherlands compare. Belgium has the Brabançonne; I find it harder to be enthused about a song that so unimaginatively praises constitutional monarchy (“King, Law, and Liberty!”), and sounds like a generic 19th century march.

Inevitably, the Flemish and Walloons have their own anthems; the “Lion of Flanders” is aggro, as you would expect of mid-19th century Flanders (“They’ll never tame him, not while Flemings live; not while the Lion can claw and use his teeth”); the Song of the Walloons is curiously defensive (“We have first-class industry, and are disproportionately prominent in scholarship; we give charity surreptitiously, and are heart-broken when Walloonia is denigrated”). The thing I find heart-breaking is, the Song of the Walloons is now officially in French: the cause of the Walloon language, at least, is lost. YouTube is the battleground between the Belgiums that you’d expect; one slideshow features a map of Greater Flanders (France isn’t returning Dunkirk in a hurry, you know), and a rather prominent No Roosters (= Walloons) sign.

My thoughts, on Greek Independence Day, strayed back to how the Greek National Anthem, and how it might be presented on YouTube. The Greek anthem is a much longer poem than Het Wilhelmus, and far better as poetry. (Dionysius Solomos gets called the National Poet of Greece; despite that, he actually was a great poet.) There is something incantatory, something pretty chthonic about how it starts (although the word order is forced on the wrong side of sprezzatura). This doesn’t really come across in the Wikipedia renderings, so:

I know you, by the edge,

terrible, of your sword.

I know you, by the glance

violently surveying the earth.

Lifted up from the bones,

sacred, of the Hellenes,

and valiant once more:

Hail! O hail, Freedom!

The music for the Greek national anthem… is regrettable, something out of an operetta. The anthem works despite it, not because of it.

I didn’t find progeny on YouTube to match Het Wilhelmus: lots of sporting events, lots of slideshows, mostly militarist, some historical (and militarist), some with the Turkish flag wizzed on. And very little space for deconstruction: the closest I found was an a capella rendering by a comedian à la the great singer Kazantzidis, and the peanut gallery was split between being offended and delighted at the satire—and not entirely sure who the target of the satire was. (That the deconstruction was its own legitimate form of homage seems to have halfway occurred to only one commenter of the 42.)

There are some straightforward reasons why the Dutch are so happy to subvert, or reinvent, or riff on, or twist the lyrics to—and most of the time, keep affection for, their national anthem. There are some straightforward reasons why the Greeks are in deadly earnest about their anthem, will not tolerate it being sung by anyone other than an army or a soccer crowd (there is no tradition I know of of public solo singing the anthem), and have just two topics of their relevant YouTube slideshows. As I’ve said elsewhere, my ears may understand Greek spoken; but my eyes don’t see the world Greeks speak of. (Greeks at this point often shake their head in pity at the privilege I am missing. Seeing the world through eyes that are not theirs, I reciprocate with brusque dismissal.) And my eyes find the Dutch construct more interesting.

(I’d go further and say that the Greek earnest and self-doubting response to their past is why something like Geoffrey Chaucer Hath A Blog cannot have an equivalent in Greek. Greeks may revere or resent the Hellenes of Yore; but they find it hard to make light of them.)


  • opoudjis says:

    Right. I'd found the Sakis Boulas; it's the one I noted commenters didn't know what to make of, but it was in the spirit I intended. And it was the only one I could find.

    You duplicated your link, but did you mean the Αμάν Τα Καθάρματα! version (the team now doing Ράδιο Αρβύλα)? Sure, but they were parodying Eurovision-Mania by having the anthem's lyrics changed to Paparizou's Ouevre; their target wasn't the anthem per se.

    I know this sounds like I'm trying to define the problem away… 🙂

  • I won't argue with what you say, but there are a couple of Greek anthem parodies uploaded on YouTube.

    I found this by Sakis Boulas:

    and another sung with new Eurovision lyrics:

  • opoudjis says:

    Nikos, thank you for your note. I wonder if the exception itself tells you something. You can snigger a parody as a child, just as the parodies of the mass that Papadiamantis mentioned (and which echo the Mass Of The Beardless Man) were confined to monasteries where noone was looking.

    But I have the impression Dutch irreverence to their anthem is a lot more mainstream. (And I have to emphasise, my impression is the irreverence comes with a great deal of affection.) I just can't picture a guitar solo version of Mantzaros being uploaded on YouTube. Doesn't mean it can't be—i've got my own narratives of Hellenism that are part-ossified. But I certainly found no such thing on YouTube, whereas it was hard to find any "straight" versions of the Dutch anthem there.

    So I'm suggesting the official discourse of Greek patriotism is more pervasive, and less forgiving of levity, than the Dutch discourse. Which of course is no great surprise.

  • About the rush/violence controversy, I am not sure the match ended with a clear win as George suggests. I have written about it here:

    But I seem to have read in this blog or the other one, that Greeks are not inclined to parody their National Anthem like the Dutch do. Although I haven't yet read what the Dutch do, Greek pupils are routinely parodying the anthem.

    For instance, the first stanza has been turned into:
    Σε γνωρίζω με γνωρίζεις
    γνωριζόμαστε κι οι δυο
    γνωριστήκαμε μια μέρα
    πάνω στο Λυκαβηττό
    (Lycabettus was a prime place for lovers to make out)

    and, more famously, the second stanza:
    Και σαν πρώτα φάε καρότα
    σέλινο και μαϊντανό

    I am sure there are more irreverent parodies, but these are the most common -or at least were, when I was young.

  • opoudjis says:

    I was probably unfair to Nikolaos Mantzaros, who set the Greek national anthem. I still don’t like the tune, but Γλωσσολάγνος on the magnificent Nikos Sarantakos’ blog has done research on Mantzaros, and thought the dismissal unfair: the anthem should be heard in its historical context, as an echo of the songs of the French Revolution, and not from out of tune brass bands or soccer fans.

    To redeem myself, I reissue a link forwarded by Γλωσσολάγνος to the programme for the festivities around the 130th anniversary of Mantzaros’ death. (Γλωσσολάγνος contributed a piece, and it’s always strange to find out who an anonymous commenter is like that…)

  • opoudjis says:

    @George: Well, if my blog forces you to get out and about in Salonica, I’ve done my bit. 🙂

    “Rush” instead of “violence”? That actually sounds more linguistically plausible, but I dunno, poetically it fails. Why would Freedom be peremptory in measuring up the Earth? Measuring it up aggressively, that I understand.

    Cod and garlic. Sounds even worse than water-boiled lentils. 🙂 And here’s something for you: Lady Day is the old English name for the Annunciation. That’s Lady, as in Κυρά Δέσποινα—or for that matter, Lady Madonna…

  • George says:

    Nick, I didn’t know you have made such progress on your ‘ordinary’ blog (which, as you may recall, I can hardly access from home). [As for the Linguistics blog, I can read it from home, but I cannot post, hence my presence in the Avenue of Cats internet cafe’ (following Ressurection Night).]

    Back to March 25, let me first mention that “bia” there appears to stand for “rush” rather than “violence” — this was recently debated between Karatzaferis and Alavanos, with the former prevailing. More interestingly, I celebrated March 25 in Greece for the first time in 30 years — such a long time, and I had forgotten that the traditional dish for the day in question is cod with mashed garlic (skordalia)!

  • John Cowan says:

    Nothing, to my mind, beats the optimistic pessimism of the first line of the Polish anthem: “Poland has not yet perished, so long as we still live.”

    • John Cowan says:

      Well, the Spanish national anthem does, as it turns out: the “March of the Grenadiers” (aka “The Royal March”) has no words at allses.

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