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More than any other song, a national anthem needs to hit all the right notes. While the melodies may range from triumphant marches to traditional hymns, the lyrics should be uplifting, with words that convey patriotism and pride. Most citizens can sing along to their country’s national anthem at parades and sporting events, but the story behind each song is often lesser-known. From nationwide contests to government petitions, the origins of these five national anthems probably aren’t what you’d expect.
Malaysia’s national anthem is technically the state anthem of Perak, which was a separate sultanate until it joined the Federation of Malaysia in the 1950s. When the Sultan of Perak visited Queen Victoria in 1888, the palace asked to play Perak’s national anthem during his entrance. One problem: At the time, Perak had no national anthem. To avoid embarrassment, an aide to the sultan chose one on the spot, humming a popular tune from the Seychelles by French poet Pierre Jean Béranger. Years later, as Malaysia prepared for independence, officials struggled to find an appropriate song that unified the country. Eventually, they selected the Perak state anthem, largely because the tune was considered traditional. The original song was entitled “Moonlight,” but the lyrics were changed to a more appropriate patriotic anthem, and the song was renamed “Negaraku,” meaning “My Country.”
“Himno Nacional Mexicano” (Mexico)
Fifty years after Mexico gained independence from Spain, the country still lacked a national anthem, a fact that prompted the president to hold a nationwide contest. At the time, Francisco González Bocanegra, a Mexican poet, wanted no part of the competition — but his fiancée had other ideas in mind. She locked González in a room and refused to let him out until he slipped a 10verse poem under the door. In the end, her stunt paid off: The poem was chosen for the lyrics of the national anthem, accompanied by a melody written by Jaime Nunó Roca. The new anthem was presented to the nation on September 16, 1854, but it wasn’t officially adopted as the national anthem until 1943.
“God Save the Queen” (Great Britain)
“God Save the Queen” is perhaps one of the best-known national anthems. But its origins? Surprisingly less so. The anthem was first performed for King George II in 1745 (with “queen” swapped for "king”) as an attempt to boost his morale after losing a battle in the Jacobite uprising. It seems the song did the trick, as the king went on to squash the rebellion forces within a year. Some 20 years later, citizens started referring to “God Save the Queen” (or King, depending on the current ruling monarch) as the national anthem. To this day, there is no authorized version of the anthem, as the words are so ingrained into national tradition that it never needed to be sanctioned. Despite its fame, the authors of the melody and lyrics are unknown to this day. Some believe the lyrics are derived from the 16th century, when “God Save the King” was a code between watchmen, while various composers, including Joseph Haydn and Henry Purcell, claimed to have written the music.
“La Bayamesa” (Cuba)
“La Bayamesa,” the official anthem of Cuba, was written and composed by Pedro “Perucho” Figueredo during the Ten Years’ War, one of the nation’s attempts to gain independence from Spain. Figueredo wrote the melody in 1867 but wasn’t inspired to write the lyrics until a year later, when Cuban rebel forces seized the city of Bayamo. “La Bayamesa,” which translates to “The Bayamo Song,” celebrates the spirit of Cuba’s rebellion against Spain, which caused it to become popular with the revolutionary efforts. Two years after writing the lyrics to “La Bayamesa,” Perucho was captured and executed by a firing squad. Before he was shot, he shouted a popular line from the anthem: “Morir por la Patria es vivir,” which translates to “To die for one’s country is to live.” The song became the official national anthem in 1940.
“God Defend New Zealand” (New Zealand)
As part of the British Commonwealth, New Zealand actually has two anthems that are nationally recognized — “God Save the Queen” and “God Defend New Zealand.” Thomas Bracken, an Irish poet who had immigrated to New Zealand, wrote the lyrics for the latter in 1870, set to music by John Joseph Woods. Woods submitted the melody — which he composed in a single attempt — as part of a newspaper contest in 1876. As “God Defend New Zealand” increased in popularity over the years, New Zealanders realized it needed to be recognized nationally and successfully petitioned the government in 1977 to adopt it as a second national anthem. “God Defend New Zealand” has another version entitled “Aotearoa” — the anthem was translated into the Māori language as a way to recognize the Indigenous people of New Zealand.