Thursday 18 January 2018

Classic talk: From Russia... with three sets of lyrics

Tribute: Russia's anthem was written in the 1930s and praised then leader Joseph Stalin
Tribute: Russia's anthem was written in the 1930s and praised then leader Joseph Stalin

George Hamilton

A musical by-product of any major international sporting event is the way it brings the anthems of competing countries to the fore. So it is with Association Football's Confederations Cup, the dry-run for next summer's World Cup, which is currently half way through its fortnight in Russia.

The tournament kicked off last weekend with a game between the hosts and New Zealand, which meant an outing for the anthem of the Russian Federation which has, to say the least, an interesting story behind it.

It was originally written towards the end of the 1930s by Alexander Alexandrov, the director of the famed Red Army Choir.

At the time, 'The Internationale', the song of the socialist movement, also served as the Soviet Union's anthem, having replaced a Russian version of the French 'Marseillaise' which had been adopted by the provisional government in 1917.

But during World War II, the dictator Joseph Stalin commissioned a Russian piece, and Alexandrov's was chosen. The words, by poets Sergey Mikhalkov and Gabriel El-Registan, included a reference to Stalin.

From 1944, this served as the national anthem of the Soviet Union. But after Stalin's death in 1953, with a change in direction under Nikita Khrushchev, the lyrics were deemed inappropriate, and the anthem was performed without words.

It was during the Brezhnev era that new words were sought. The political climate in the Soviet Union might have changed, but it was again Sergey Mikhalkov who got the call. The new lyrics were first heard in 1977, the 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Following the collapse of communism in 1991, the anthem was dropped. President Boris Yelstin decreed that a piece of music by the 19th-century composer Mikhail Glinka, the man deemed the father of Russian classical music, should be adopted.

'Patrioticheskaya Pesnya' (which translates as 'Patriotic Song') was originally a piece of music for piano, and had no lyrics. This caused angst in the unlikeliest of quarters.

The Russian football squad failed to qualify for the 1998 World Cup in France and laid part of the blame on the anthem. There was nothing for them to sing, while the opposition could get fired up by joining in when theirs played.

(As a sidebar to this, it might be noted that Spain's players had no such problems with their lyric-free anthem as they rampaged through three major finals between 2008 and 2012, winning two European Championships and the World Cup.)

With the resignation of Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin's assumption of power in 2000, Glinka's music was replaced by an old familiar song. Despite opposition from many quarters, including the former president, and the authors of an open letter to the newspaper Izvestiya who wrote of the risks of "resurrecting phantoms", the anthem commissioned by Stalin was reinstated.

Obviously, new words were required. Again, they turned to Mikhalkov. Now 87, he produced a third set of lyrics. Like those that went before, they were appropriate to the political landscape. 'Slavsia, Otechestvo' - 'Be glorious, our fatherland' - goes the chorus. When the World Cup next rolled around, in 2002, Russia qualified. They're included automatically as hosts this time. The current squad will be hoping the anthem inspires them all the way in the tournament they're hosting next summer.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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