David Lang | Photo by Peter Serling
With Independence Day upon us, it’s a chance to again contemplate our country’s national anthem. Something that composer David Lang has done in his choral work the national anthems. In fact, Lang pored over not just The Star-Spangled Banner, but he did a deep dive into the national anthems of every country in the world.
“Every country has a history,” Lang writes, “How it came to be, how its wars were won or lost, how strong its people are, or how proud, or how sad.” Lang wanted to search for and identify common themes among the different national anthems of the world.
“I had the idea that if I looked carefully at every national anthem I might be able to identify something that everyone in the world could agree on. If I could take just one hopeful sentence from the national anthem of every nation in the world I might be able to make a kind of meta-anthem of the things that we all share.”
As David Lang isolated sentences, phrases, and in some cases single words, a few commonalities started to emerge.
“What I found, to my shock and surprise, was that within almost every anthem is a bloody, war-like, tragic core, in which we cover up our deep fears of losing our freedoms with waves of aggression and bravado.”
Lang says at first he didn’t know what to do with these words and themes. “I didn’t want to make a piece that was aggressive, or angry, or ironic. Instead, I read and re-read the meta-anthem I had made until another thought became clear to me. Hiding in every national anthem is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose.”
The resulting music by David Lang is likewise a thoughtful meditation on themes of peace, war, patriotism, pride of place, and what it means to defend freedom. After the first four movements, (our land our peace, our hearts are glowing, fame and glory, keep us free), the national anthems culminates in a powerful reflection (our common fate) of how we are inextricably linked as humans, irrespective of lines drawn on a map.
our common fate
our brighter day
our loyalty and love and vow
our land, our home, our free, our brave
our land, our grave
our glory, for as long as the world shines
our many ways before and our many ways today
our rock, our beacon
our scream out loud
our steps, resounding on the long and tiring road
our song – echoing over and over again
our brothers and sisters under the sun
may the rains come
The Los Angeles Master Chorale has recorded the national anthems, with the Calder Quartet and conductor Grant Gershon. I’ll be featuring this work Sunday on Soul Music interspersed throughout the program alongside other American choral works and patriotic favorites.