Imagined National Anthems
Updated: Aug 7
Perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had on a job is writing the national anthems for three fictional countries for Parabolic Theatre’s show We Have A Situation.
Despite being an incredibly small part of the show, I get asked about it more than much of what I consider my ‘main’ writing work.
So (in no small part because I’d like to do more worldbuilding-music, if you’d have use for that), here’s a rough outline of what that process was.
1. I am not a composer.
Composers are practiced, original, and have a strong grasp of different tools for their craft.
Describing me as a ‘composer’ would be like describing me as a ‘painter’ because I can paint sets when given clear instructions. Technically, it’s the English word for it, but I’m not about to paint anything for the Tate Modern.
What’s probably more useful/important is that I’m a historian by training, with specialisms in cultural history and the history of aesthetic philosophy, and also am very fond of alternate history.
2. The cultural history of your world
Imagined worlds for interactive theatre generally have some sort of history. It might be very detailed (as was the world for We Have A Situation, which had day-by-day accounts of events in places) or very loose.
It’s an ongoing debate, but most people would at least accept culture is influenced by socio-economic and political events. This is at the heart of cultural history.
The other chamber of that heart is the idea that culture also has its own history, and even occasionally shapes that socio-economic and political history.
With We Have A Situation, it was set in an alternate version of our world. However, it also had clear touchstones in our world. One national anthem was for a Western Bloc neoliberal state, one for a post-communist Eastern Bloc state, both of which came from a monarchist state divided at the end of World War Two. Geographically, the island was situated near Greece.
The music for national anthems has an extensive history. Some are de facto national symbols that gain official status, others are specially written, and others are rewritten following major changes.
While reading through the imagined history, I noted which bits were already cultural history (Byron was a major influence) and jotted down where those might lead (Byron -> Romantic music also?).
I also noted where a socio-economic or political event might lead to cultural phenomena (Post-communist state -> revised text to national anthem? Resurgent nationalists -> revival of ‘traditional’ musical styles?).
3. Building on the real into the unreal
At this point, I researched the national anthems of comparable countries - the Koreas and Germany being the most obvious (current, East, West, Weimar, Second Reich), but also various south-east European, Soviet, and West European anthems, trade union songs, and so on.
This suggested a range of things. First, it gave me a list of musical and textual characteristics for each Mazeppan anthem that seemed to be ‘you must have this’.
Second, it gave me a list of characteristics that were ‘you might have this’-type elements.
From this, I returned to the notes I’d jotted down about potential cultural histories and started weeding out irrelevant elements, and selecting pertinent ones.
Each anthem ended up with a reference palette for music and text.
Capitalist Mazeppa: Greek modern national anthem with 1880s text, West German anthem and its history, South Korean anthem
Ex-Communist Mazeppa: Anthems of communist-era Yugoslavia (Hey, Slavs!), the anthem of the USSR (and later adaptation as the Russian national anthem, controversies around), the Polish national anthem’s various versions, songs of the British labour movement.
For my own process, I also created the pre-separation anthem of the Kingdom of Mazeppa.
Royal Mazeppa: Byron (The Isles of Greece; Greece Enslaved); Greek royal hymn; God Save The Queen
All three also had their own ‘headcanon history’ - how I imagined them being created and selected, from creation by founders of the nation, to use by partisans in WWII, to the two cut verses of the capitalist Mazeppan anthem (much like the anthem of West Germany), and rewritten lyrics of ex-communist Mazeppa’s anthem.
While not official canon unless accepted by the creators, it was a useful ladder for me to climb up, and offer to others.
4. Writing Anthems
This was both the fun part and the hard part.
Harmonically, anthems are quite easy. Simple harmonies, with a need to be easy to sing. Instrumentation tends not to vary much.
For all of these things, I could lift fairly directly from the reference palettes, with a few changes to suit the in-world history. Perhaps the more pastoral island rejected industrial brass for a more pastoral instrumentation of flutes and other woodwind instruments?
Lyrically, some of it was lifted from Byron with adaptations, while much was written by me in the style of other national anthems, selecting images from the imagined history.
Once done, there was a final stage, writing down things I’d had brewing.
5. Offering back
In-world music, to my mind, shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. For each song, I included a note of ‘headcanon present’ - offers to the creative team of how the songs might exist.
Given rising nationalism and Islamophobia on the imagined island, perhaps the former Royal Mazeppan anthem might have use - especially given it (as per Byron) spoke of vanquishing Persians?
Perhaps the ex-communist anthem sees older people reject the new lyrics as having less meaning than the old martial song, while others feel the anthem as a whole is too tied to the dictatorship?
Perhaps the capitalist anthem sees arguments about whether to reinstate older verses, depending on the political leanings of different factions?
None of these were necessarily true, but hopefully gave offers of how cultural history could feed into the imagined world’s present politics.
As you may be able to tell, this was a fun chance to do ‘applied cultural history’, and I’m rather pleased with the results.
One day, hopefully, I’ll be able to fulfil my dream of recording them properly.
I’d really like to do more of this sort of work, from alternate worlds to entirely fantastical ones. If that might be of interest, do get in touch.
P.S. I don't have the recordings uploaded anywhere, but here's a slightly more lighthearted 1970s disco-style cover of The Red Flag for Parabolic's show Crisis, What Crisis? set amid the Labour government in the 1970s.