What are the world’s oldest national anthems?

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The world’s oldest national anthem is a tricky thing to define. Many national anthems have no clear date for when they were written — for example, God Save the Queen. Other have had music and lyrics written at a different time. Also, there is no real definition for what forms a national anthem. Is it the words? The melody? The orchestral recording? A poem that the words might have been adapted from? Of course, it can be all of these things, or none. Despite the caveats, however, there are a group of anthems which are commonly regarded as being the oldest.

Japan

The Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo, was first set to music in 1880, and as such, as a musical piece, it is not particularly old. The lyrics, however, are from a Waka poem of the Heian period (794-1195). The writer of the poem is unknown, but it was most likely written in the mid-800s. As such, it can be said that the Japanese anthem is well over a thousand years old. Japan’s anthem is also notable for being one of the world’s shortest — this means that it is often performed twice in a row in public.

The Netherlands

Het Wilhelmus, the national anthem of the Netherlands, is often regarded as the oldest anthem due to the fact that it has existed as a single piece of words and music since 1574 — the anthem is well over 400 years old. However, at the time that it was written, it was intended as an anthem of support for the House of Orange-Nassau — a unified Dutch state did not emerge until later in the 1600s. The anthem was not actually officially adopted until 1932.

Spain

The Spanish national anthem, the Marcha Real, was officially adopted as the Spanish national anthem in 1770. As such, it is the world’s oldest national anthem for a specific state still in use. A different anthem, the Himno de Riego, has also been used for brief periods as the Spanish national anthem, most recently during the Second Spanish Republic of 1931-1939. The anthem is also notable for being one of the very few anthems with no words. Despite numerous efforts to agree on a single set of lyrics, it is still normally performed as an instrumental piece.

Denmark

The anthem Kong Christian stod ved højen mast is the Danish royal anthem, and is accorded equal prestige with the Danish civil national anthem, Der er et yndigt land. The royal anthem was adopted in 1780, and is the oldest anthem to have had uninterrupted use in a single state.

France

The French anthem, La Marseillaise, is one of the best-known national anthems in the world, and also one of the oldest. It is the oldest republican anthem, and it was written, and first performed, in 1792, and officially adopted in 1795. Although it was briefly replaced as national anthem during the reign of Napoleon, and again in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, it has remained the French anthem to this day.