How Many National Anthems Are Plagiarized?

Along with a flag and coat of arms, an anthem forms an integral part of a nation’s identity. So one could imagine how scandalous it would be if the song that officially celebrates a nation’s culture and traditions was in fact stolen from somewhere else — including a raunchy American movie.

According to PRI, the national anthem of Bosnia — which was selected to reflect the country’s unity amid bitter ethnic divide — is remarkably similar to, of all things, the opening music of National Lampoon’s Animal House, the 1978 comedy about a misfit fraternity. Compare the two below and decide for yourself.

Animal House.

Bosnian National Anthem (Državna himna Bosne i Hercegovine)

The two melodies were allegedly so similar that some in the country called for the composer, Bosnian-born Serb Dusan Sestic, to be sued for plagiarism (albeit motivated more by opportunism and nationalist spite among those who disliked the anthem and what it stands for). Needless to say, some Bosnians called for the anthem to be dropped, given how embarrassing such an association would be. 

Dusan had to go on TV to defend himself.

“I was hurt by the headlines,” he told me earlier this year in the largely Serb city of Banja Luka.

“I didn’t know the name of the movie, but I listened to it and I was really, really surprised. I thought about it, and perhaps as a young man, I’d seen the movie or heard the song and it stuck in my brain somehow, this musical code. It’s definitely possible — but I cannot say this is plagiarism.”

He pointed out some differences between the two melodies. “Not everyone in this country is a thief or corrupt,” he added. “If I was, I would be a politician and be doing far better in life.”

As PRI points out, Bosnia’s is surprisingly not the only anthem accused of being plagiarized: those of Uruguay and Argentina appear uncannily similar to opera pieces (and indeed, like most Latin American anthems, are operatic in their character), while South Africa’s allegedly bears the melody of Aberystwyth, a Welsh composition (though it is noted that the latter two claims are more of a stretch).

Anthems also take from one another: the U.K.’s “God Save The King” formed the basis of the anthems for Denmark, Russia, several German states, and even the Kingdom of Hawaii; to this day, the anthem of the European micronation of Liechtenstein, “Oben am Jungen Rhein” (Over the young Rhine), is unabashedly the same as the U.K.’s (though without any of the same patriotic hangups, as most people seem almost proud of the similarity).

A few more examples:

In a similar vein, Estonia and Finland share the same melody for their anthem — which meant Estonians could still hear their anthem under Soviet rule by tuning into Finnish radio stations. The tune, written by German composer Fredrik Pacius, is said by some to be based on a German drinking song.

Many anthems, meanwhile, use folk tunes for their anthems. Samuel Cohen, who composed Israel’s wrenching “Hatikvah” (The Hope) in 1888 said he took its melody from a traditional Romanian tune — although some claim he actually stole it from a piece by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. (Either way, the melody was first heard in 17th Century Italy.)

Similarly, South Korea and the Maldives once used the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” for their anthems. South Korea inherited it from Scottish missionaries. The poet behind the Maldives’ anthem, for his part, chose the music after hearing it chiming out of an uncle’s novelty clock.

Even the Star-Spangled Banner isn’t original, sung to the tune of an old British drinking society song, To Anacreon in Heaven. When politicians were debating whether to adopt the Star-Spangled Banner as the country’s official anthem, many objected on the basis of those musical origins saying that a unique American melody was needed, and definitely not something people used to get drunk to.

As the article points out, however, these similarities are not so much a product of genuine theft as a reflection of a long-standing challenge in creative works: it is tough to be original.

If you write an anthem today, you need to come up with a melody so simple it can be whistled in the street and bellowed at football matches — but one that’s also dignified and stirring. The chances of doing that while composing something that’s not reminiscent of an existing composition are remarkably slim.

So now that we are on the subject: do you guys have any favorite national anthems? What about your least favorite?

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