Photo Credit: Harvey Rachlin
Harvey Rachlin

One is a spirited ditty that playfully cascades and leaps about before concluding on a triumphant note. The other is a plaintive, haunting tune, at times defiant, at times hopeful, that seems to evoke some of the unspeakable pain suffered by the people it represents.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah,” the national anthems of the United States and Israel, have very different backgrounds and were written for entirely different reasons. But they have more in common than just the fact that they’re both national anthems.

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Both melodies are derived from preexisting tunes. Famous musical compositions are usually original, not adaptations. But the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” comes from an 18th-century glee called “To Anacreon In Heaven,” while that of “Hatikvah” has its roots in a 16th-century Italian canzonet called “La Mantovana.”

Neither melody is indigenous. Neither tune comes from the land of which it is the musical ambassador.

“To Anacreon In Heaven” was the buoyant constitutional song of England’s Anacreontic Society – a group of upper-crust professional men dedicated to preserving the memory of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon.

“La Mantovana” is ascribed to Giuseppe Cenci, a singer and composer who resided in Italy.

Other songs were derived from the melodies on which they are based. “To Anacreon In Heaven,” or its melody, probably made its way across the Atlantic with English soldiers going to the colonies or fighting in the American Revolutionary War. As was common in those days, new verses were set to existing melodies. The “Anacreon” melody was used to create many different songs, including, in 1798, “Adams and Liberty” with words by the Massachusetts poet Robert Treat Paine, and, in 1813, “When Death’s Gloomy Angel Was Bending His Bow.”

“La Mantovana” was adapted for a number of songs as well, including the Romanian folk tune “Carul cu boi” (“Cart With Oxen”), and the Czech tune “Kočka leze dirou” (“The Cat Climbs Through the Hole”). Perhaps most famously, the melody was used by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana in his Má vlast, a symphonic work comprised of six pieces. Variations of “La Mantovana” appeared through the years, but in 1888 Samuel Cohen, who was born in Moldavia (part of which later became absorbed into Romania), adapted “Cart With Oxen” and produced the melody for “Hatikvah.”

The lyrics of both anthems were originally poems written in the 19th century. On the morning of September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer; John Skinner, the U.S. commissioner of prisoners; and Dr. William Beanes, a physician from Maryland, were aboard a flag-of truce vessel anchored on the Patapsco River, about eight miles south of Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

The War of 1812 was raging, and Beanes had been arrested on a misconduct charge in the Maryland countryside by British troops. Key and Skinner had boarded a British warship to try to secure his release, which they did. However, since Key and Skinner became aware of British plans to attack Baltimore and could alert the residents of the city of the planned attack, they were ordered to stay behind the bombardment squadron on the flag-of-truce vessel until the assault was completed.

All through the night the sounds of British rockets and bombs could be heard exploding. Could Fort McHenry have survived the attack? The three captives were anxious to see what happened but had to wait until daylight. But in the early morning hours it was raining and visibility was poor. Finally, when the mist cleared, Key peered through his binoculars and was so elated to see the stars and stripes streaming gallantly over the ramparts of the fort that he wrote verses expressing his patriotism and joy.

A couple of days later Key’s poem was printed on a handbill with the title “Defense of Fort M’Henry” and published on September 20 in the Baltimore Patriot. Soon it was being sung to the melody of the British tune “To Anacreon In Heaven.”

The lyrics of the Israeli national anthem derive from a poem titled “Tikvatenu” (“Our Hope”) written around 1877 by Naphtali Herz Imber. Imber was born in the city of Złoczów in Galicia in Eastern Europe. In his poem, Imber expresses “The ancient hope/To return to the land of our fathers/The city where David encamped.”

Both songs have ironic origins. The melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” comes from England, the country America was at war with when the lyrics to it were composed. “Hatikvah” has its origins in Imber’s birthplace of Galicia, which was once a part of Poland and later a part of Austria, countries in which millions of Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

Both songs were officially adopted many years after they were written. It wasn’t until 1931, 117 years after Key composed his lyrics, that the U.S. officially adopted “The Star-Spangled Banner” as its national anthem. “Hatikvah” was officially adopted as Israel’s national anthem in 2004, 127 or so years after Imber wrote the poem “Tikvatenu.”

Both songs champion freedom. “The Star-Spangled Banner” celebrates the defeat of tyranny so that the American flag may wave “O’er the land of the free,” while “Hatikvah” expresses the hope, after 2,000 years of oppression, “To be a free nation in our land.”

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Harvey Rachlin, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is an award-winning author of thirteen books including “Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain,” which was adapted for the long-running History Channel series “History’s Lost and Found.” He is also a lecturer at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.