What is a national anthem?
A national anthem is a patriotic song that is often performed on official occasions. Its words may evoke a country’s history, foresee its destiny or express a political ideology. The musical form is usually that of a hymn, with a series of verses, each having the same tune. A national anthem is, along with a flag and coat of arms, one of the symbols of national identity that is recognised worldwide.
The term ‘national anthem’ came into use in the 19th century, a period of rising nationalism, when many countries acquired anthems. However some national anthems, notably the British, Dutch and Spanish, were composed centuries earlier.
King or country?
When ‘God save the King’ was New Zealand’s only official national anthem, some people were suspicious or offended if ‘God defend New Zealand’ was sung on official occasions. In the early 1920s the governor-general, Viscount Jellicoe, refused to attend a function when he saw ‘God defend New Zealand’ on the programme, with no mention of ‘God save the King’.
New Zealand’s two anthems
Since 1977 New Zealand has had two national anthems: ‘God save the Queen’ (or King) and ‘God defend New Zealand’. This unusual situation arose because New Zealand’s sense of nationhood has passed through different phases since 1840.
‘God save the Queen’, the national anthem of Great Britain, was automatically the national anthem when New Zealand became a British colony in 1840. As New Zealand’s head of state is the British monarch, it remains an official anthem.
Although it was composed in the 1870s, ‘God defend New Zealand’ was not recognised as an official national anthem until 1977.
The right to declare a song a national anthem currently rests with the sovereign.
English and Māori versions
Māori versions of both anthems were composed in the 19th century. These were sung in Māori schools, at Māori welcomes for the governor and at some official events.
On occasions when both Māori and Pākehā are present, ‘God save the Queen’ is usually sung in English only. However, since 1999 it has become more common to sing the first verse of ‘God defend New Zealand’ first in Māori and then in English, especially at major sporting events.
An Aussie anthem?
In 1995 there was a public furore when it was suggested that Australians owned the copyright to the words of ‘God defend New Zealand.’ Organisers of a Nelson school music festival were warned they could not photocopy the music or compile practice tapes without paying a fee to EMI Australia. The Copyright Council resolved the matter by announcing that rights to the anthem had passed into the public domain in the 1980s.
Protocols about when and how the anthems should be performed are administered by Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. ‘God save the Queen’ is usually sung when the Queen, a member of the royal family or the governor-general is present, to emphasise New Zealand’s ties with Britain and the Commonwealth. ‘God defend New Zealand’ can also be sung on these occasions, or when New Zealand’s national identity is the focus. While it is not necessary to sing all verses of either anthem, the words may not be changed, and approved musical arrangements should be used.