Spain’s Wordless Anthem

Did you know that there are no words to Spain’s national anthem? Look at any international sporting event or medal ceremony and you’ll see the Spanish contingent stood there in silence whilst the Marcha Real rings out. Whilst other nationalities belt out their anthems in questionable time and tone, even ahead of a World Cup final, the Spaniards simply stand in intense concentration. Let’s have a look at why, with thanks to España Fascinante who have given me permission to translate their article written by Paloma Díaz Espiñeira.

The story of Spain’s national anthem, as we know it today, dates back to the eighteenth century. In its 300 year history it has undergone a few variations but has never had any official lyrics. There have been many attempts to give verses to the melody but Spaniards have never been able to agree on the words. There are only three other national anthems in the world without words: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and San Marino. It seems strange that one of the nations of the world with the most influence in its history is in such illustrious company!

The history of the Spanish anthem begins with the “Marcha Granadera“, a military march written for the grenadiers (soldiers specialised in the use of grenades). At that time each military unit used its own anthem; but the “Grenadier March” became increasingly popular. First it became very popular in Madrid, because the grenadiers were the troops that usually paraded before the kings, and their band always played this tune. After the reign of Alfonso XII, the king stopped spending so much time in Madrid and began to travel throughout Spain, attending multiple official events with a parade of troops, so “La Marcha Granadera” became known throughout Spain as “La Marcha Real“.

The first reference to the “Grenadier March” is recorded in the Libro de Ordenanza de los toques militares de la Infantería Española, in 1761. This document considers it as the Spanish military march. The Spanish anthem was not established by the order of any king but by popular usage among the citizens of the time. Carlos III declared it a March of Honour in 1770, and popular custom saw it become the Spanish National Anthem.

There were no words, so the Spanish sang “lo, lo, lo, lo …” (where the British would probably have sung “la, la, la, la …”) until an incident in 1870 that could have given lyrics to the tune, and therefore change the history of the Spanish anthem. In that year, General Prim had created a competition so that the “Grenadier March” could be improved. The project was for the Royal March to be replaced by a new composition more in line with the liberal revolution that had just taken place in the country. To choose the melody for the new anthem in Spain, a jury consisting of three composers was selected: Miguel Hilarión Eslava (replaced through illness by Baltasar Saldoni), Francisco Asenjo Barbieri and Pascual Juan Emilio Arrieta. However, despite receiving more than 400 compositions, the contest for the national anthem was declared null and void.

According to the historian Juan María Silvela Miláns del Bosch, “none of the four composers wanted to go down in history for being the protagonist of the suppression of an anthem for Spain so deeply rooted in popular consciousness. The jury clearly did not insist much on artistic quality, because among the presented compositions there were some extraordinary ones, although they said of our old Royal March that it was artistically the best and the most appropriate.” Therefore the Grenadier March remains as the national anthem of Spain, made official in 1871 by King Amadeo I of Savoy.

Another important name in the history of the Spanish anthem is that of Bartolomé Pérez Casas, one of Alfonso XIII’s musicians, who was in charge of adapting the anthem so that it could be played by a musical band. Previously, the national anthem had been performed by a military band and, therefore, it was played with instruments of war such as the fife and drums.

The history of the Spanish anthem continued along the same lines until the Second Republic (1931-1939), when it was replaced by the “Himno de Riego“. Soon after, the Civil War broke out and the nationalist side began to use the “Marcha Granadera” again, with the accompaniment of lyrics by a poet from Cádiz, José María Pemán. Although these lyrics are associated with the Franco period, the truth is that they were requested to be written by the president of the council of ministers – General Miguel Primo de Rivera – in 1928. Therefore, the words were not written during the Civil War, as is often stated. Of course, the Spanish anthem underwent changes in its lyrics, such as: “raise your forehead” for “raise your arms”, “the anvils and wheels” for “the yokes and arrows”, leaning towards the nationalist side and to the future political regime established after the war. These were never considered official lyrics of the national anthem though.

The most recent chapters of the complex history of the Spanish national anthem continued with the Royal Decree of October 10, 1997.  The Government of the Kingdom of Spain acquired the copyright of the Royal March because until then those rights belonged to the heirs of Pérez Casas. The government had to pay an amount of money every time the Spanish national anthem was played at any event. The amount paid each year was calculated, multiplying over a series of years to arrive at the agreed price paid. The current version of the national anthem is the work of maestro Francisco Grau and replaced the previous version of Pérez Casas.

Although the Spanish national anthem has undergone several changes throughout its history, it has always kept the ‘Grenadier March’ as its central theme. The grenadiers were, after all, the elite infantry of the Spanish Army that marched in the 18th century before the king.

Thanks again to España Fascinante for allowing me to use their work.

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