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Villu Veski, Estland
Joseph Haydn: Kaiserhymne (Emperor’s Hymn, 1797)

Saxophonist Villu Veski looks back at hymns and their creators and what they reveal about European cultural traditions.

When I was asked to write down a personal memory on the topic of Europe in song and melody, something that connects me personally and emotionally to the topic, I oddly could not think of a single song with the word “Europe” in its title and no band with the name “Europe” that had given us a number of well-known hits. But I thought of something very different or much deeper connected to the centuries-old tradition of Old Europe.

As a saxophone player, I was once invited to perform at a concert called DIE + WIR = EUROPA  [THEY+WE=EUROPE] at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, and my task was to join the stage with the German saxophone player Gabriel Coburger. We were asked to play well-known melodies with two saxophones for the audience, to improvise as Jazz musicians in a way that the audience would understand without words – melodies from early childhood memories, for example lullabies to which we used to fall asleep etc.

Whereas Gabriel Coburger played a traditional German lullaby that apparently everyone in the audience recognized, I followed with an Estonian lullaby that used to be played on the radio every night at 9 pm when I was little. The audience was thus able to compare a famous German lullaby with one that was common in 1960’s Estonia.

In the same spirit the organiser requested that we play improvisations on the theme of the German and Estonian national anthems. I remember how we practiced the melodies in the rehearsal room of the Thalia Theatre, since both of us had to improvise on a theme given to us, to add variations and perform it in a recognisable form.

When we were going through the German and Estonian hymns, which of course I both knew by heart, I explained to Gabriel that the Estonian hymn had been composed by Friedrich Pacius who was born in Hamburg. The hymn was used both in Estonia and Finland where Pacius had worked for many years, as a national anthem, the melody was the same, only the lyrics differed. And then I asked spontaneously: What was the name again of the composer of the German national anthem? Joseph Haydn of course, was the answer.

That got me thinking. Yes, core Europe is old and its traditions go far back, and long before the pop musicians and songwriters of the last decades, there were creators and geniuses and real classics like the composer of the melody of the German anthem, Joseph Haydn. In our fast-paced information age, I realised that moment, we often forget that. And at once I recognized the parallel developments in the European cultural traditions: Both the composers of the Estonian and the German hymns did not originate from the people that later selected their melodies as national anthems. When I played the Estonian national anthem right after Haydn’s melody at the Thalia Theatre, the audience realised that apparently this was the Estonian hymn, even though I was not sure how many people in the packed room would have recognised it otherwise. And how many national anthems of other countries of the European Union we would recognise by their melody, if we didn’t see the medal ceremony of a sports event on TV with flags in the background, so that it is clear from the context that what we hear is a national anthem.
Yes, that moment makes me think to this day: How deep the layers of European culture are, how long their traditions go back, how much the European countries have influenced their neighbours and how homogenous and diverse at the same time European culture is in spite of everything.

The melody composed by Haydn 222 years ago today was not adopted as Germany’s national anthem until 125 years later, and it would be interesting to know which melody produced by composers, pop musicians and DJs in the 21st century in a unified Europe or the entire world can withstand the nagging tooth of time for such a long time. We will see in the year 2241.

Haydn’s melody is known all over Europe and the entire world, and sometimes it is useful to recall that something existed before us, that things were accomplished and created, great, eternal values, and we, the creators of today should also attempt to accomplish something like this.

And I keep thinking: The experimental performance of the German and Estonian national anthem I have described here could be expanded into a project encompassing all European anthems, so that the melodies internalised by peoples over decades and centuries could all be heard one after another in a concert.