The history of the Spanish national anthem: the reason for an anthem without lyrics

The history of the Spanish anthem, as we know it today, dates back to the 18th century, more than 300 years of a national anthem that has undergone few variations and has never had any official lyrics. All this despite the fact that there have been many attempts to give the melody some verses to sing. But, Spaniards have never been able to agree on lyrics for the Spanish national anthem. There are only three anthems in the world that lack lyrics: Spain, Bosnia-Herzegovina and San Marino.

The history of the Spanish anthem begins with the “Marcha Granadera” (“March of the Grenadiers”), a military march sung by the grenadier corps (soldiers specialised in the use of grenades). At that time, each military unit interpreted its own melody; but the “Marcha de los Granaderos” became increasingly popular. First it became very popular in Madrid, because as the grenadiers were the troops who usually paraded before monarchs, their band always sang this melody. From the reign of Alfonso XII, the king stopped spending so much time in Madrid and began to travel throughout Spain, attending many official events with a parade of troops, which is why “La Marcha Granadera” became known throughout Spain as the “Marcha Real” (“The Royal March”).

The first time that the Marcha Granadera is recorded is in the Libro de Ordenanza de los toques militares de la Infantería Española (“Book of the Ordenance of Military Calls by The Spanish Infantry”), in 1761. It is referred to as the Spanish military march. The history of the Spanish anthem tells us that it was created not by order of any king but by the popularity of the citizens of that time. Charles III declared it a March of Honour in 1770, and popular custom made it the Spanish Anthem.

Marcha de Granaderos, original anthem

Thus, Spaniards would continue singing “lo, lo, lo…” until a small break in 1870 that could have given lyrics to the Marcha Real; and thus change the history of the Spanish anthem. In that year, the General Prim had called a contest to put an end to the “Marcha Granadera”. The project was for the Marcha Real to be replaced by a new composition more in line with the liberal revolution that had just taken place in Spain. To choose the melody of the new Spanish anthem, a jury of three composers was selected: Miguel Hilarión Eslava (replaced due to illness by Baltasar Saldoni), Francisco Asenjo Barbieri and Pascual Juan Emilio Arrieta. However, after receiving more than 400 compositions, the contest for the national anthem was declared a failure.

According to the historian Juan María Silvela Miláns del Bosch, “none of the four composers wanted to go down in history for being the protagonists of the suppression of a Spanish anthem so deeply rooted in the popular consciousness. They did not insist much on its artistic quality, since among the compositions presented there would surely be some extraordinary ones, although they claimed that the old Marcha Real was artistically the best and most appropriate that could be invented”. So the Marcha Granadera remains the anthem of Spain, made official in 1871 by the ephemeral King Amadeo I of Spain.

Another important name in the history of the Spanish anthem is that of Bartolomé Pérez Casas, the musician of Alfonso XIII, who was responsible for adapting the anthem so that it could be played by a musical band. Previously, the national anthem was played by a war band, and therefore with war instruments such as fife and drums.


‘Himno de Riego’ used during the Second Republic

The history of the Spanish anthem continues in the same direction until the Second Republic (1931-1939), when it is replaced by the Himno de Riego. But soon the Civil War broke out and the uprising (and future winner) began to extend the “Marcha Granadera” again with the accompaniment of lyrics by the Cádiz poet José María Pemán. Although these lyrics are associated with the Franco period, the truth is that they were ordered to be written by the President of the Council of Ministers -General Miguel Primo de Rivera – in 1928. Therefore, it was not invented during the Civil War; as is often claimed. However, that 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”, adapting to the rebel side and the future political regime born after the war. But it was never considered to be the official lyrics of the national anthem.

Spanish anthem with the lyrics of José María Pemán used during the Franco regime

The most recent stages in the complex history of the Spanish anthem continue with the inscription in the Royal Decree of 10 October 1997, when the Government of the Kingdom of Spain acquired the copyright of the Marcha Real; since until then these rights belonged to the heirs of Pérez Casas (to whom a sum of money had to be paid each time the Spanish anthem was played in any event). The amount paid each year was calculated and multiplied by a number of years to arrive at the price paid. The adaptation of the national anthem is the work of the great artist Francisco Grau and replaces the previous version by Pérez Casas.

Although the history of the Spanish anthem has undergone several changes, it has always had as its background the ‘marcha granadera’; the elite infantry of the Spanish Army that marched before the king in the 18th century.

Official Anthem of Spain

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