Patriotic songs as ideological discourse: a figurative semiotic analysis

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The aim of this article is to discuss Johann Visagie’s Figurative Semiotic Theory and subsequently to apply it to an ideological-critical reading of symbolic expression in a number of patriotic songs. Visagie’s theory has as its aim to outline the function of semiotic themes within archival discourse, and to uncover ideological relations of power underlying such discourse. The question posed in this article is to what degree symbol and meaning within the selected songs effect a misrepresentation of a certain reality by either underlining or masking ideological relations of power.

The analyses mainly demonstrate that the songs examined in terms of word text reveal a high degree of ideological content. Musically, they are characterised by simple melodic content and repetitive structures. The effect is brought about by the use of specific “idiom types”; in this regard, the discussion refers to the typology of Boyd (2001:655) who classifies national anthems according to five categories (which may overlap). As the most frequently used type, Boyd identifies national anthems that resemble hymns (such as, “God save the King/Queen”). Also popular are those that take on the character of a march (a well-known example is “La Marseillaise”). He then singles out “operatic” anthems (such as that of Italy). Anthems occurring less frequently are “indigenous” anthems (such as those of Japan and Sri Lanka), and festive instrumental fanfares without any verbal text (such as the anthem of the United Arab Emirates).

In the case of the anthems analysed in this article, hymn and march types take precedence. It was observed that the rhythmic application effects an arousing musical atmosphere in most of the songs. Melodic climaxes or other forms of musical emphasis act persuasively in that these coincide with strong ideological statements within the word texts. Musical setting could, however, also mask ideological meaning. In this regard, John Thompson’s (1990:7) concept of ideology, from which Visagie’s (1990; 1996) formulation ensues, proves to be of particular relevance. Thompson seeks to refocus the concept on a cluster of problems concentrating specifically on the interrelations of meaning and power. In this respect he argues that the concept of ideology could be applied to the ways in which meaning serves, in particular circumstances, “to establish and sustain relations of power which are systematically asymmetrical” – such relations he calls “relations of domination”. Thus, for Thompson, ideology, in the broader sense, is “meaning in the service of power” (Thompson 1990:7).

The choice of patriotic songs discussed in this article is justified by way of the strong ideological ties that existed between Germany and apartheid South Africa, as well as overlapping politically inspired events in both East Germany and apartheid South Africa. It is argued that, in both cases, patriotic songs became vehicles of ideological thought – in both cases also projecting a warped view of reality.

By way of an introductory discussion, the German national anthem (“Das Deutschlandlied”) is considered as an iconic example of a highly ideologised patriotic song. Here it was found that during the early 20th century the melody, originally written in 1796 by Haydn as a birthday song for Emperor Franz II (the so-called “Kaiserhymne), and later used as the musical setting for a patriotic text written in 1841 by August von Fallersleben which was eventually used for the German national anthem, increasingly took on a nationalistic and militaristic character until, as Hanson (2013) observes, together with the “Horst-Wessel-Lied”, it promoted Nazi philosophy as a “fully propagandized [...] campaign of hatred and intolerance”. This discussion demonstrates that an “elevated”, “hymn-like” national anthem can function as a fully-fledged instrument of political power – precisely by the fact that its (original) dignified musical setting masks its (later) ideological message.

An application of Visagie’s semiotic theory to an analysis of the GDR national anthem (“Auferstanden aus Ruinen”) emphasises that the words of this anthem are based on the archetypal metaphor “stand-fall-rise”, which is suggestive of the Christian aura of Nazi Germany rather than that of the socialist workers’ tradition. Further analysis uncovers the illusion of the democratic state. Moreover, in terms of referring to conflicting symbols and images, the words are found to project unresolved conflict – although symbolically the music projects the sun rising over an ideal, “new” country.

The analyses of “The Call of South Africa” and “Afrikaners Landgenote” establish a deep-seated European connectedness, as well as strong ties with pre-Nazi and Nazi Germany. In these songs three powerful macro-motives come to the fore as a highly ideologised “trinity” within a barely disguised religious context, namely Nation, Culture and Land. Moreover, in both cases the musical settings are suggestive of quasi-religious “consecration”. The words of the “Flag Song” demonstrate the belief that South Africa was given to the Afrikaner nation by a divine hand, and that therefore this nation had been delivered of any servitude, except for those of Nation and Land. Musically, the song is found to be emotionally arousing.

A documentation of Afrikaner history within “The Song of Young South Africa” confirms exceptionally intricate relations of power. Here, Nature (Land) did not only come to a standstill in order to acknowledge the mighty coming of the Afrikaner nation, but was also “bought” and “conquered” by this nation with blood (note the reference to the well-known Nazi philosophy of “blood and soil”). Within this context, Nature is owned by the Afrikaner; yet, in this divine “homestead”, patriotic freedom, as highest ideal, eventually replaces God as King (“Ruler”). Musically, the song, which at one stage was seen as the far-right AWB’s unofficial “hymn” (Pauw 2006:10), can be categorised as a war march with triumphalist elements.

The method applied in the analyses, namely Johann Visagie’s Figurative Semiotic Theory, provides a systematic philosophical framework for uncovering ideological content in the selection of songs discussed. Although ideological analysis could be applied to the musical dimension of the songs to a lesser degree, in this regard findings are suggestive of figurative constructs against which a more intensive examination of the words could be projected. In “The Call of South Africa”, for instance, ideological meaning is musically underscored by way of a triumphantly ascending interval of a fourth, which, at the melodic climax of the song, coincides with the words “or perish” (“At thy will to live or perish, we for thee, South Africa”).

It was thus found that the songs discussed do indeed demonstrate the projection of distorted realities, in that strategies of rationalisation, universalisation or narrativisation are seen to “justify” symbolic misrepresentation (cf. Thompson 1990:6). In this sense, a powerful use of cultural tropes is highlighted; also the presence of unification, as well as fragmentation (the expurgation of “the Other”). Ultimately, these ideological modes of operation (cf. Thompson 1990:6) present warped realities as “natural” or “eternal”, and thus they have been found to be ideologically “legitimised”.

The analysis therefore indicates that figurative expressions such as patriotic songs may act as powerful political instruments with a view to nation-building and the strengthening of ideological beliefs. Thus, in Thompson’s (1990:6) sense, it could be concluded that indeed they represent instances of “meaning in the service of power”.

Keywords: “Afrikaners Landgenote”; “Die Lied van Jong Suid-Afrika”; FAK songbook; Figurative Semiotic Theory; GDR national anthem; German national anthem; ideology critique; national anthems; patriotic songs; “The Call of South Africa”; Visagie, Johann; “Vlaglied”.

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Patriotiese liedere as ideologiese diskoers: ’n figuratiewe semiotiese ontleding

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