Today, July 21, is Belgium’s National Day. There will be parades, street parties and naturally a lot of beer. You might want to join the crowds singing the National Anthem. But its hard to know what to sing, because there are four different versions.
It was a lot simpler when the country was created in 1830. The exiled French actor Jenneval scribbled down some inspiring words in an upstairs room of the Brussels cafe L’Aigle d’Or while the revolution was being fought in the streets down below.
The score was written by François Van Campenhout based on an old drinking song. It was called La Brabançonne, and sung in French, the national language at the time.
The text was later revised by various committees, cut down to one verse, and translated into Dutch and German. “Ô Belgique, ô mère chérie” – O Belgium, o mother dear, they sing in Wallonia. “O liebes Land, o Belgiens Erde” – O dear country, o Belgium’s soil, they learn in school in the German region of Belgium. “O dierbaar België, o heilig land der vaad’ren” – O dear Belgium, o holy land of the fathers, is sung in Flanders.
The opening verse is carved on the pedestal of the romantic La Brabançonne statue on Place Surlet de Chokier in Brussels. Originally it was only in French. Now there is also a Dutch version. And that’s not the end of it. There is also a trilingual version of the national anthem that has become popular. Twelve lines long, the anthem switches from Dutch to French to German.
So it’s complicated. With four national and two regional anthems, it’s difficult to know what to sing. When Yves Leterme, a candidate prime minister, was asked in a television interview on Belgium’s National Day in 2011 if he knew the national anthem, he smiled, and started to sing the French national anthem.
Yet Leterme still became prime minister. ‘Maybe it’s a good thing that nationalism doesn’t exist in Belgium,’ argued the journalist Bernard Bulcke. ‘So we can’t sing the national anthem. Who cares?’
Derek Blyth’s hidden secret of the day: Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Belgium”. He picks out one of his favourite hidden secrets for The Brussels Times every day.