I cannot remember when I first heard it. Probably in the mid-1960s.
But I know how I heard it. On an album ordered from the much-maligned Columbia Record Club.
Anthems of the World -- with a belt of flags circling the globe in an orbit evocative of Telstar.
When it arrived, I began working my way through the Free World alphabet. (If you lived behind the Iron Curtain, I guess you did not have the right to an anthem.) Australia. Austria. Belgium. Canada.
Some were interesting. Some pedestrian. The French had me marching down the Champs-Élysées. The Dutch reminded me of oranges at Christmas.
In that one album, I learned what made a good national anthem. A march. With brass. And an upbeat motif to open the glands. The left side of the brain need not apply for work in this band. La Marseillaise is what every national anthem wants to be when it grows up..
And then I heard it. The first time was without lyrics. Merely the tune. But the Mexican national anthem stirred me. I mean really stirred me. I wanted to stand up and wave a flag.
Mexico's anthem is not a reason I moved to Mexico. (Even though I must admit I have always wanted to visit Kyrgyzstan based solely on its flag and anthem.) But it is one of the interesting side benefits.
I often get to hear the anthem performed in the early morning during the opening ceremonies of each primary school day. I still react to it.
Just as the Mexican flag has its own mythology, so does the Mexican national anthem.
Before 1853, Mexico did not have an anthem. But that political survivor, President Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón (better known as Santa Anna), decided Mexico needed a snappy tune to rebuild it national esteem (and his sagging political career) following his humiliating defeat (and surrender of a third of Mexican territory to the United States) in the Mexican-American War (or, invasión estadounidense de México, as the Mexicans call it.)
Upon his return from exile in Cuba, he declared a contest for the best lyrics and the best music for a new national anthem. A Mexican "re-set," if you will.
Here comes the myths. Francisco González Bocanegra was a poet. A poet of love poetry. Like most poets, competitions were not at the top of his list. After all, he was a sensitive soul -- not a football hooligan.
But his fiancée, Guadalupe González del Pino, was not as sensitive. The tale usually runs along these lines: "Under false pretense, she lured him to a secluded bedroom in her parents' house."
Now, every good Catholic boy knows what happens next. His mother or father warned him at a young age. Jezebels like this are to be avoided.
But a nice Catholic boy would be wrong because the aptly-named Guadalupe was a nice Catholic girl. And far more familiar with the Inquisition than with telenovelas.
She locked him in the bedroom -- alone. And would not release him until he produced lyrics. She knew the room would inspire him because it was filled with pictures of various Mexican historical events.
In four hours, he had slipped ten stanzas of poetry (with a nice little chorus) under the bedroom door. She freed him after she and her father approved the work.
The lyrics are filled with the usual nationalist jingoism of the nineteenth century. Lots of roaring cannon. Trembling earth. War without quarter. Perhaps a bit embarrassing if you think about Mexico's military history too long.
But it is far less martial than La Mareillaise with its bloody banner, blood watering furrows, and enemy soldiers slitting the throats of sons and wives.
The competition panel voted unanimously to award him the prize. That was 1854.
The composer's tale is far less dramatic. And probably more soundly based in fact. The original winner, Juan Bottesini, lost his prize. Not through unpublished photographs like a fallen beauty queen, but because the music lacked aesthetic appeal.
An otherwise unknown military band leader, Jaime Nunó Roca, came to the rescue. And he was an odd choice. Even though he was a Spanish citizen, he composed the winning music to accompany González's lyrics. The fact that he had befriended the president during Santa Anna's exile in Cuba may have had some influence on the judges.
Whether or not that is true, the music did not sound like it came from the pen of a political hack. It was good then. It is good now.
On Independence Day (September 16) 1854, Mexico had a new anthem -- Himno Nacional Mexicano with its famous opening line: "Mexicanos, al grito de guerra" ("Mexicans, at the cry of war"). (Even though it was not officially adopted as the national anthem until 1943.) Ironically, Santa Anna, who returned from exile in 1853 to serve a president, was booted out in less than two years. Never again to sit as president.
But he left a great anthem as a legacy. It was not all mere theater.
Any post on a national anthem without a sound clip is not worth its blog salt. YouTube is filled with a load of indifference recordings. Here is one that does a bit of justice to one of my favorite anthems.