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Nguyễn Văn-Cao and “Tiến Quân Ca”


Nguyễn Văn-Cao (November 15, 1923 –July 10, 1995) was a noted Vietnamese composer, poet, and painter whose works include “Tiến Quân Ca,” which became the national anthem of Vietnam.  Van Cao was born on November 15, 1923, at Hai Phong, Vietnam, then in French Indochina.  In 1944, he both wrote and composed “Tiến Quân Ca” (“Marching Song”), also known as the “Army March” and the “Song of Advancing Soldiers.” Its lyrics and title were based on Văn Cao’s previous work, “Thăng Long.”   Some of the lyrics were also different during its early stages, as it went through numerous changes starting in the early 1940s shortly after it was composed.

For instance, the first sentence “Đoàn quân Việt Nam đi” was originally “Đoàn quân Việt Minh đi.” The sixth part of the lyrics was also originally “Thề phanh thây uống máu quân thù”, expressing the brutality of French colonial and pre-famine actions. After many suggestions, Văn Cao changed it to “Đường vinh quang xây xác quân thù.”   The last sentence “Tiến lên! Cùng tiến lên! Chí trai là nơi đây ước nguyền!” was changed to “(…)Núi sông Việt Nam ta vững bền,” but when it was published it was changed to “(…)Nước non Việt Nam ta vững bền!”, on which Văn Cao commented, “With a song that requires solemn, ‘nước non’ seemed too weak while being sung with ‘núi sông’ would be more reasonable.”

After completion of the work, Văn Cao met with Vũ Quý and let him try the song.  Vũ Quý was very happy at his work, and “Tiến Quân Ca” was published in papers in November of 1944 with lithographs by Văn Cao.  On August 13, 1945, Hồ Chí Minh approved Tiến Quân Ca to be officially recognized as the national anthem of the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam.  On August 17, 1945, the song was sung for the first time at a rally of civil servants in Hanoi by a Ph.D under the flag of the Việt Minh, and “robbed the loudspeakers”. Văn Cao quoted, “That quiet man was an attraction to thousands of people listening that day.”  The poet and musician Nguyễn Đình Thi was touched after hearing Văn Cao sing the song and asked each person to write another song for “The Viet Minh Frontline”. He posted his own “Diệt Phát Xít,” meaning “Killing Fascists”. Văn Cao wrote “Chiến Sĩ Việt Nam,” meaning “Vietnam Soldiers.”  Both songs are still popular and sung to the public today.

On September 2, 1945, the “Marching Song” was officially performed on the day of the Proclamation of Independence at Ba Đình Square by the Liberation Army band commanded by Đinh Ngọc Liên. At the day before the performance, musicians Dinh Ngoc Lien, Nguyen Huu Hieu, and Văn Cao discussed the need for changing  two words in “Tiến Quân Ca” in order to shorten the song by shortening the length of the first E pitches in the word “đoàn” and the F in the middle of the word “xác” to make the song more “snappy.”  In 1946, the 1st National Assembly officially recognized “Tiến Quân Ca” as the national anthem. In the first Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Article 3, it states directly about the national anthem. In 1955, the 5th session of the first National Assembly decided to invite authors to participate in another editing of the song.  Văn Cao had regrets after this because the “heroic spirit” of the song had been lost after being edited.

In 1956, after the Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm affair, a movement for political and cultural freedom, Van Cao had to stop composing.  Most of his songs, except “Tiến Quân Ca,” “Làng Tôi,” “Tiến Về Hà Nội,” and “Trường Ca Sông Lô” were prohibited in North Vietnam. He, along with Phạm Duy and Trịnh Công Sơn, is widely considered one of the three most salient figures of modern (non-classical) Vietnamese music.

After 1975, the government of South Vietnam fell, and on July 2, 1976, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (in most common situation, the phrase “Viet Cong” actually refers to it) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam agreed to be reunified into the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. “Tiến Quân Ca” was chosen as the national anthem. In 1981, a contest was opened for a new national anthem but after more a year, it was never mentioned again and there has been no official statement about the results. Thus, “Tiến Quân Ca” remains today as the national anthem of Vietnam.

In 1987, Van Cao’s songs were once again authorized in Vietnam.  In 1991 the American composer Robert Ashley composed the solo piano piece Văn Cao’s Meditation, which is based on the image of Văn Cao playing his piano.  Văn Cao died on July 10, 1995, aged 71, at Hanoi, Vietnam.   On July 8, 2016, painter Văn Thao, the eldest son of Văn Cao, confirmed that he and his family were going to donate the song to their country and people as his father’s last wish. A letter, signed by all the legal inheritors in the family, stated that the family would donate the song for free use.  On July 15, 2016, The National Assembly Office held a ceremony in Hanoi to receive the national anthem, donated by Văn Cao’s family members.

Shortly after the “donation,” the Vietnam Center for Protection of Music Copyright stated that the national anthem would be under copyright protection regardless of the offer to “gift it” by Văn Cao’s family. It states that only at certain situations like ceremonies and school could the song be sung and that otherwise the anthem will “from now on be subject to royalty”. Veteran composers objected to the idea, saying that “people should be allowed to sing this song without worrying about royalty”. However, Văn Thao said that his family “never reached consensus on ‘gifting’ the song, so they authorized the center to collect royalties on his father’s songs.”

My collection includes the following work by Nguyễn Văn-Cao:

Tiến Quân Ca (Vietnam)

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