(Note: Written during the week of His Majesty King Bhumibol’s Royal Cremation, 26 October, 2017)
By Andrew Biggs
The Royal Thai Anthem is known as Pleng Sansern Phra Baramee, or “The Song The Praises the Glory of the King”.
This piece of music is 130 years old. It was the third national anthem of Siam for more than 40 years, from 1888 to 1933 — the one prior to that was the UK’s “God Save The King/Queen” with Thai lyrics.
It is a curious melody in that it almost feels as though you are being guided, musically, along a path that steadily rises, like travelling up a mountain. The jungle clears and gives way to a magnificent view; the sun comes out and finally, as you reach the summit, the cymbals crash and you let out a victorious “Hurrah!”
The melody sounds classically European and there is good reason for that. It was written by 19th century Russian composer Pyotr Schurovsky and it is lucky for him that he did write this piece; although big in his era there is precious little else about the man today other than his contribution, musically, to royal Thai functions.
The melody may be European but the lyrics were written by a well-known Thai music instructor of early-to-mid 1800s. The combination of that melody that sweeps you up the mountain and its profound lyrics makes this a remarkable piece. I like the way it begins with the solemn pomp and circumstance of royalty, before morphing into a love song of concern for the monarch, until one reaches the climax with that grand and final cha-yo which is Thai for “Hurrah!”
(An interesting historical footnote: the original lyrics ended in cha-nee, which can be roughly translated as “like this” or “as it were” or even “so far”. Thai is a tonal language; a slight deviance in the tone and the word sounds like “gibbon”. Apparently this riled King Rama 6, who ruled from 1910, and had the lyrics changed to the final and much more befitting “Hurrah”.)
This piece of work remained the national anthem up until the Siamese revolution of 1932. Luckily the royal anthem remained intact for royal occasions, and it is the same one you hear in movie theatres just prior to the film starting to this day.
In that year of the revolution a new national anthem sprouted up, the second stanza announcing Thailand as a “civil state” which curiously remains to this day. The melody is claimed by some to have been “borrowed” from the Polish national anthem, though having heard both back to back, one could argue the relationship is tenuous. And, by no means coincidental, it ends in a similar but not so effective “Hurrah”.
It is my humble opinion that while the Thai national anthem serves its purpose, when it comes to profundity and richness of music, the original runs royal rings around it.
It is almost impossible for Thais to extricate this melody from the memory of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It is understandable; a mere 14 years passed between the coup of 1932 and his assuming the throne. It is an anthem which may be 130 years old, but for more than half that time it was used for a single monarch.
This week the song belongs to King Bhumibol when the funeral pyre is lit at 7 pm on Wednesday night in Sanam Luang.
Last Saturday found your columnist in a university classroom, where he is trying to plough through a Master’s Degree in Education. It is a class of 22 Thais aged 25 to 50 years and predominantly school teachers.
Our lecturer came in, sat down and said: “Before we start, let’s watch a video together. It’s of our King.”
Silently we all got to our feet.
For the next ten minutes we watched the TV monitors and quietly sang to the Royal Thai anthem. It is the version that can be found on YouTube; a huge crowd that must number in the hundreds of thousands occupies all of Sanam Luang, with a 100-piece orchestra under the baton of Somtow Sucharitkul. To get a couple of hundred thousand people singing in unison, spread across such a vast area, must have been a logistical challenge of Herculean proportions, but it worked.
It is a piece of film conceived, filmed and edited in just four days by Thailand’s master film director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, and shot using 50 cameras and a couple of drones.
The melody of the Royal Thai Anthem drifts across the vast space as a drone swoops over the crowd. There is a day and night version, which we watched, together, standing and singing silently to ourselves.
It was filmed on October 22, 2016, just over a week after His Majesty King Bhumibol passed. Your cynical old columnist had a tear in his eye by the end, not just for the magnificence of the performance, but for the sight of such a huge outpouring of grief for the passing of the King.
At the end of the video, as we sat back down, I realized I was in a room full of people sobbing, including our lecturer. Every single one of them. That classroom was a microcosm of Thai society, which grieves for the very heart that stopped beating last October 13, 2016.
It is a common reaction from Thais, especially the likes of politicians and ruling types, to hide behind the shield of Thai culture when trying to explain away misdeeds or villainy. When backed into a corner, officials will blurt out that we foreigners “can’t understand because you are not Thai”. This inevitably means “leave me alone to carry on my mischief in peace” — with the exception of one very clear example we will witness this week.
I believe that if we are not Thai we cannot understand the depth of feeling towards the monarch who was King Rama 9. There is no need to escort the argument over to logic or science. It comes from the depth of humanity’s capacity to feel a great love, and a shining example of what happens when humanity comes together as one. That is what was unique about the country of Thailand for all these decades.
There are foreigners, some vocal in the media, who cynically dismiss this as an example of mass brainwashing, or blind faith owing to a lack of education not unlike the situation in North Korea. Their ignorance is as loud as their allegations. What must be frustrating for these critics is that their arrows just don’t penetrate.
My heart goes out to all my Thai friends and colleagues who are struggling with the realization that as of 7 pm Wednesday, their beloved King is gone forever. I am truly sorry they must endure this grief.
But it is also time to move on.
We have mourned for a year, and no matter how much the kingdom grieves, the mourning must come to an end. Anybody who has lost a loved one knows this. The sadness may never dissipate, but there needs to be a conscious effort to pick oneself back up again. This is Thailand’s challenge for 2018.
And as clichéd as it may sound, King Bhumibol has not really gone away. He’s in the hearts of 68 million Thais, and look; the institution of the monarchy is still there too, along with that touching song that praises the glory of the king, be it the present one or those of the past.
Our remembrance must echo the path of that beautiful song that praises the glory of the king; starting with solemnity, rising with concern, and ending with a rousing “Hurrah”.
Vale His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.