A Hymn for the LoN, UN, and UNESCO?

Europeans Contribute

Neither the League of Nations (LoN) nor the United Nations (UN) has ever had an official anthem. These international organizations have nevertheless prompted many unsolicited proposals to this end from across the globe. Those sent by Europeans were numerous and passionate, whether they came from anonymous individuals, activists, professional musicians, or major artists such as the British poet W.H. Auden, who joined with the Spanish musician Pablo Casals to compose a hymn that would be played at the UN in 1971, which never achieved the status of an official anthem. These numerous unsolicited proposals show the enthusiasm that peoples had for the UN’s humanist project, especially European peoples who had been wounded by the two world wars.

Pablo Casals conducting his orchestration of W.H. Auden’s Hymn to the United Nations for the UN’s 26th anniversary in the UN Assembly Hall in New York (October 24, 1971). INA image.
Pablo Casals conducting his orchestration of W.H. Auden’s Hymn to the United Nations for the UN’s 26th anniversary in the UN Assembly Hall in New York (October 24, 1971). INA image.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the international context was marked by the rise of pacifism and a desire for international cooperation. It was embodied by the creation of numerous international institutions. Basing themselves on the models of states (European ones in particular), intellectuals, poets, and activists proposed they be provided with symbols—flags, emblems, and a sung anthem—expressing the identity and values of these new institutions.

Proposals of Pacifist Hymns for the LoN

The LoN was created in Geneva in 1919 in the pacifist fervor that followed the First World War. It surprisingly never had an anthem or a flag, a “blurry identity” reflecting its inability to define a clear identity. Nevertheless, between 1919 and 1939, it received thirty unsolicited hymn proposals from individuals in Europe and North America. As Carl Bouchard has suggested, they can be categorized into “negative” hymns, which patriotically celebrate the Allied victory over Germany, and “positive” hymns, which envision peace as a process of rapprochement between peoples.

The question of a hymn was a thorny one for the LoN. There is of course the issue of language: which one should be chosen for the lyrics? The very conception of the text also raised problems: should the hymn have overtones of religion, or of secular and republican universalism? These two antagonistic tendencies can be seen in the different texts received; it is difficult to achieve universality in a song’s lyrics, or to satisfy all of the organization’s member states, each of which had its own sensibility.

In any event, during the interwar period the civil servants of the LoN did not show interest in the hymn proposals sent by individuals, paying more attention to letters discussing concrete issues such as disarmament.

Enthusiasm for UNESCO after 1945

At the end of the Second World War, the UN took over from the LoN. It was created during the San Francisco Conference (June-September 1945) in the same pacifist and universalist spirit of defending international law and multilateral negotiations. It consisted of fifteen specialized agencies, including UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which promoted peace through teaching as well as cultural and artistic dialogue. Music was part of its remit, and an important musical NGO, the International Music Council, was associated with it.

Many of the hymn proposals for the UN and UNESCO were sent unsolicited from various countries to UNESCO from its very beginnings. The authors were private individuals, amateur or professional musicians, schoolchildren, teachers (especially in connection with the “UNESCO clubs” that developed at the time in educational institutions), and humanist activists. For example, in 1951 a Briton sent an original hymn entitled “UNESCO, Light of Knowledge”:

“UNESCO, shrine of Nations,
By the Will of Heaven you hold
The sacred Lamp of Knowledge
To light and guide the World.
Guiding the World toward Peace,
Is your Divine Destiny;
UNESCO, Light of Knowledge,
Continue to guide Humanity. 

UNESCO, Light of Knowledge,
Hold high the Lamp of Peace;
Shining bright for all the children of God,
The Light must be seen by all the World.
The eyes of the World are watching,
The Light of the Lord is your guide;
Lead Humanity toward God’s green pastures,
UNESCO, march, march forward!”

Like many proposals sent by Anglo-Americans, this text was of Christian and messianic inspiration. The author attached a passionate letter in which he paid homage to “your wonderful Organization,” which he considered the “hope of the world,” bearing witness to the sincere enthusiasm for the UN and UNESCO in numerous proposals.

In 1949, before the unsolicited flood of songs sent to UNESCO, its Director-General Jaime Torres Bodet proposed to the UN that UNESCO hold a competition to select a song that would become the official anthem of the United Nations and UNESCO. However, the UN responded that the proposal raised “numerous problems given the great cultural and linguistic diversity of member states,” and added that it was not looking for a hymn, which disappointed UNESCO staff. The UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie of Norway, nevertheless encouraged the cultural agency to collect songs and hymns that “could be used to commemorate United Nations Day.”

UNESCO continued to receive numerous hymns in the 1950s and early 1960s, despite its repeated explanations to the public that “UNESCO is not in search of a universal anthem.” In addition to Americans, hymns were sent by the British, French, Italians, and Belgians, each more passionate than the other.

A Non-Official Hymn for the UN

In 1971, the project for a hymn for the UN finally seemed on the verge of becoming reality. The British poet W.H. Auden, a leading man of letters in the United Kingdom, wrote a poem he entitled “Hymn to the United Nations,” whose words were based on the preamble to the UN Charter.

“[…] Let music for Peace
Be the paradigm
For Peace means to change
At the right time,
As the World-Clock
Goes Tick- and Tock. [...]”

The Spanish cellist and composer Pablo Casals, a man of peace as well as an antifascist and anti-Francoist activist, composed music for the poem without ever having met Auden. He sent their project to his friend U Thant of Burma, who was the UN Secretary-General at the time.

The piece was solemnly performed for the first time in the UN Assembly Hall in New York on United Nations Day, October 24, 1971. Auden read his poem while Casals directed the orchestra. The performance was also broadcast live on radio in various countries, but the work did not having the impact that was expected. It was too marked by its European origin, and came up against the changes unfolding in the late 1960s. Politically and philosophically, the primacy of the Old World’s culture and values was called into question by the Cold War, decolonization, and the emergence of “Third-Worldism.” Artistically, the affirmation of non-European and newly modern music (world music, rock) made its esthetic inspired from the European symphonic tradition seem unfashionable.

While Thant would have liked to see the piece become the official anthem of the UN, this was ultimately not the case, and the UN still lacks one today. Nevertheless, numerous proposals that were sent unsolicited from private individuals, activists, professional musicians, and major artists—especially European ones—are a good illustration of the enthusiasm that the UN and its humanist values prompted among Europeans.

Despite the UN’s refusal to adopt an official anthem, the numerous proposals sent by Europeans to UN institutions reflect the European humanist spirit, the heir to a long tradition dating back to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, one that affirmed the dignity and equality of humans, a desire for peace, understanding, and cooperation among countries, and the hope of bringing cultures and nations together.

To quote from this article

Chloé Maurel , « A Hymn for the LoN, UN, and UNESCO? », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 14/03/23 , consulted on 21/05/2024. Permalink : https://ehne.fr/en/node/14129


Bouchard, Carl, “‘Formons un chœur aux innombrables voix...’ Hymnes et chants pour la paix soumis à la Société des Nations,” Relations internationales 155, no. 3 (2013): 103-120.

Maurel, Chloé, L’Unesco de 1945 à 1974, PhD diss. in modern history, Univ. Paris 1, supervisor Pascal Ory, 2005. (especially p. 561-562). Online at: https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-00848712/document

Ramel, Frédéric, “Les fonctions symboliques des Nations unies,” Après-demain 35, no. 3 (2015): 10-11.

Fact Sheet United Nations no. 9, Public Inquiries Unit, Department of Public Information, United Nations, October 2000, available online: https://ask.un.org/loader?fid=16595&type=1&key=507ac48803a36f12ce4be25088c65446