Our National Anthems  

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Oct. 1 2001 11:30 PM

Our National Anthems  

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It's well known that the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner" originated as a drinking song titled "To Anacreon in Heaven" (perhaps less well known is the name of its composer, John Stafford Smith). Now, it's perfectly true that in the 18th century, drinking songs aspired to a more elevated level of utterance than, say, "Let's Roll Out the Barrel"; but still, there's no denying that this particular song, high-toned sentiment and classical references notwithstanding, began its life as a paean to the rollicking joys of inebriation. As such, its stately periods seem weirdly inappropriate, at least to modern ears.

Francis Scott Key was familiar with the original and stated explicitly that it was the melody he had in his head when he wrote his lyric. The wedding of words and music was not a later generation's handiwork, as is sometimes supposed.

Although regularly played on ceremonial occasions thereafter, "The Star-Spangled Banner" wasn't officially designated the national anthem of the United States until 1931. And the choice has always been controversial. Much of the controversy centers on its singability. The song's range spans a twelfth; this is stretch even for professional vocalists, and for amateurs it's close to impossible. If you begin in a key high enough so that the bottom note can be reached relatively comfortably, you'll need rappelling equipment for the top note. We're all familiar with the shrill screech customary at the song's climactic point.

Still, if one disregards this one small problem, it's an attractive and stirring tune. Some of its appeal resides in its frequent recourse to the chord II (that is, the major form of the triad formed on the second degree of the scale, with sharpened third), directing us toward the dominant; this occurs in the melodic line on the second syllable of the word "early," the third syllable of "perilous," and the word "still" in the phrase "our flag was still there." It also occurs implicitly, in the accompanying harmony, at other points. It lends the song a striving, assertive quality that seems entirely fitting to a proud patriotic statement.

We're all familiar with the version played on grand political occasions and at sporting events. Here's a good example.

There's no denying it makes you want to stand up and put your hand over your heart. But some of us may find its martial spirit a little off-putting and just a tad pompous. It's a rendition that may befit a superpower, but for some of us, superpower status plays a negligible role in our love of country. So instead, consider this version for the expression of a somewhat more intimate kind of patriotism.

Not bad.

But for me, the real clincher is the following, composed in 1941 by Igor Stravinsky as an expression of gratitude upon becoming an American citizen. A recent immigrant from a war-ravaged Europe (and like many Russians of his generation, his wanderings had begun during the Russian civil war and had taken him all over the continent), Stravinsky wanted to offer some form of tribute. He wanted to express his appreciation for his new home and for the welcoming freedom it offered him. Ironically, this act of creative civic piety was treated by some as a travesty and actually got him briefly arrested! But it was sincerely intended: He regarded the melody as intrinsically beautiful, beautiful, that is, in itself, and not merely for its political associations (he called it a "beautiful, sacred anthem"). His bold re-harmonization, heard here in an arrangement for men's chorus—there is also a wonderful orchestral version—shows us why.

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