Renée Fleming Brings Opera to 100 Million at Super Bowl XLVIII

“Grammy Award-Winner and Soprano Superstar” Renée Fleming brought her silky but power packed voice to Super Bowl XLVII in an artistic performance featuring both vocal command and expressive taste. It was a banner moment for Fleming and a pop culture endorsement of classical music training. The show’s producers gave Fleming the requisite backing ensemble—the hometown New Jersey Symphony—and patriotic pageantry—featuring a military color guard, armed forces chorus, fireworks “bursting in air,” a cutaway to troops in the field, and a dramatic helicopter flyover—to create a truly memorable performance. My only complaints are that the complex arrangement (which switches from 4/4 to 3/4) and apparent technical problems with the sound, especially the balance between soloist and supporting cast, detracted from an otherwise strong, live vocal performance.

Performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the nation’s most watched sporting event is a treacherous proposition at best. The opportunity of reaching 100 million viewers is matched by the danger of making a mistake on this the biggest of American stages. The vocals must be live, despite the crazy acoustics and unpredictable environment of outdoor performance, or the singer will be mercilessly panned. Certainly Fleming acquitted herself beautifully, avoiding the pitfalls inherent in Francis Scott Key’s text, while showing of the eloquence, range, and power of her voice. Repeating the words “the brave” to close her performance, for example, gave her the opportunity to linger over the high A, showcasing her skill as the 101st Airborne’s helicopters buzzed past the stadium in military salute.

Welcomed by four bars of gentle introduction from a full orchestra, Fleming opens the anthem with a smokey intimacy over string accompaniment. Her speech-like phrasing draws the listener in and the arrangement’s 4/4 time gives the soprano space to milk the long vowels of the text and add subtle details of expressive nuance. The arrangement expands by a bar following the text “at the twilight’s last gleaming” to introduce the choristers of the armed forces, who echo and reiterate the text. While the choral support is nice and adds a hymn-like reverence, for me the added bar delays and deflates the emotional journey of Key’s lyric.

The accompaniment warms for the next phrase “Whose broad stripes and bright stars…” and at the words “perilous fight” the screen dramatically cuts away to the brave men (and one woman?) of the 2nd Cavalry, standing at attention in Kandahar, Afganistan—the crowd in Jersey cheers in support. As Fleming’s voice expands, the chorus enters more fully and bass timbres predominate, again an extra 4/4 bar is inserted at the end of the phrase, here focusing on flute but otherwise lacking momentum. The timpani rolls proudly to propel the text as Fleming reaches the apex of the melody with Key’s dramatic depiction of “the rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.” Red fireworks explode from the upper ring of MetLife Stadium to illustrate the text.

It is at this point, and with the lyric “gave proof through the night,” that the arrangement accelerates, dropping a beat per measure and switching to 3/4 time. The resulting effect, especially given the low level of the accompaniment in the mix and its smooth stylized string and wind textures (rather than say a percussion dominated texture, punctuated by brass)  risks throwing off the listener into metric confusion. Where’s the beat? The accompaniment all but drops away at this critical moment and indeed Fleming appears to fall behind the ensemble, further destabilizing the sense of regular pulse.

Nevertheless, Fleming carries the ensemble, driving forward dramatically. On the word “free,” she offers her first operatic moment, flipping quickly up the fourth to reveal the upper range of her voice and holding her highest pitch (an A two octaves above the tune’s lowest) for two full extra measures (clearly pre-planned as these are built into the arrangement). A dramatic syncopation on the words “the brave” punctuates the final cadence, which Fleming extends in her second diva move, reiterating the text “the brave” to sustain the high A one more time, and past the cut off of the accompaniment. Fleming acquits herself ably and, while she might have taken a few extra takes to polish the performance in a recording studio, she easily exceeds expectations for a live outdoor performance.

For me, Fleming’s rendition is easily one of the strongest Super Bowl Banners in recent memory. One has to go back to Whitney Houston in 1991 to locate a deserving rival. Houston lacks some of the polished sophistication of Fleming’s rendition, but in the context of the First Gulf War, Houston’s raw enthusiasm, and the tight military band arrangement, the 1991 performance still ranks as my #1.

One final note—the most amusing comments I’ve read on social media praise Fleming not so much for her voice, but for the correctness of her approach, performing the Banner in its “original” version and “just the way Francis Scott Key would have done it.” While I’m fairly certain Key would recognize the song as we perform it today, he’d be more than a little perplexed by the meter, melodic additions, and tempo we use in our so-called “traditional” approach. He’d be especially disappointed that today we leave out three of his four verses and that we dropped the choral refrain, vital to the social affirmation of the original arrangement. Here’s a version, a bit closer at least to the way Key might have heard it. If you’re interested in hearing more early versions of the anthem, see the recording Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star-Spangled Banner”  just released by the Star Spangled Music Foundation.

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P.S. It’s truly unfortunate the the NFL could credit neither the New Jersey Symphony nor arranger Rob Mathes — both deserve recognition, if not on the telecast then by other means.

Posted in Arranging, Football, meter, Renée Fleming, Sports, Super Bowl | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Making of Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 — An Interview with Director & Designer Anne Patterson

Backstage at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts in Reno, Nevada and just prior to the 4 p.m. March 17, 2013 premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s orchestral tone poem Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 with the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Laura Jackson, I had a chance to chat with the project’s director/designer Anne Patterson.

CLAGUE: What do you see as your role as director/designer for Chesapeake specifically and, more generally, to enhance the audience experience for orchestral music?

Artist Ann Patterson

Chesapeake Visual Designer and Dramatist Anne Patterson

PATTERSON: Well with orchestras I’m often working on a more traditional piece such as Bach’s St. Mathew Passion, and in that, actually, I am trying to tell a story, or help tell a story.  And with Chesapeake, I didn’t really realize it until I started working on it, but my real role was to help tell this incredible tale that [composer] Michael [Gandolfi] has put to music.  So I really felt like my visuals could help educate the audience as to what was going on.

CLAGUE: Did you know much about the story about the Chesapeake Campaign before you started the project?

PATTERSON: No, I knew nothing about the story.

CLAGUE: So it’s been an education for you too?

PATTERSON: Super educational! And really inspirational, because you sort of think: ok, yeah, Star Spangled Banner, hmmmmm…  I love this country very much, and I feel like a real American, but I’m very skeptical of patriotism, because I think sometimes (and I think a lot of us feel this way) that patriotism can justify acts that I don’t agree with or believe in.  And so it was a little bit funny when I contemplated working on a project with which the Star Spangled Banner was the theme.

CLAGUE: So are there moments where the visuals either emphasize a certain part of the story or try to make the audience think a little bit more deeply to get away from any sort of facile, simplistic patriotism?

PATTERSON: We have illustrated, as best we can, what’s going on in terms of the trajectory of the tale.  And we decided early on that for the first 4/5th of the piece we’d limit our palate to etchings, and then abstract paintings.  The etchings are historical images, done at the time, or soon after, these events.

Burning of Washington

One of the etching Patterson uses, here depicting the British burning public buildings in Washington, D.C.

CLAGUE: So the visuals give the audience the feeling of history right away.


CLAGUE: Can you talk a little bit about how you distinguish between the two choirs? One group of singers represent the British troops and another performs as the American troops.

US Choristors

Half of the chorus representing the American militiamen, identified by dress, color, and lighting design to clarify the tone poem’s narrative.

PATTERSON: Yes, that was something that happened really early on when Michael was just starting to compose.  And [librettist] Dana [Bonstrom] had done this whole layout, this whole synopsis, and it just felt, to me, a bit confusing.  I read through it many times and I still didn’t quite get it. So I said to Michael, “You know what would be really great, is if we had separate choirs to help us follow the story—one to represent the Americans and a second for the British.”  And for the most part, Michael was able to stick with that.  And I think that was a challenging thing for him, because dividing the chorus in half obviously means half the vocal volume.  But for almost all the songs, except for maybe “Rule Britannia” and a couple other places, they are separate.  And I think it really helps to tell the tale.   And we have this great lighting designer—Don Smith—who has designed some lighting effects. There are stars and stripes behind the Americans, and the Union Jack behind the British the first time they each sing to establish their identities.  And I put red sashes on the British soldiers, and they’re all in black.  And the Americans are all in shades of blue – different shades so they look a little bit more mismatched, like a civilian militia you know, which I think helps too.  So I think all these things together help bring the story to the audience.  Like anything, it’s not just one thing that makes it clear, it’s having all this information together, and the audience goes, “Oh, I get it.”

CLAGUE: Do you avoid references to contemporary politics?

D. You know at the very end when we are all singing “The Star Spangled Banner” – the entire audience, the orchestra, and the whole chorus — then we do have a whirlwind of imagery including both contemporary and old images — a whole mish-mash of different stuff.  And I think we’ve done, actually, a really good job of including stuff that will appeal to everybody.  I mean I think there will be some images that some people are like, “That’s not really me, but I get that,that’s why the flag is also there,” and some people will be like, “Ah, that means so much to me.”  It’s pretty emotional.

CLAGUE: Because we have a diverse country–a lot of different people all can be patriotic under one flag.  It is emotional.

PATTERSON: Exactly. It’s super emotional.  I couldn’t believe how emotional it was!  We’ve been working so hard on it, and we’ve been so focused.  For the first time I really experienced the piece at the dress rehearsal. I was sitting near [Reno Philharmonic President] Tim [Young], and we were all just trying to pretend we weren’t wiping tears from our eyes.  But it was emotional.  It’s very emotional.

CLAGUE: Is there a particular moment that gets you?

PATTERSON: I think it’s the end.  I think it really is the end. When Key is saying those words, and then you think of this young man who is a prisoner of war on a ship, and then coming out in the smoke.  And I think that Michael’s just done such a great job of setting us up to get to that point, that when we get there we’re like: “Oh my God, is the flag really still there?” And of course we all know that the flag is still there; that’s what the song is about.  But it’s really exciting, and it’s really emotional.

CLAGUE: That is a fascinating effect, because it is already a story that everybody knows. But we know the basics, not the details. Emotionally we can lose the connection to the raw power of the original moment of Key’s inspiration.

PATTERSON: What really struck me was that I’ve always thought that 1776 — ok, that’s when we declared our independence, and then, of course, we had the War of Independence — but I always sort of felt like once we got through that, we were this independent nation and we were en route to be who we are.  But after learning about the War of 1812 I realized that that’s not true at all. The British did not consider this, “Yes, this is all said and done,” but “We’re still here, and we still could really get you back.” The fact that they came and burned down the White House, I never knew that.

CLAGUE: Absolutely.  If the British had won the Battle of Baltimore, we just might be in Canada right now.

PATTERSON: Right.  I mean, you’re a history professor so you know better, but for a lay person like myself, and just following my memories of American history, I don’t know if I’ve ever truly realized that; I know I didn’t realize that.

CLAGUE: We probably don’t talk enough about the War of 1812. It’s not that glorious moment which creates a sense of pride. After all, the British burned our capital to the ground.

PATTERSON: But in the end we won! It’s just the fact that the war for independence went on for so long, that it didn’t just end with the Declaration of Independence. There was a lot more to come in our history.

CLAGUE: So, how do you handle patriotic imagery with such subtlety and emotional power? I mean, if you ask, “What colors am I going to use?” the easy answer is going to be too obvious and simplistic — “Well I guess red, white and blue.”

An engraving depicting westward expansion as displayed during Chesapeake and showing the sepia toned screen with a shadow image of the USA's 15-stripe flag that was flying over Fort McHenry and inspired Key's lyric.

An engraving depicting westward expansion as displayed during Chesapeake and showing the sepia toned screen with a shadow image of the USA’s 15-stripe flag that was flying over Fort McHenry and inspired Key’s lyric.

PATTERSON: Well, one interesting thing we did was to create a custom screen for the projections.  We use a flag hanging above the stage as the screen. It’s a[n American] flag in sepia tones.  So we have the area where the stars would be, but it’s just a blank area.  And then we have this faint echo of fifteen stripes from the 1812 flag.  And we have the stripes done in, like a pale grey and then a whiter grey.  And so that’s our backdrop.

CLAGUE: It’s really beautiful, the way all the images get overlaid on top of that, so you see that flag coming through every picture.

PATTERSON: Right, exactly.  So you have the stripes coming through on every single image.  And in terms of patriotic expression, in most cases theses are etchings, so you’ve got to remember they didn’t have photography back then, so this was their way to capture the history of what had happened – or not even history at this stage, just the events that had happened.  I imagine that some of these etchings were probably in periodicals and newspapers to give everyone an understanding of what was happening; they were like their photographs.  So I don’t feel that they’re that patriotic, actually.  I feel they’re kind of really more telling the tale.  The patriotic stuff does come through at the end.  And we did, as I said, try to do a wide version of things.  Early in the process, we had some kitschier images in there.  We had Superman and we had Wonder-woman, and you know, where the flag was on them. But Michael just said, “I don’t think that’s the way we really want to go.”

CLAGUE: Yeah, he told me he was looking for something quite solemn, and quite introspective.

Star Spangled Cake

A Fourth of July cake is among Patterson’s imagery, connecting Gandolfi’s music to the everyday American experience.

PATTERSON: Very solemn, and so it was great actually: we sat down together and we went through them.  And some of them that I thought he might nix, like there’s a close-up photograph of a cake and it’s decorated as the American flag, but he liked that because that was still celebrating.  He just didn’t want anything that, like you said, fluffed it up— you know what I mean?

CLAGUE: So you and [your assistant] Loring [McAlpin] found all the images and you ran them by Michael?

PATTERSON: Yeah and we laid it all in.  And, you know, Michael is such a wonderful collaborator. After the first rehearsal, he came to me and said, “I need to talk to you about this.  There’s just some imagery there.” And I said, “Great, let’s fix it.” And that’s just part of collaboration, you know?

CLAGUE: How much has changed this week in rehearsal?

PATTERSON: A ton because we hadn’t even heard all of the music yet…. I would say that probably a third of the content is the same and two thirds has been changed. Which is amazing, actually, now that I think of it.

CLAGUE: What are your favorite images? Do you have favorites?


Patterson’s favorite image — pop star Beyoncé singing in front of a spangled banner

PATTERSON: You know it’s funny, there’s one of Beyoncé that I just really love.  It almost makes me cry.  I mean it’s pop, it’s our pop culture, but she just looks amazing right in front of the flag.  The way she’s standing, the stripes are right behind her, and she looks really great.  There’s another really great one where the flag is a full, giant flag that fills up an entire football stadium, and that one’s really pretty great.  There are the ones that we all know: there’s one in front of the Vietnam Memorial, which is, of course, upsetting; there’s one in Afghanistan, which I think some of us have seen; there’s a 9/11 image.  You know, there’s the cake.  I’m trying to think of some of the lighter ones.  There’s one of Obama, in which he looks really happy — he’s not super solemn.

CLAGUE: How did you decide the timing of each image, when images are switched? Is it just your personal response to the music?

PATTERSON: It just goes right with the music.  I think that’s super important and that’s one of my goals — to always have the imagery, whether it’s abstract or super realistic, to really have it sync with the music.  And we also worked really hard to have it sync with the supertitles too, so they are all working together.  And we talked to the guys who were doing the supertitles a lot, so that we were like, “Ok, exactly on this note.  This is when everybody’s changing at the same time.”  It’s a lot of information to coordinate.

CLAGUE: So there’s actually a live performer of the video imagery, right? Someone who is following the score and cueing the images. Every performance is necessarily slightly different in terms of timing.  But your conception is also a bit like a movie score in that your goal is to have perfect synchronization of image and sound, but here it’s a live performance not a pre-recorded soundtrack, so it has to be adjusted on the fly.

PATTERSON: Yes, we have a stage manager who’s doing art and imagery.  And the supertitles have their own operator.  So hopefully we’re all on the same page.  Well, we know we’re on the same page.  This is also the same with lighting, ’cause there are different lighting cues that happen. But yeah, it’s been working really well.

CLAGUE: Anything else you want to be sure we discuss?

PATTERSON: I just think it’s a really great piece for everybody. Chesapeake really celebrates who we all are as Americans in this country, regardless of whether you’re liberal or conservative.  It represents all our views.  So I think that’s what’s really exciting about it. I think that it will open up a lot of people’s eyes. It opened my eyes to look at not only the history of it, but also the content of it.

CLAGUE: Well, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and insights.  I’m really looking forward to hearing and seeing the performance!

Special thanks to SSMF intern and research assistant Ellen Sauer for her help with the transcription!

Posted in Anne Patterson, Artists, Beyoncé, Chesapeake: Summer of 1814, Compositions, Drama, Emotion, Gandolfi, Imagery, Politics | Leave a comment

Tears Bursting in Air: Michael Gandolfi’s 4-Verse Setting of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


At the close of Michael Gandolfi’s Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 the audiences rises with the instrumentalists and chorus to sing the first and best-known verse of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sitting in Row G, Seat 14 on the main floor, I rose with the community to sing the anthem as I have at countless sporting events. The problem was I could barely sing. Choking back tears like most of those around me, I was carried away by the unexpected emotional resonance of the work. Just a few seats away, composer and librettist were wiping their cheeks as well. And during intermission, I spoke with dozens of listeners and even members of the chorus who shared my experience.

What made Gandolfi’s arrangement so moving? How could a song that I know so well, a performance as much athletic cliché as patriotic hymn, strike me in the heart anew?

The answer lies in the combination of sound, sight and community that is Chesapeake: Summer of 1814—a dramatic 28-minute patriotic cantata about the creation of Key’s powerful lyric.  The music traces a formative episode in U.S. history from August 14 to September 14, 1814, a turning point in the War of 1812 versus Britain or America’s Second War of Independence. The work’s emotional impact, however, rises directly from Gandolfi’s arrangement of all four verses of the nation’s anthem. The composer aims for a simple, direct and thus more powerful setting that showcases Key’s words and enhances the drama of the poem as a whole. In rehearsal, for example, the choir’s sopranos—as has become traditional—flipped up a fourth to a high B-flat on the word “free” at the climax of the first verse, the composer gently admonished the singers to stick to the plain language of his score, to eschew habit for emotional power.

LauraUS20001-webHearing the complete lyric was revelatory. Few in the audience knew verses two, three, or four as they are almost never sung in public. Seeing Key’s complete lyrics displayed in the supertitles and discovering these words anew through the voice of the chorus was stunning in itself (click here to read all verses). But, Gandolfi’s music heightens the power of the text as the music builds in depth and breadth towards the climactic fourth verse. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is normally a strophic song in which each verse of text is typically sung to the same, repeating musical accompaniment.  So, as the drama of the lyric progresses from question to exclamation, from Key’s sense of apprehension and uncertainty to patriotic pride and hope for the young nation, the music typically traces the same, heroic but static, path again and again. Gandolfi’s setting is unique in that his musical accompaniment never repeats but parallels the poetry’s patriotic trajectory of national transformation.

FSKwide0001-webGandolfi’s Banner begins with just a few tenors intoning the opening line of the well-known first verse — haltingly, almost whispering the famous tune to express the confused concern and doubt embedded in the lyric’s opening question, “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light…?” Basses join to complete the verse; and then the “American” SATB half of the chorus joins in to sing the second verse. The vocal forces continue to build through verse three as Gandolfi enriches the harmonic palette, featuring subtle suspensions and passing tones, in response to the increasingly graphic details of Key’s least-known verse. The orchestra’s strings then enter to support the concluding half of the verse. It’s not until verse four, that the full voice of the choir propels the song. Here too, the listener notices that the tempo has increased in celebration of America’s unexpected victory. As the poem reaches its climax woodwinds finally enter, with militaristic fanfare motives arching through the texture in the trumpets.

20100504-D-1142M-004It’s only when the audiences rises to repeat the first verse, invited by a long drum roll on the snare, that the low brass enter, lending emotional gravitas to a final rendition of our patriotic hymn. At this point, Anne Patterson’s visuals which have accompanied the entire performance shift in tone. No longer emphasizing 19th-century black & white line drawings of historic figures or events, historic flags, or abstract bomb blasts, now more recent, full color images connect the music and Key’s lyric of devotion and sacrifice to today and the lives of those in the audience.  All too contemporary and heart-wrenching pictures of firefighters raising the flag at Ground Zero, flag draped coffins returning from Afganistan, an American flag left against the flagcakeVietnam Memorial, and the Stars & Stripes raised heroically at Iwo Jima appear. Other images link the anthem to our day-to-day—a red, white and blue Fourth of July cake, a rodeo rider carrying the flag, Beyoncé singing the anthem, or US flag postage stamps. Patterson’s images heighten the impact of Gandolfi’s music and Key’s words, launching an inescapable emotional tide over the audience.

After the performance, everyone in attendance—at least everyone I spoke with—had discovered a new and deeper connection to our anthem. I hope many others in Reno and beyond, get the opportunity to hear Gandolfi’s version of the anthem.

Posted in Arranging, Composers, Gandolfi, melody, Music, Spangled History | Leave a comment

Complete Lyrics to Francis Scott Key’s Song “The Star-Spangled Banner”

“The Star-Spangled Banner”
Complete lyrics to Francis Scott Key’s song

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
’Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto—“In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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Star Spangled Cantata—Michael Gandolfi’s Chesapeake: Summer of 1814

On March 17 & 19, 2013 the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of music director Laura Jackson will premiere Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 by Boston-based composer Michael Gandolfi (b. 1956), written on an “historical design” by Dana Bonstrom and with stage direction, videography, and costuming by artist Anne Patterson. The work was commissioned by Maestro Jackson and the Reno Philharmonic led by orchestra president Tim Young and board chair Sandy Rafaelli, and inspired in part by my call for a series of “Bicentennial Banner” commissions at the University of Michigan’s January 2010 American Orchestra Summit. Several ensembles expressed interest in the project, but the Reno Philharmonic is the first to bring the idea to life, making a noteworthy contribution to music as well as to orchestras and audiences across the nation.


Cover imagery from Michael Gandolfi’s score to Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 (2013)

Gandolfi’s orchestral-choral work celebrates the anthem’s 200th birthday to take place Sept. 14, 2014, but is being premiered more than a year early to make the work available to other ensembles throughout the United States.

The composition tells the dramatic story of the Chesapeake Bay campaign from the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, encapsulating both the most embarrassing defeat in U.S. military history and one of its most triumphant victories. Against the world’s most powerful navy and battled hardened troops, the people of Baltimore supported by the American soldiers defending Fort McHenry repulsed combined British land and sea attacks under the command of Major General Robert Ross and Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane to change the course of the War. Baltimore’s unexpected victory inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the lyric “The Defence [sic] of Fort McHenry,” which was soon retitled “The Star-Spangled Banner” and became the U.S. national anthem in 1931.

Gandolfi establishes the dramatic atmosphere of patriotic cantata with three opening strikes of a chime over an ominous roll on the bass drum that gives way to tremolo strings followed by melodic premonitions of “The Star Spangled Banner”‘s opening gesture in off-stage trumpet and horn. The choir then presents a variation on the original source tune of the Banner melody—the anthem of a London-based amateur musicians club—”To Anacreon in Heaven,” which seems to echo across the ocean and has already begun to transform musically in the New World. Glissandos from the harp and shimmering strings foreshadow conflict before a rollicking American dance tune—”Durang’s Hornpipe” (1785) by William Hoffmeister—carries the texture and suggests that the Americans are oblivious to the impending attack. (The dancer John Durang was reportedly George Washington’s favorite performer.)


Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 “Landsdowne Portrait” of George Washington, which was saved from fire by First Lady Dolly Madison

Full choral renditions of the British anthem “Rule Britannia” and the 19th-century U.S. anthem ‘Hail, Columbia” (accompanied by obligato premonitions of the Banner melody) signal the opposing forces at the Battle of Bladensburg in which the tested veterans of the British army easily routed the American defenders and marched into Washington, D.C.  A string trio of principal players offers an elegant depiction of President Madison’s heroic first lady, Dolly, in the 1809 tune “Mrs. Madison’s Minuet” by Philadelphia-based composer Alexander Reinagle. Dolly Madison remained at the White House as the British approached to oversee the removal of the Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington, as well as original copies of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. She escaped just in advance of the British occupation of the city, preserving these American artifacts from the subsequent burning of Washington’s government buildings—an fiery insult meant to punish and embarrass the young nation. A snare drum depicts the British marching into Washington singing “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!” from George Frideric Handel’s English oratorio Judas Maccabaeus (1746), set here by Gandolfi as a military march. Running figures in the strings and winds, punctuated by ascending rips in the horns, depict the destruction of Washington by fire; descending plucked notes in the strings suggest the fire’s aftermath as ashes fall from the sky and an anguished minor-mode version of the Handel melody sounds in oboe with horn and later a wind chorale.

Snare drum and wind machine set the stage for a trumpet fanfare motif put in counterpoint against a choral rendition of “God Save the King,” indicating the resolve and confidence of the British. The Americans in Baltimore, however, have anticipated the attack, a preparedness demonstrated musically by a jaunty rendition of “Yankee Doodle”—a tune originally used by British soldiers in the New World to mock the ill-prepared Yankees, but now repurposed as an anti-British cry of defiance. A piccolo plays the full melody, mimicking the sound of a patriotic fife from the Revolutionary War era, while the snare drum continues its relentless and steady march toward the inevitable battle.

Brass bugle calls and wind flourishes build in intensity and volume to the battle, but suddenly give way to a hymn-like rendition of “God Save the King” in counterpoint with “Yankee Doodle.” Sung by the women of the chorus and accompanied by harp and vibraphone, this surreal duet calls the soldiers of both sides to introspection as if a dream has interrupted the battle and reminded the combatants of their shared brotherhood.


Imaginative recreation of the bombardment of Fort McHenry guarding the entrance to Baltimore Harbor, Sept. 13-14, 1814 by British ships.

A cacophony of fanfares soon interrupts the reverie and dense triplet roulades in the winds and strings depict the land and sea battle that would determine the future of the nation. The British were talking of victory and the return of the U.S. to its colonial status. Fortunately! Gandolfi compresses the 25-hour bombardment into about as many measures, with the music soon spinning out into descending glissandi and shuddering timpani punctuations. An ambiguous silence follows, with muted strings creeping back in and evoking a smoky atmosphere of uncertainty.

A chorister playing the role of an anxious Francis Scott Key, floating aboard ship in a tributary six miles or so away from the battle as a prisoner, asks a passing British sailor:

Has Baltimore fallen? Has Fort McHenry been seized? All of yesterday I saw our flag flying over the fort. And last night, at the height of battle, the sky made bright as day by the light of your rockets and flares, the flag was still there.

But what of it now? The guns have fallen silent. Who is the victor? Who has won?

A timpani role and open fifth (neither major nor minor) in the strings witholds the answer until Key sees a triumphant “Star Spangled Banner” flag flying over Fort McHenry and exclaims:

Wait! The sun has found it… The Stars and Stripes still fly!

The tenors of the chorus then enter reverently with a restrained rendition of the opening verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” now as anthem and in the form we know it today. The texture and complexity of the arrangement build over the performance of all four verses of the song, climaxing in a tutti repetition of the anthem melody with the audience singing along to the popularly known first verse.

I can’t wait to hear the musicians of Reno bring the work to life and see what artist Anne Patterson brings to the spectacle! In a future post, I’ll share my experience and hopefully some pics…

Posted in Anacreontic Song, Arranging, Composers, Gandolfi, Hail Columbia, melody, Music, Patriotic Songs, Yankee Doodle | Leave a comment

“The Anacreontic Song”—British Source Tune for the U.S. National Anthem

“The Anacreontic Song,” or “To Anacreon in Heaven” with words by Ralph Tomlinson and music by John Stafford Smith is the source for the tune Francis Scott Key had in mind when he composed the lyric “In Defence of Fort McHenry” to celebrate the surprising and heroic victory of American troops stationed at Fort McHenry and aided by the people of Baltimore against the British Fleet on 14 September 1814.

The precise date that this club anthem of London’s Anacreontic Society was written is unknown (at least to me), but it was likely in the 1760s or early 1770s. This performance is realized from its first 1779 imprint, published by London’s Longman and Broderip and a copy of which is held by the University of Michigan’s Clements Library. (Full lyric below.)

An anthem of The Anacreontic Society, an amateur musician’s fraternity, the song was performed by the club’s president and is thus most appropriately realized in a semi-trained “operatic” styled voice. That the tune was intended for solo performance by an experienced vocalist helps explain why many complain today that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is difficult at best to sing. Turns out the tune was never intended for mass singing.


To my knowledge the video and recording above is the first attempt to try to recreate a performance as it might have been experienced at a meeting of London’s Anacreontic Society. We sang the final verse as a group in response both to the text and a stage direction from an 18c. play discussed by Sonneck that parodied the Anacreontic Society with a similar anthem. Here the actors were instructed to literally join hand in hand in imitation of the Society. Thus, we’ve repeated that gesture here.

For more on “The Anacreontic Song” and its reputation as a drinking song, see my earlier post on the topic.

Lyrics by Ralph Tomlinson

To Anacreon, in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be;
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian —
Voice, fiddle and flute, no longer be mute.
I’ll lend ye my name, and inspire you to boot,
And, besides, I’ll instruct you, like me, to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

The news through Olympus immediately flew;
When Old Thunder pretended to give himself airs —
If these mortals are suffer’d their scheme to pursue,
The devil a goddess will stay above stairs.
Hark! already they cry in transports of joy.
Away to the Sons of Anacreon we’ll fly…
And there with good fellows, we’ll learn to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

The yellow-hair’d god, and his nine fusty maids,
From Helicon’s banks will incontinent flee.
Idalia will boast but of tenantless shades,
And the biforked hill a mere desert will be.
My Thunder, no fear on’t shall soon do its errand,
And dam’me! I’ll swing the ringleaders, I warrant.
I’ll trim the young dogs for thus daring to twine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

Apollo rose up; and said, Pr’ythee ne’er quarrel,
Good King of the gods, with my vot’ries below!
Your thunder is useless — then, shewing his laurel,
Cry’d, Sic evitabile fulmen, you know!
Then over each head my laurels I’ll spread;
So my sons from your crackers no mischief shall dread,
Whilst snug in their club-room, they jovially twine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

Next Momus got up, with his risible phiz;
And swore with Apollo he’d cheerfully join —
The full tide of harmony still shall be his,
But the song, and the catch, and the laugh shall be mine;
Then, Jove, be not jealous of these honest fellows.
Cry’d Jove, We relent, since the truth you now tell us;
And swear by Old Styx that they long shall entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

Ye sons of Anacreon, then, join hand in hand;
Preserve unanimity, friends and love.
‘Tis your’s to support what’s so happily plan’d;
You’ve the sanction of gods, and the fiat of Jove.
While thus we agree, our toast let it be.
May our club flourish happy, united, and free!
And long may the sons of Anacreon entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

Posted in Banner Legends, Music, Mythbuster, Spangled History | 1 Comment

“Land of Liberty”—An Original Spangled Songs Contribution by Ann Arbor Lawton Elementary

Francis Scott Key is one of the legendary figures of American history; he can also be an inspiration to us today.


Ira Lax welcomes students to AADL

To dig more deeply into the meaning and significance of Key’s lyrical creation—”In Defence of Fort McHenry,” now known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” as well as the national anthem of the United States, I wanted elementary students to follow Key’s lead and write their own anthem— about their school, their city, or maybe even the whole nation. I hoped to encourage student lyricists to explore the ideas and meaning behind their original anthem and thus be inspired to examine the ideals of freedom, fortitude, courage, and unity in Key’s words and what these notions might mean for them in America today.

Then I met Ira Lax, from the Outreach and Neighborhood Services office of the Ann Arbor [Michigan] District Library. Ira runs an educational program known as “Library Songsters” in which musicians were partnered with elementary music teachers to write original songs. Ira quickly warmed to the idea of having kids in his program write anthems to enrich their knowledge and understanding of American history. After a brief meeting, he agreed to pitch the idea to his collaborators.

Just a few months later I got an email inviting me to attend an exciting premiere!

The results blew me away! Lawton music teacher Cynthia Page-Bogen worked with AADL’s Library Songster — singer/songwriter Joe Reilly — to create “Land of Liberty.” They had studied Key’s original and, while I had expected the students to write new words to the same melody, creativity took over and they wrote both new words and a new tune. The lyric (see below) not only works beautifully artistically, it’s both serious and fun. The kids celebrate their favorite things, from country music and marshmallows to crystal clear lakes, mountain vistas, the Bill of Rights, jazz, and American cheese! They also explore the collective responsibilities we all have to grow our democracy, noting that “We want freedom and our rights / We work for them day and night” and that “We are all one country under one sky.” The lyric celebrates our nation as both a “land of diversity” and a “place of possibility.”

Lawton Elementary music teacher Cynthia Page-Bogen

Lawton Elementary music teacher Cynthia Page-Bogen explains the Spangled Song / Library Songster Project, Feb. 13, 2013

Singer/songwriter Joe Reilly told me a bit about his approach and goals for the songster project:

“I simply try to share the practices that have fueled my creative process with the kids.  I try to emphasize… that there is no right or wrong way to approach songwriting….  My intent is to empower them to not only connect with their “inner songwriter,” but to listen to this voice and also to share it with others.  Because the Library Songsters format is setup to write one collective song, the process of listening to each others’ ideas and finding common ground is important.  The process itself is the most meaningful part of the program for me, the resulting song is a great bonus, and serves as a living reminder for the students that their voices matters and that they can be creative in how they use their voice.”


Joe Reilly sings with Lawton students

I’d like to offer my own standing and heartfelt ovation to the fifth graders of Lawton Elementary, their music teacher Cynthia Page-Bogen, singer/songwriter Joe Reilly, and Ira Lax and the AADL Library Songsters project for this incredible effort. You did a FANTASTIC job! I hope the experiment was not only meaningful for you, but that it serves as an inspiration for students, teachers, and songwriters across the nation…

See for more about singer / songwriter Joe Reilly. More about the Ann Arbor District Library can be found at

“Land of Liberty” Lyrics

America is where we want to be
It’s the only place you’ll find me
Look around and you will see
It’s the land of liberty (x2)

America is where we want to be
It’s the only place you’ll find me
Look around and you will see
Fifty states of liberty
It’s the land of diversity
It’s the place of possibility

The land of cows, marshmallows, and mosquitoes
The Great Lakes, Yellowstone, everywhere that we go
We want freedom and our rights
We work for them day and night
Many heroes have taken a stand
To let freedom ring across the land (CHORUS)

From the crystal clear lakes to the Rocky Mountains high
We are all one country under one sky
We have many national monuments
Dedicated to our leaders and presidents
We have the Bill of Rights for all citizens
We even have a state shaped like a mitten—that’s Michigan! CHORUS

The Mississippi River sure is long
On its shores there’s been many a song
American music is jazz and blues
Rock and roll, country, and hip hop too
We love to sing and we love to dance
Everyone is welcome to give it a chance CHORUS

Our journey is not yet complete
We’re still growing our democracy
There’s so much that we can be
When we have justice and equality—and American cheese please!!! CHORUS

America is where we want to be
It’s the only place you’ll find me
Look around and you will see
It’s the land of liberty (x2)

Posted in Education, Elementary, Songwriting, Spangled Songs | 2 Comments

How “The Star-Spangled Banner” Became Part of Football Pageantry

The Banner plays roles symbolic, commercial, and practical in professional football.  When the Banner begins, all eyes in the stadium turn towards the flag, men remove their hats, and all place their left hand over their heart. The Banner announces that a game is about to begin and calls spectators to focus on the field. It is the calm before combat. A ritual that unifies opposing teams and their supporters in the moments before battle. The anthem shapes spectator emotion and psychically prepares the field of play. It’s all good business, in a competitive sports marketplace in which baseball, hockey, basketball, and football vie for fan devotion and dollars, to make your game into America’s game.


Football, the U.S. Flag and “The Star-Spangled Banner” — an All-American Trio

The Banner enters professional sports through the baseball diamond, but its earliest appearances on the gridiron appears to be 1899’s Army-Navy game. Bragging rights are on the line when Army and Navy face off in one of the most storied rivalries in college football. The “Black Knights” of the United States Military Academy at West Point began playing the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy from Annapolis in 1890. The 1899 contest was the sixth between the teams and the first to be held at a neutral site, a tradition that has continued but began with this game at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field.

Of course, as military academies, both teams were accompanied (long before college sports became big business) by military bands. These bands were accustomed to performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for flag raising ceremonies and military exercises. In the late 1890s, patriotic sentiment on the homefront had been stoked by America’s decisive victory in the 10-week Spanish-American War, a conflict dominated by the U.S. Navy. Pride in the U.S. Navy was thus especially high.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times in December 1899:

An inspiring incident occurred on Saturday [December 10, 1899]… at the football game between the Annapolis and West Point cadets…. The Annapolis players had been cheered when they dashed upon the field, and they were tumbling about awaiting their rivals’ appearance, when the band that had come with the sailor lads began to play the “Star Spangled Banner.” At once every cadet within sound of the music, whether sailor or soldier, stood at attention and uncovered, as he was bound to do by regulation. Every other military man present obeyed the instincts of his training immediately. Then all present followed this example, and the assemblage of nearly 25,000 persons stood in silence and in the attitude of respect until the stirring sounds ceased. It was an unusual feature of a great athletic contest, and probably a more impressive scene was never witnessed upon such an occasion.”

The author goes on to argue that the cadets’ example “reminded the American public, in a spectacular way, of their duty and privilege when the “Star Spangled Banner” is played or sung.” Too often, Americans carelessly displayed “apparent indifference in pose and manner when the national air is played or sung.” Thus, the players’ patriotic fervor offered an example to the nation, an inspiration surpassing in significance what may have been the first performance of the song at a football game.

The Banner continued to be performed at Army-Navy games in the years that followed, often as part of a celebration at game’s end of both teams and their graduating players. These players were not only leaving school but heading off in service to the country—a service that would likely put them in harm’s way and from which they might not return.

Military conflict and public honor of America’s military seems to have inspired the widening tradition of performing the Banner at football games, and indeed all sporting events. In 1917 just after the U.S. entry into World War One, the University of Michigan football team under coach Fielding H. Yost defeated Cornell 42-0 in Ann Arbor on November 10. During the “intermission” between the two halves, the French Commission was introduced to fans with the Michigan Band playing the French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “America’s guests stood at attention” throughout and, as the Chicago Tribune reported, “It was an inspiring sight—one which commanded the respect of the 400 soldiers from Camp Custer who were guests of the athletic committee.”

The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 may have galvanized the game day ritual of performing the Banner at each and every football game, collegiate and professional. The strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” steeled Americans resolve in literally thousands of ceremonies military and civilian during the months following the attack and indeed throughout World War II. Of course, by this time “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been proclaimed the official national anthem of the United States.

Thanks go to U-M graduate student Nicholas Nestorak for help identifying sources for this post.

Posted in Football, Spangled History, Sports | 2 Comments

Great Anthem Performances in Sports—Nominate Your Favorites

Television made sports championships, such as the Super Bowl and World Series, into international entertainment extravaganzas and the role of music in sports has grown alongside. Musicians had long helped entertain, excite (and control) sports crowds since at least the time of the U.S. Civil War, when “The Star-Spangled Banner” first lofted across a baseball diamond.

Singing the Banner not only celebrates the pride of America in the games it invented, but it offers a ritual that unites opposing fans in song, emphasizing the ideals of community and sportsmanship as two teams prepare to lay everything on the line in a passionate struggle to be crowned best of the best—that is, before they try to destroy one another. The Banner is the calm before combat.

Pop superstars are typically chosen to perform the Banner at championships. Their appearances offer international exposure and catastrophic career danger. Forgetting or mixing up the words as Christina Aguilera did before 2011’s Super Bowl XLV can drag the artist’s reputation through the dirt. A triumph, however, inspires lifetime adoration and can sell millions of records. For pro sports leagues, pop superstars attract potential new fans to the game and, praised or attacked, their performances inspire conversation among fans for weeks, if not for years through YouTube views.

The list here presents my persona favorite Banner performances from the worlds of football and baseball. Suggest your own favorites below…

Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Florida (1991)

Whitney’s performance may be the most beloved of all time. Performed with full orchestral accompaniment and punctuated by an F-16 flyover, her rendition galvanized a nation that had been suddenly (and as it turned out triumphantly) brought into war in Iraq only weeks before. Her expressive arrangement makes use of an extra beat in each measure, giving the anthem a more spiritual feel.

Faith Hill at Super Bowl XXXIV (2000)

Hill’s personal joy and the devotion evident in her voice brought universal praise for this performance, which features bagpipe accompaniment.

Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All Star Game

Gaye at first confuses the crowd with a soulful performance against only an electronic drum beat. He substitutes a melody of his own invention, yet his patriotic, almost religious, intensity recruits the crowd and by the end they clap along with the beat and scream in appreciation.

José Feliciano at 1968 World Series in Detroit

A year before Hendrix performed the Banner at Woodstock, Feliciano stirred national controversy with his bluesy tribute to the nation at the 1968 World Series in Detroit. The Puerto Rican chart superstar intended the rendition with its new melody as a thank you to his country. Some viewers wondered how a “foreigner” could be featured at such an emblematic American event and the controversy, according to Feliciano himself, damaged his career in terms of record sales and radio play for years. (I’m wondering if this is one of the first 4/4 time renditions in sports?)

Jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval at the 2009 Orange Bowl

Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, a U.S. citizen who had successfully sought asylum in escaping the Castro regime in Cuba to pursue his jazz career, offers a crowd stirring tribute to his adoptive home at the 2009 Orange Bowl with his signature stratospheric high notes for the final phrase.

Sixth Man Jerry Stackhouse at 2007 Dallas Mavericks Game

Stackhouse wins the award for best player performance with his rendition that seems a combination of the original tune and Gaye’s soulful stylings.

U.S. Navy / Air Force / Military / Coast Guard Academy Choirs and U.S. Army Herald Trumpets at Super Bowl XXXIX (2005)

Having the men and women of America’s military present this especially sonorous rendition is particularly fitting and escapes the commercialism of using a popular superstar. The herald trumpets join after the lyric of the first verse is complete to echo the final lyric with brass and drum fireworks. Ironically, this echo of the final “chorus” harks back to the anthem’s original 1814 arrangement.

Suggest links to your own favorites in the comment section below!

Posted in Arturo Sandoval, Baseball, Basketball, Faith Hill, Football, Marvin Gaye, Performers, players, Sports, Whitney Houston | 3 Comments

Adding a Beat to the Banner: Beyoncé, Whitney & the Magic of 4/4 Time

The hubbub about Beyoncé’s “to lip synch or not” performance of the national anthem at Obama’s second inauguration aside, everyone I’ve spoken with and read LOVED her performance. Soul superstar Aretha Franklin told ABC News that Beyoncé “did a beautiful job.” Spin Magazine called her rendition “Amazing.”  Musically, however, Beyoncé’s Banner presents an unmentioned and rather profound expressive reworking of the song. It also offers a salute to one of the Banner’s most praised performers and performances—the late Whitney Houston and her 1991 Super Bowl rendition.

Meter is one of the fundamental parameters of musical (and poetic) expression. It concerns the organization of musical pulses into groupings. The most basic contrast is between duple and triple time–that is between music with groups of even numbers of beats or groupings by three. The waltz is the emblematic triple-time dance and the waltz’s lilting, flowing sense of movement is produced by dancers transcending the mismatch of two feet moving against three beats. Triple time tends to add extra emphasis or weight to the beginning of each grouping and all told is the more rare meter. Duple meter is more common and is typical of the march and the vast majority of instrumental music, much of which also extends from the world of dance but here two feet match each set of two beats allowing for a regular right – left symmetry.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” however, is one of those rarer triple time songs, originally notated in 6/4 time and more usually today in 3/4. Yet some of the Banner’s more celebrated recent performances are arranged in a slow duple meter. This is a pretty radical change, expressively.

The anthem’s triple time connects to the energetic patter of the original song, which of course borrowed the melody and affect of a rollicking British tune in joyful celebration of America’s surprise defeat of the powerful British fleet at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor. Since that day, the Banner has shifted meaning. No longer a topical party song, it is now a timeless expression of devotion to country. The tempo has slowed. The song has become sacred.

Adding a beat to each measure expands upon this newfound sacred resonance of the song as anthem. The 4/4 Banner swells to embody its role as national symbol. Beyoncé takes advantage of the meter change and its expressive power. She sings most of the song in 4/4/, drawing out the first syllable of each measure (now sounded over a half note or even a dotted half, rather than a quarter note). Her voice embraces each syllable as if  in 4/4, the song becomes a more relaxed and spiritual love song of country.

The use of 4/4 time smooths out the downbeat bump of triple time and gives the singer more time (literally 33% more) to linger over the first word of each measure. Houston’s emblematic Super Bowl performance features the same transformation, but Beyoncé returns to the original triple time at the penultimate phrase: “O Say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave,” adding momentum and urgency to the performance and setting up a dramatic contrast with a subsequent return to 4/4 time for an ecstatic climax on the final lyric “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Whether the temperature was too cold or sound system too uncomfortable for Beyoncé to risk a live performance, Beyoncé’s intent was to offer an especially passionate and expressive performance of the nation’s Anthem. I can’t complain about the result.

P.S. I’m looking for the first 4/4 arrangement of the anthem. So far the earliest candidate is José Feliciano’s performance at the 1968 World Series in Detroit.

Posted in Arranging, Beyoncé, Football, melody, meter, Music, Performers, rhythm, Sports, Whitney Houston | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment