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…


About usmusicscholar

I am an Associate Professor of Musicology, American Culture and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
This entry was posted in Anacreontic Song, Arranging, Composers, Gandolfi, Hail Columbia, melody, Music, Patriotic Songs, Yankee Doodle. Bookmark the permalink.

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