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.
Hearing 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.
Gandolfi’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.
It’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 Vietnam 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.