A ‘World Premiere’ Recording of “The Star Spangled Banner”?

It’s an audacious claim to offer the premiere recording of the United States National Anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” in January 2013! Certainly, the song is already more than well known and often performed. It has been recorded by such vocal greats as operatic tenor John McCormack or soul superstar Whitney Houston. John Philip Sousa’s band recorded the anthem in 1898 (link), and American soprano Emma Eames recorded the anthem with lyrics in 1905 (link).

Yet each of these performances presents the song as we know it today — as the national anthem of the United States (a status the song did not have officially until 1931). In 1814 when the song was first published, it differed from the anthem we know today in details both small and large. For example, dotted notes were later incorporated into the melody’s rhythm, serving to slow the tempo and lend more gravitas to the song as a statement of national pride and solidarity. In 1814 just after the rather unexpected U.S. victory, Francis Scott Key’s lyric was sung more quickly as a song of celebration. (Before attacking Baltimore, the British faced little resistance in burning most government buildings of Washington, D.C. to the ground. That Baltimore’s fighters reversed the tide of the battle was both a turning point in the war and a big surprise, especially to the British!)

By far the most obvious difference between the original and the song we know today is the opening three-note gesture. Rather than the emblematic snapped military descent through the opening arpeggio that we know today, Carr’s original uses simple, lilting repeated tonic notes that can be sung more quickly.

Key’s poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry” was initially published in September 1814 only as a set of lyrics—first as a broadside and shortly thereafter in newspapers. The Baltimore music publisher Joseph Carr published the original sheet music edition of the song that same fall, pairing the already famous words to its melody as arranged by his son Thomas Carr. This arrangement is based closely on the initial printing of the tune’s source, an anthem for a London-based amateur musicians club known as The Anacreontic Society.

The video here offers what I believe to be the first recorded version of Carr’s original 1814 sheet music edition, using methods of historically informed performance practice to capture a sense of what an early performance might have been like. We’ve tried to recreate something akin to the first documented performance of the song on October 19, 1814 when an actor identified as a Mr. Hardinge at Baltimore’s Holliday Street Theatre sang the song as part of a bill presenting August von Kotzebue’s drama Count Benyowsky, of The Conspiracy of Kamschatka.(1)

Rather than a group rendition sung by a crowd, the lyric is performed mainly by a tenor soloist—here Mr. Justin Berkowitz, a master’s student at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Justin in effect plays the role of Mr. Hardinge who similarly echoes the president of The Anacreontic Society who would have sung the club anthem as a solo. (This helps explain the rather wide range of the song’s melody which is intended for an amateur yet operatic voice and not a crowd in a football stadium.) Our chorus echoes the final line of each verse as directed by the original publication in precise imitation of “The Anacreontic Song.” All four verses of Key’s original lyric are presented here and the accompaniment is played as notated in Carr’s imprint. We use a fortepiano as the accompanying instrument.

With the 200th anniversary of the anthem rapidly approaching, I’m working at the University of Michigan’s American Music Institute to make a recorded history of the anthem available and have partnered with the Star Spangled Music Foundation to help share these and other historical documents related to the anthem with teachers across the nation. Please check back for updates. If you’re interested in learning more about the Star Spangled Music Foundation or finding out how you could help celebrate the anthem’s upcoming birthday, contact the Foundation’s Executive Director Susan Key at info@starspangledmusic.org.

(1) Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents: Harmonies and Discords of the First Hundred Years. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1975), p. 205

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

What!—The National Anthem Is Not Even 100 Years Old?

“The Star-Spangled Banner” did not become the official national anthem of the United States until March 3, 1931 (80 years ago today [note: as of March 3, 2013 it’s 82 years]), when President Herbert Hoover signed a Congressional resolution (46 Stat. 1508, codified at 36 U.S.C. § 301) making it so. For many, Key’s poem, written September 14, 1814, had functioned as the nation’s de facto anthem or at least the symbolic sonic equivalent of the flag, since the U.S. Civil War, but it had never been recognized legally as the nation’s anthem. The United States simply didn’t have one, although on occasions of state before 1931 “Hail Columbia” was likely to be used. In 1889, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was recognized by the Secretary of the Navy and by World War I, President Woodrow Wilson’s executive order made it the official anthem of the U.S. military.

Although pushed by the Daughters of the War of 1812, the decision to make the Banner the U.S. anthem was not without controversy. Pacifists decried the military occasion of the lyric; prohibitionists were embarrassed by its use as a drinking song (see previous post), nationalists disliked the British origins of the tune, while internationalists found the text to be anti-British, even music teachers were against the choice, as the melody’s wide melodic compass (what musicians call the interval of a twelfth) made the song difficult at best for group performance. Alternates such as “Hail Columbia,” “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” “America,” “America the Beautiful,” and even “Yankee Doodle” found supports; contests were held to compose an entirely new anthem to which thousands of entries were submitted. Yet, “The Star-Spangled Banner” remained the obvious choice.

The 1931 resolution was mute on the specific version of the song to be used. It reads simply, “The composition consisting of the words and music known as the Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem.” Details of proper deportment during performance are given, but no sheet music is attached—the identification of the song being apparently so obvious as to merit no definition. Yet many versions of the Banner had long been in circulation.

Congress might have intended that the military’s so-called “Service Version” would function as the official model, but the very success of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in American oral tradition had given voice to a number of subtle variants. In fact, the Service Version itself differs significantly from Key’s original in details of melody, rhythm, and tempo.

As a music historian, my fascination with the anthem derives from this precious and patriotic ambiguity. Differences and variations are what give the anthem its magic as the longstanding tradition of arranging the tune invites Americans to sing themselves into citizenship, giving voice a wide variety of feelings and images about what it means to be American. Performances in contexts from high school graduations to professional baseball games, in crowds or as solo song, in versions both straight forward and personalized, respond to the infinite variety of our nation’s citizens to express an active engagement and individual commitment to democracy through participation.

Posted in Spangled History | 2 Comments

My Star-Spangled Banner—A “Key” Tradition in Sports Today

Christina Aguilera’s bluesy ornamented version of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XLV has reignited controversy over appropriate performances of the national anthem of the United States. While it is her lyrical indiscretions that have sparked debate (she mangles line 4 of Key’s original—”O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?” and substitutes words taken from across the poem—”What so proudly we watched, at the twilight’s last gleaming”), in the history of the anthem, this error is not especially egregious—at least she keeps going…

More interesting to me is Aguilera’s musical interpretations—the changes in dynamics, vocal color, ornamentation, and even to the expected melodic contour—that communicate and intensify ideas in and behind the lyrics.

Aguilera sings without accompaniment, no instrumental backing track enforces rhythmic regularity or standard harmony.* But for a few tiny pauses to take extra breaths, she sings the opening phrase straight, at least until “[ear]-ly light” on which she offers quick melodic ornaments that decorate the expected pitches. Next she hits the word “proudly” with a dynamic swell, and emphasizes patriotic pride—both national and personal. Gentle ornaments then articulate the words “hailed,” “twilight’s,” and “gleaming,” while Aguilera brings down the volume to the deeply intimate, covered sound of her opening line. Lines 3 and 4 follow the same trajectory, with her dynamic power celebrating the word “stars.”

Aguilera really opens up, and appropriately so, in line 5, where Key’s lyric becomes more dramatic and reports the glare and bursts of British canon that attacked Baltimore’s Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14, 1814. The fortitude and resolve of the more than one thousand troops that defended the fort that day is signaled by the anthem melody at this point. It shifts up in tessitura, making the anthem hard for many to sing. Here, to hit these notes the song literally requires more power and strength from the voice as Aguilera’s increase in volume reveals. She exaggerates this sonic symbolism further by holding onto the word “glare,” extending the pitch and removing her vibrato to cut through the air; no ornaments soften the bombs’ blows. Here, Aguilera’s tone is aurally blinding, it glares as sound! And the crowd cheers, fans getting the message about American courage in the face of danger.

On “‘Gave…’ proof through the night,” Aguilera digs deep into her voice producing a gutteral resolve that carries the melody to victory.  Ornamentation returns on the word “night,” and she varies the melodic contour to draw attention to the lyric’s signal of triumph—that “our flag was still there.”

Aguilera’s intensity increases through the final pair of lines, the crowd increasing in volume—both anticipating the end of the song and the beginning of the game. On “yet wave” Aguilera startles the expected melody by skipping up a third and (possibly taking a cue from Hendrix) illustrates the movement of the flag with extended, heavy vibrato. The sound literally “waves,” as does the image of Key’s lyric in the listener’s mind.

For the final climactic line, Aguilera takes dramatic breaths before “free” and especially the final word “brave”—the final word celebrating the key to America’s victory in Baltimore and thus receiving all the dramatic force and momentum of her entire performance. Here she uses most of the emphatic musical tricks featured so far (gutteral power, the glare of no vibrato warming into a rich vocal wave, heightened melodic pitches, and ornamentation) to give the song an inspired and inspiring finish. She raises her hand to the heavens, emphasizing that she’s given all she’s got as a musician while welcoming the arrival of four military jets, which add their own patriotic (and deafeningly) mark of exclamation.

While Aguilera’s performance is certainly virtuosic, celebrating her own vocal gifts and musical talents (and no doubt she hopes to make new fans and sell some recordings as a result of her Super Bowl exposure), her changes to the tune are born not simply of ego, but stem from the music and text of the anthem itself. Like the jets’ dramatic flyover at the song’s climax—Aguilera’s artistry serves to deepen the meaning of the song and communicate an intense patriotism to her listeners across the nation and, indeed, around the globe.

Like José Feliciano at the 1968 World Series in Detroit, Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and (I’d even argue ) Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, Aguilera’s musical rendition connects to a longstanding tradition of performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” to heighten and intensify the ideas behind the song. Indeed, the very first to be so inspired by patriotism to burst forth into lyric ecstasy was Francis Scott Key himself, who, held aboard ship by America’s British attackers for the duration of the battle, lived through the anxiety and then emotional release of victory that inspired the pride and celebration of our nation’s anthem.

* Any producers who wish to enforce a regular (if potentially less inspired) version of the anthem need just provide a standard recorded backing track to accompany a singer’s performance. An accompaniment also serves to discipline a performance.

Posted in Controversy, Football, Lyrics, Music | Tagged | 3 Comments

How “The Star-Spangled Banner” Entered Professional Sports

Baseball and the Anthem: Celebrating 150 Years in 2012

As the tale is most often told, the practice of performing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in American professional sports supposedly began as a tribute to a nation at war during the first game of the 1918 World Series which pitted the Chicago Cubs against the Boston Red Sox.

First reported by The New York Times the very same day (September 5, 1918), the story goes like this:

Far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball was the great moment of the first world’s series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, which came at Comiskey Park this afternoon during the seventh-inning stretch.  As the crowd of 19,274 spectators—the smallest that has witnessed the diamond classic in many years — stood up to take their afternoon yawn, that has been the privilege and custom of baseball fans for many generations, the band broke forth to the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The yawn was checked and heads were bared as the ball players turned quickly about and faced the music.  Jackie Fred Thomas of the U.S. Navy was at attention, as he stood erect with his eyes set on the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field.  First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field.  It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.[1]

The band repeated this patriotic seventh-inning stretch the next two nights, and — not to be outdone —the Red Sox hired a band to play the anthem before the remaining games in Boston, upping the ante by adding an on-field ceremony to honor injured WWI veterans.
Popular internet sources like Wikipedia repeat and distort the claim:

Note: Screen shot taken on Wikipedia—10 February 2011

The only problem is that this tale is false.
At least, it connects the innovation to the wrong war…

The first time “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed before, during, or after a baseball game is likely May 15, 1862 in Brooklyn, New York. On this day—during the American Civil War—”The Star-Spangled Banner” was played for the first time in baseball. The song was part of a pre-game celebration of the opening of a new stadium, at least according to Harold Seymour’s 1960 history Baseball: The Early Years. The day marks another milestone as the new field was the first baseball park to be enclosed by a fence—an innovation envisioned by promoter William H. Cammeyer to keep out freeloaders and thus welcome another baseball first—the admission ticket.

Posted in Banner Legends, Baseball, Mythbuster, Spangled History, Sports | 2 Comments

Was “The Star-Spangled Banner” Really a Drinking Song?

Stoudt’s American Pale Ale features American Flag Imagery

It’s not unusual to read online that the United States national anthem was a drinking song and, like many myths, this tale has a core of truth surrounded by misinformation. Yes—the lyric of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” upon which Francis Scott Key’s lyric was written, clearly contains a toast in its final stanza and indeed the song was sung at each meeting of London’s 18th-century Anacreontic Society. While its members were no teetotalers, their song is a far cry from a boisterous pub ditty.

London’s Anacreontic Society was an amateur musicians club for members of considerable means and social capital. Meetings consisted of a classical orchestral concert performed by freelance professional musicians, followed by a dinner, followed by group singing (think GLEE, but with only men singing and without the dance routines). Certainly there was alcohol involved during dinner and during the vocal hours, but–originally at least–the tune upon which Key based his lyric celebrating the heroism of the Americans who defended Fort McHenry in September 1814 against all odds was not sung by a group of drunken revelers.

The president of the Society, always an amateur “operatic” singer in the classical tradition, performed “The Anacreontic Song,” after dinner to invoke the Greek poet Anacreon and inspire the evening’s music making. On occasion the singing could linger into the wee hours of the next day, and young members might even greet the sunrise on their way home. This origin answers one important question about the anthem: Why is “The Star-Spangled Banner” so hard to sing?  Because its tune was never intended for group singing, but for a trained solo voice–a singer who would have no difficulty with its expanded range. Another myth is that tune and text were only united after Key’s lyric was written; in fact, given its rare 8-line stanzas and the fact that Key had written a previous lyric to the same tune, Key composed the words to fit Anacreon’s melody.

Anacreon’s reputation as a drinking song is likely connected to other songs that shared the same melody that were boisterous pub ditties, namely “The New Bibo” and “Jack Oakum in the Suds” (more about those later). It was the runaway success of Key’s victory song for the young nation that destined it to become the U.S. national anthem—despite its British origins, despite its associations with alcohol, and despite its extended range which made it difficult (if not impossible) for some to sing. The Banner was just one of many patriotic lyrics celebrating the War of 1812, and Key could never have imagined that it would in 1931 become the official national anthem of the United States of America. The miracle of song is that it did.

Posted in Banner Legends, Drinking Song, Music, Mythbuster, Spangled History | Tagged | 4 Comments