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Living Anthems

By Mark Clague


The Fourth of July, aka “Independence Day” (the annual federal holiday in the United States marking the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence from Britain), is cause for national celebration and certainly the celebration of nationalism. Fireworks, orchestral concerts, parades, 5-K runs, carnivals, family picnics, and political speeches are common holiday happenings. Many are accompanied by music, especially by a haphazard class of folk tunes known as patriotic song that often defy historical logic, but nevertheless have become potent cultural symbols.

The social resonance of patriotic song is impossible to create artificially. Attempts to compose new patriotic anthems have historically been doomed to failure. Rather, patriotic song ferments over decades in shifting concoctions of social, political, and cultural practice. They grow not in time or place or even in a particular composer or epic event but in a people. Patriotic songs are not things so much as living cultural processes, ever changing and more often than not shrouded in the collective amnesia of myth and legend.

The United States national anthem — “The Star-Spangled Banner” — offers an instructive example of a patriotic song that is very much a living anthem, made and re-made both daily at sporting events, high school graduations, and political rallies. The song has its origins in a particular time, place, person and event, yet its import derives from countless performances over the past century and more. Its history defies symbolic logic. A musician setting out to compose an anthem for any nation today would never borrow a jaunty tune from a former colonial overseer that’s hard to sing, bloodied by war, and steeped in alcohol. Yet this is precisely the case for the national anthem of the United States.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” as Francis Scott Key’s poem is now known, was written in mid-September 1814 to celebrate the defeat of the British navy at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. The event was a critical American victory as Britain had only days before marched all but unopposed through the young nation’s capitol of Washington, DC, burning the city to the ground. A lawyer as well as amateur poet, Francis Scott Key had been aboard a British ship negotiate a successful prisoner release. As the enemy’s plans for attacking Baltimore had been discussed within earshot, Key was detained for the duration of the battle and wrote his now famous lyric in ecstatic response to America’s unanticipated victory.

Published in fall 1814, the first edition imprint of the sheet music for Key's poem was retitled "The Star Spangled Banner." Only about 11 copies are known to survive with one selling recently for $500,000--reportedly the largest sum ever paid for a piece of printed music. The original edition is readily identified by a typo below the title that reads "A Pariotic Song," rather than "Patriotic" with a "T."

Key’s poem was published almost immediately as a broadside ballad in newspapers along the Atlantic coast, with the lyric accompanied by some variation of the note “Tune: Anacreon,” indicating a well-known melody to which the words could be sung. This title referred to the club song of London’s Anacreontic Society, an amateur musicians and singing association. Some including contemporaries of Key, claimed that it was only after the lyric had been written that it was noticed how words fit the British melody, yet the poem’s rare metric structure and the fact that Key had written a previous poem, “When the Warrior Returns,” in 1805 to the same tune make this happenstance less than likely. (Key’s earlier poem, in fact, shares both sentiment and specific lines with the new version, including the key phrase “the star spangled flag of our nation.”)

The tune is indeed a strange choice for a national anthem. Its melodic compass from lowest note to highest is an octave plus a fifth (known to musicians as a twelfth) making the melody awkward at best for group singing. Its British origins dilute nationalist pride. Its continuing reputation as a drinking song sullies any potential idealism, but results from both a misunderstanding of the Anacreontic Society, really a rather elite professional association (which indeed met for a time at London’s Crown and Anchor Tavern), as well as a series of contrafact New World lyrics more in keeping with its use as a boisterous pub ditty. Yet we can’t really blame Key for these problems. Key, of course, was not writing a national anthem. He was writing a lyric to celebrate “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” as the poem was first known, and toasting the young nation’s heroic victory at the pub might well have been part of the intent.

That Key left no first-hand account of the poem’s origins lends further proof to his limited aspirations. He didn’t expect the lyric to survive long in the popular imagination; most broadside ballads didn’t. As a result unfortunately, we likely will never know for certain if Key’s selection of a British tune had been intentional. Certainly it adds a bit of parody and satire to the lyric’s mocking of a vanquished foe. In this spirit, the song was originally sung relatively quickly in the cause of celebration. Early sheet music imprints indicate “Con Spirito” [with spirit] as a tempo marking. The melody’s characteristic dotted rhythms had yet to be added. Their later appearance served to cut the tempo and thus lend gravitas to its performance as anthem.

While Key’s authorship was never in question, knowledge of who composed the music was uncertain as late as 1977 when William Lichtenwanger, head of the Reference Section in the Music Division of the Library of Congress, published “The Music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’: From Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill.” Lichtenwanger built upon research by earlier music specialists employed by the Library of Congress, notably Oscar Sonneck and Richard S. Hill, but with the added good fortune to run across an obscure diary entry that finally and unambiguously connected authorship of the tune with John Stafford Smith, an English composer and keyboardist employed by The Anacreontic Society for its instrumental dinner prelude concerts. Not being a member of the club, Smith presumably did not merit his name’s inclusion on Anacreon’s eventual sheet music imprint.

It wasn’t until 1931 that Key’s song became the official anthem of the United States of America by act of Congress. Prohibitionists, nationalists, pacifists, and even music teachers opposed the choice, suggesting alternatives including “Hail Columbia” and “America, the Beautiful.” While these objectors each had good reasons to forward an alternative to Key’s Banner, the choice had long been made. President Herbert Hoover’s signature on Statute 1508 was less legislative creativity than simple recognition of the ever-developing role “The Star-Spangled Banner” already had in US life. Advanced by its association with the flag, especially in military ceremony during the Civil War, Spanish American War, and World War I, the Banner had long replaced “Hail Columbia” and “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” as the de facto anthem of the nation. Thus the real decision was made not by Congress but by living cultural practice.

(Had “God Bless America” been well known at the time, it might have proved a significant challenger. But Irving Berlin’s song was invisible until 1938, when it was performed as a prayer for continued peace in the face of Nazi aggression by singer Kate Smith for an Armistice Day radio broadcast remembering the end of World War I.)

The tale of “The Star-Spangled Banner” thus celebrates the myriad ways in which Americans, from kindergartners to military veterans and baseball fans to newly naturalized immigrants, have used the song to give voice to citizenship. That we as Americans lose track of who wrote the song, when, and why is less a criticism of our historical memory, than a signal of the song’s continued relevance as living ritual. “The Star-Spangled Banner” thrives as a symbol of the nation in performances both expert and amateur, accurate and not-so-much, in the everyday re-creative acts of countless individuals. In concert by the New York Philharmonic performing in North Korea or as sung by a young girl at a hockey game whose microphone cuts out inspiring the crowd to finish the song, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is alive and well.

Mark Clague is Associate Professor for Music (Musicology), American Culture, Afro-American Studies, and Non-Profit Management at the University of Michigan. He serves as Project and Cities and Institutions Editor of the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Second Edition (OUP, 2013). As Director of the American Music Institute at the University of Michigan, he is active on Twitter as @usmusicscholar and contributes to the blog O Say Can You Hear on the history of the U.S. national anthem, which will develop into a book.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

Oxford Sheet Music in the United Kingdom has several arrangements of “The Star-Spangled Banner” available. Two arrangements as vocal scores by Frank Sargent and by Jerry Rubino. There is also an arrangement by William Walton in one of the scholarly Walton Edition volumes, including this critical commentary: “Like ‘God Save the Queen’, Walton also orchestrated the American Anthem for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s first tour of the United States. Answering a query from Alan Frank in a postcard to him of 10 March 1975, Walton wrote: ‘Yes I did orchestrate the S.S.B. for Karajan when he took the Philharmonia to the U.S. years ago [. . .]. It was not my best effort of [sic] scoring and I don’t think it was ever played or paid for! I’ve no idea where the sc. & parts are but it is best destroyed if discovered’.” Oxford Sheet Music and a small number of books about music and hymn books are distributed in the US by Peters Edition.

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