America’s National Anthem: The Star Spangled Banner

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Star Spangled Banner MusicOn this day in 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed into law legislation making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the nation’s official national anthem.

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) composed the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sept. 14, 1814, after witnessing the massive overnight British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, a key assault during the War of 1812. Key, a lawyer, watched the siege while being detained aboard ship by British sailors. He penned the words after observing, with shock and awe, that the flag – with its 15 stars and 15 stripes – had survived the nearly 1,800-bomb assault.

A Baltimore newspaper published the patriotic lyrics, which had circulated as a handbill, a week after the bombardment. Key’s words were later set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular English song written by John Stafford Smith. Throughout the 19th century, most branches of the U.S. armed forces and other groups regarded “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. (The Navy recognized it for official use in 1889.)

But it took until 1916 for President Woodrow Wilson to sign an executive order formally designating the anthem’s status. All that remained was for Congress to pass an act confirming Wilson’s order and for Hoover to sign it.

The Star Spangled Banner” had a strong supporter in John Philip Sousa who, in 1931, opined that besides Key’s “soul-stirring” words, “it is the spirit of the music that inspires.”

On March 3, President Herbert C. Hoover signed the Act establishing Key’s poem and Smith’s music as the official anthem of the United States

Click here for more at the LOC website.

With thanks to America’s Taps Bugler, Jari Villanueva.

This is how the Star Spangled Banner SHOULD sound whether sung or played.
No embellishment whatsoever.

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In 1931 when the law was enacted making “The Star-Spangled Banner” it did not specify an official text or musical arrangement, but left room for creative arrangements and interpretations of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Igor Stravinsky’s orchestration caused such a sensation in Boston that the police confiscated the parts and arrested Stravinsky for “tampering with public property.” He was charged with changing the traditional harmonies. You can find the complete article here.

In 1942 a National Anthem committee outlined some performance practices to be observed. These were no doubt in reaction to the Stravinsky uproar in Boston. It states, “It is inappropriate to make or use sophisticated “concert” versions of the National Anthem.” It also suggested the harmonic, tempo, rhythmic values and key. This version can be found in many community songbooks and hymnals as the “service version” of the “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It suggests having the musicians who perform the anthem stand, something that one doesn’t see with many orchestras and band, and even some MILITARY bands. Here is a link:

Burt Prelutsky, in his article “The Star-Mangled Banner”, written in July 2005 writes, “In 1971, a House joint resolution was introduced to bring some standardization to the anthem, setting down the words, the music and the harmonies, giving recommendations as to the best keys for singing (G, A-flat or A), and some vague guidelines about how “strange and bizarre harmonization should be certainly avoided.” It did allow, however, for considerable discretion (“…it is recognized that reasonable latitude must be allowed” and “the purpose of the performance and the available instruments will sometimes suggest different contrapuntal realizations of the basic harmonies.”) That resolution never became law, and in general, musical groups rely on versions of the anthem so old that in many cases no one is quite sure about their provenance. Tradition, and taste, are the primary guidelines.”

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