When baritone Thomas Hampson sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Library of Congress in Washington on Thursday, it didn’t sound quite like the familiar tune belted out at ballgames and presidential inaugurations.
A sprightly lilt replaced the usual slow waltz. A jaunty, two-beat pickup substituted for the stately descent of “O say.” The last two lines of each verse were echoed by a septet of singers.
In short, it was how the anthem might have sounded 200 years ago, when Francis Scott Key wrote new lyrics to an old British melody aboard a ship in Baltimore’s harbor.
“Key wouldn’t really recognize what we sing today,” said musicologist Mark Clague in a joint Skype interview with Hampson before the performance.
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“It’s missing a phrase of music, it’s at the wrong tempo, it’s much slower, it’s sung by a massed group of people instead of an individual soloist,” he added.
Clague, a professor at the University of Michigan, would know: He heads Star Spangled Music, an initiative celebrating the anthem’s bicentennial. While the anniversary is Sept. 14, Hampson’s recital allowed for a Fourth of July tie-in.
“I hope that we can be part of something this year that reinvigorates a real connection to where this song came from, other than the obligatory tune that one sings before somebody throws a pitch,” Hampson said.
There was nothing obligatory about the early history of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Behind Key’s words lay a melody — the so-called “Anacreontic Song” — endlessly adaptable to the causes of its day, from the French Revolution to abolition to temperance and women’s rights. Only in the past century has the anthem’s tune become inextricably connected to Key’s lyrics, and the lyrics to the sturdy patriotism of baseball and flag raising.
Star Spangled Music mainly focuses on K-12 educational projects teaching the history of the anthem. But it also tries to correct popular misconceptions, such as the widespread assumption that the tune originated as a drinking song.
“To Anacreon in Heaven,” as the melody was first known, had its debut around 1776 at a meeting of the Anacreontic Society, an amateur gentlemen’s music club in London. The song served as an after-dinner transition between a professional orchestral concert and participatory group singing. The society’s president wrote the original lyrics, an ode to jovial Greek poet Anacreon. A trained tenor would perform the tune as a virtuoso set piece, with the conclusion of each refrain repeated heartily by the society’s members.
“It’s not a drinking song in the way its reputation would lead people to believe, in the sense of a pub ditty,” Clague said. “You had to have a harpsichord and four-part harmony, so it just doesn’t work very well in a pub.”
Its alcoholic repute was in part attributed to moralistic protests against the tune during the Prohibition era, when Congress was deciding whether to make it the official national anthem. Battling over the meaning of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an essential — if overlooked — part of the song’s tradition.
“The Anacreontic Song” was well-known in the early American republic, most famously as “Adams and Liberty,” an impassioned defense of the second president. In 1793, an American Francophile published a new text for the song supporting the French Revolution; another writer countered with a version that suggested hanging the French ambassador.
Key, 35, a lawyer and amateur poet, was familiar with the tune before he wrote the “Star-Spangled” verses, having already refashioned it as a paean to U.S. naval heroics in 1805. Nine years later, stuck on a ship after negotiating the release of a prisoner, Key watched the overnight siege of Baltimore by the British during the War of 1812. When he saw the U.S. flag still waving at dawn — an improbable victory — Key penned the stirring “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” with a rhyme scheme matched to “The Anacreontic Song.”
Within a week, the lyrics were printed in Baltimore newspapers, with an indication that they be paired to the familiar British melody. Key supervised a full musical arrangement by composer and publisher Thomas Carr — issued as “The Star-Spangled Banner” — which Hampson sang Thursday.
About a dozen copies of the Carr arrangement are known to exist. One is on display at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan through Sept. 7. Another is held by the Library of Congress, an institution entwined with the history of the anthem, which has an exhibition about the song running through July 7.
“In many ways the story of the research into ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is the story of the music division of the Library of Congress,” Clague said.
In 1907, Oscar Sonneck — the music division’s first chief — began a full investigation of the anthem’s history.
His scrupulous report raised as many questions about the song’s history as it answered: Sonneck urged readers not to “accept a single statement of fact or argument unless the evidence submitted compels him to do so.”
Sonneck couldn’t conclusively identify the composer of “The Anacreontic Song.”
In the 1970s, librarian William Lichtenwanger — following the chance discovery of a diary entry hidden in a 10-volume manuscript — successfully attributed the tune to composer John Stafford Smith, a hired hand who never joined the Anacreontic Society.
“Song is a verb”
Perhaps more intriguing than the song’s origin is its multifaceted and contentious U.S. development.
“It’s really sort of an amazing story of how the song has grown up alongside the country: You can really trace the history of the United States in the echoes of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” Clague said.
Not until 1931 was it officially declared the national anthem. In the 19th century, the tune was regularly refashioned with lyrics to be, alternately, a rallying cry for abolitionists (“Oh, say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light, The shrieks of those bondmen, whose blood is now streaming”) or a temperance-movement indictment of alcohol (“Oh! who has not seen by the dawn’s early light, Some poor bloated drunkard to his home weakly reeling”).
“What is fascinating is just to revisit the use of text and words — how much information about social issues is being communicated in the text that wandered with the same melody but through different mutations and given different contexts,” Hampson said. “Quite frankly, the issues fall under what we would call human rights.”
Despite its initial wave of popularity, for several decades “The Star-Spangled Banner” ranked third behind “Hail, Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle” as the default musical expression of national fervor. In the early days of the Civil War, the North and South both claimed the anthem; Key was, after all, a Maryland slave owner. Only during Reconstruction did it emerge as the predominant U.S. hymn, entrenched by its association with flag-raising ceremonies practiced during the war.
Complaints about the tune have remained mostly the same since that era: It’s foreign; it’s hard to sing; the words are not easy to remember. But even if the highest notes on “land of the free” are difficult to reach, the anthem’s hotblooded history elevates it to the level of U.S. iconography.
For Clague, it is a testament that “The song is a verb, and citizenship is a verb, and that these are part of a process of identity negotiation.”
If performances of the anthem by Beyoncé or Renée Fleming don’t quite embrace that ethos of national introspection, perhaps resurrecting the tune’s original multiplicity of meanings might.
Clague and Hampson, however, don’t want to overturn modern patriotic conventions.
“I actually very much like our crazy tradition of the last 25 or 30 years of various genius contemporary pop musicians taking this tune and this moment, and turning it into something uniquely theirs at different events,” Hampson said. “I’m actually very amused and sometimes deeply moved.”
Among other research interests, Clague has long been fascinated by Jimi Hendrix’s famously unorthodox 1969 Woodstock rendition.
“When you see the song as something that’s in the process of always becoming,” he said, “you realize that it is our country — made audible.”