WASHINGTON — It’s hard to sing and sometimes hard to remember.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is a challenge for even professional singers, who have stumbled over it at venues like the Super Bowl.
But it is also the national anthem, the patriotic musical symbol of the United States sung before every major sporting and government event, stirring deep feelings in the citizenry. The words were written by lawyer Francis Scott Key to honor the flag flying over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in what was a turning point against the British during the War of 1812.
And so the anthem is getting its glorious due in its 200th anniversary year, appropriately beginning on Flag Day, starting with a kickoff event at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History on Saturday, where the manuscript has been paired for the first time with the actual flag that inspired it, the 30-foot-by-42-foot banner that endured “the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air.”
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“People sing the song all the time, but don’t know anything about it,” said Jennifer Jones, a curator and expert on military history at the museum. “These words that we sing were inspired by this flag. Having them in the same place at the same time is exciting.”
Curiously, it has been the nation’s official national anthem only since 1931, when Congress approved it after a groundswell of support led by composer and musician John Philip Sousa. Until then, it was one of several patriotic melodies featured at official or military proceedings.
The lyrics were written Sept. 16, 1814, by Key as a poem after he watched the Battle of Baltimore on Sept. 13-14 from a ship in the harbor. He saw the enormous flag “at dawn’s early light” — a relief for the young American democracy.
“Key was a gentleman poet,” Laura Rodini, marketing director of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, said. The society owns the manuscript and is loaning it to the Smithsonian through July 6. “He wanted to capture the moment.”
Key was on the ship to secure release of a physician held hostage by the British. He penned the four verses on a single sheet and called it “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” in honor of the defenders of the fort. Defenders’ Day, Sept. 12, is a state holiday in Maryland.
But the verses, published in a newspaper and widely distributed, immediately became popular. And Key’s description of the flag as “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the name of the song and also came to refer to the giant flag made by Mary Pickersgill.
As for the music, historians say Key had in mind a specific popular tune, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which has been widely described as a drinking song. Library of Congress music specialist Loras John Schissel explained in an interview that the tune, honoring Greek poet Anacreon, became a drinking song for the gentlemen’s club called the Anacreontic Society, but a more high-minded one than the term suggests.
But why is the anthem so hard to sing?
“It’s 2 ½ octaves,” Jones said. “Most people don’t have a 2 ½ -octave range.”
Added Schissel: “It was written for a man who had an extremely high voice.”
He said that singers who start in A flat instead of B flat can get through the song successfully.
But that does require remembering the words, which pop star Christina Aguilera did not do successfully at the beginning of Super Bowl XLV in February 2011. Others also have flubbed the lyrics or the tune, though this year there was relief all over social media that Super Bowl organizers brought in an opera superstar, soprano Renée Fleming, to do the honors. As BuzzFeed put it, “She absolutely killed it.”