Piece of the Week: The Star Spangled Banner

The Star Spangled Banner

The piece that became our national anthem was originally written 200 years ago this year as a poem sung to the tune of an already well-known popular song. Francis Scott Key was a thirty-five year old lawyer at the time, and was moved to write the poem after witnessing an attack by British forces during the War of 1812.

The story of how a Georgetown lawyer came to pen our national anthem began when the British sacked Washington D.C. in August 1814. Francis Scott Key was a well established lawyer who had argued before the Supreme Court and risen to the rank of US District Attorney. Given his prominent position, President James Madison called upon Key and another colleague to negotiate with the British for the release of prisoners captured during the British attack on the capital. Key sailed from Baltimore MD and, boarding a British ship anchored in the Chesapeake Bay, made his case. Key and his colleagues successfully negotiated the prisoners’ release, but during their conversation they learned of the British navy’s plan to attack Baltimore. Fearing that this knowledge could be used to thwart their imminent attack, the British officers held Key and the other Americans prisoner until after the attack.

Key was forced to watch the naval bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry not from the American side, but rather from the side of the British attackers, and the frustration and anguish this must have caused him is what gives the poem he wrote its poignance and emotional weight. Confined as he was to a British vessel, it really was the star-spangled flag flying defiantly over Fort McHenry that signaled to Key that the attackers had failed to destroy the fort, even after a full day of bombardment. In his relief, Key made that fifteen-star American flag the central image of his poem.

Published as a broadside ballad, the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” (sic) was sung to the tune of a popular 18th century song by English composer John Stafford Smith (the piece was originally entitled “The Anacreontic Song,” after the British gentlemen’s club to which Smith belonged). Key’s piece became popular and was soon after picked up and reprinted, first by the Baltimore Patriot and then by newspapers across the country, under the name “The Star Spangled Banner.” Over the 19th century, it steadily gained popularity both as a concert piece and as a way of commemorating patriotic occasions. In 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy made “The Star Spangled Banner” the official song to be played during the raising of the American flag; in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson ordered that the song be played at all military and state occasions where an anthem would be needed (as our nation did not yet have an official anthem), and in 1931 President Herbert Hoover officially established it as the national anthem of the United States.

“The Star Spangled Banner” is notorious for its many arrangements. Indeed, President Wilson had to convene a panel of prominent American music educators and bandleaders–among them Walter Damrosch, Oscar Sonneck and John Philip Sousa–to decide upon a single standardized version for use at state events. At SmartMusic, we have a number of different arrangements available, including versions for concert band and jazz ensemble as well as all solo instruments.

2014 is the bicentennial anniversary of the original composition of this piece, which makes this a perfect time to add “The Star Spangled Banner” to your Fall concert programs.

The Star-Spangled Banner

Audio provided by Alfred Publishing Co., Inc.

A Star-Spangled March

Audio provided by Alfred Music Publishing Co., Inc.

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If you are an educator, musician, composer or student with a suggestion for a “piece of the week” blog post, you can email your suggestion to Griffin at [email protected]. Please let me know the name of the piece, composer, publisher, and why this piece is special to you.

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