Published online: 1 October 1972
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373313
Relevance, anyone? Change? Concern for the "now" world of music in the United States? "Deep forays" out of the music library "into neighboring disciplines, into social and regional history, into history of ideas, science, and technology, into the study of cultural institutions and all levels of musical and artistic expression within them"? Perhaps Mantle Hood, Charles Hamm, and especially Claude Palisca will be amused to learn the direction my thoughts took upon reading their timely exhortation of a year ago (Symposium, Fall 1971, pp. 94-102). I thought not of musica ficta nor of John Cage nor of an Asian music nor of "Hair" but of a musical work that has been completely neglected (so far as I am aware) by university scholars and their students despite the fact that it is the most often performed, most problem-ridden, and today the most controversial piece of American music, bar none. I mean, of course, "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Certainly no other topic in the realm of American music offers more of a challenge to multidisciplinary study. Social history? What really went on at those meetings where the famous "drinking song" first became known, how did it become such a part of American life that nearly a hundred parodies using the tune appeared before 1820, what were the stages, the social and artistic evolutions, by which "The Star-Spangled Banner" grew from Maryland's song of the hour to America's national anthem? Science and technology? There is that curious anticipation of our own time, the Congreve rocket, and the part it played in the flag being "still there." An understanding of seamanship and navigation is necessary for the plotting of the British fleet's comings and goings in Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. Meteorology enters in, for I have a strong suspicion that it was Maryland's sultry summer weather that chased the British back to their ships after Bladensburg and led to the unsuccessful attack from the Bay rather than, as originally planned, from Baltimore's unprotected rear. Poetry? Of course, but also some knowledge of printing and typography is necessary to sort out the early printings of the text, and some literary bird-dogging to trace the respective "streams" into which the ensuing texts can be divided. The music library cannot be neglected. Where did the tune come from—John Stafford Smith, or one who is nameless in history? Does the structure of the tune imply that it was set to preexisting poetry, or vice versa? How did it evolve into its present shape (or shapes)? The importance of military history to any study of the song is obvious, but political history—both past and present—also cannot be overlooked. (How many of those who today object to Key's "belligerence" and "militarism" realize that he himself strongly objected to the war which led him to write his song?)
Indeed, besides the historical aspects to the problem there also are the current questions involving taste and tradition, evolution and revolution, vocal ease versus musical brilliance. Are Jose Feliciano and Aretha Franklin good guys or bad guys? Is a national anthem to be judged first by audition or by participation? What effect has the Viet Nam War had on the validity of "The Star-Spangled Banner"? What should be the official version of the text and tune—or should there be one? Most urgent of all, does the existing sentiment in favor of replacing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the nation's anthem indicate a mere random and uninformed opposition or does it have sturdy roots in permanent social and esthetic change? These are just some of the questions that call for answers in an "inter-disciplinary" study of what is not just a song but a "cultural institution."
Not that there has been a dearth of writings about "The Star-Spangled Banner"; there has not. But these writings have been rather more specialized than interdisciplinary, and they have emanated not from campuses but from such places as a library, a private study, some very individual individuals, the U.S. National Park Service, and—most recently and most handsomely—the Maryland Historical Society. Even before Oscar G. Sonneck's masterful pioneer study of 1914, there had been numerous articles and a few monographs, all of which together produced monstrous confusion in regard to many points. Chief of the Music Division at the Library of Congress, Sonneck first tackled the whole problem of the song in his 1909 Report on "The Star-Spangled Banner"/"Hail Columbia"/"America"/"Yankee Doodle" (Washington, Government Printing Office, reprinted in 1972 by Dover Publications of New York). For the centennial year of 1914 he then considerably restudied, revised, and amplified his report on the first song and issued it as The Star Spangled Banner.
This 1914 book pulls together patiently, almost tediously, all of the previous writings, and sifts carefully the evidence in them (and in such early editions and other primary sources as were known to him) on the origin and history of "The Anacreontic Song," and then on the circumstances of the writing, printing, and first public performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner." As a guide through the thorny thickets of pre-1914 accounts and surmises it is a godsend. One watches admiringly as Sonneck deals methodically with such wild theorists as Dr. W.H. Grattan Flood (who claims the tune for Ireland's bard, Turlogh O'Carolan), of whom he concludes: ". . . I have gained the impression that Dr. Grattan Flood was misled into his theory by some unfortunate but pardonable error in his notes." It is too bad that Sonneck had not all the evidence we have today, and could not tie up such loose ends as where the tune and Key's words first met (they met in Key's mind as he composed his poem to the tune). The largest loose end of all, the origin of the tune, Sonneck tucked in (after much uneasy quibbling) beside John Stafford Smith—though that loose end continues to pop out again even today. Sonneck's book is valuable not only for Sonneck's scholarship but also for its 25 facsimile plates, providing easy access to unique or very rare exhibits important in the song's early history. (Bibliographical warning: in the 1969 Da Capo Press reprint of this volume, Plates VIII and XIX are not the ones in the original; in XIX the Cist copy of Key's autograph text, unknown in Sonneck's day, is substituted for the less interesting Dobbins facsimile, and by some error VIII shows not the very first Longman & Broderip "Anacreontic" edition but a later issue.)
For two decades after Sonneck's major study it may have seemed that he had said all there was to say. There were no important publications on the SSB in this period, save for the steady flow of Congressional bills that finally culminated in Public Law 823 of the 71st Congress. That Act, dated March 3, 1931, made "the words and music known as The Star-Spangled Banner" the national anthem of the United States of America. A facsimile of that Act will be found in the first book to be published on our national anthem as such, Joseph Muller's half-folio from G.A. Baker & Company of New York in 1935: The Star Spangled Banner/Words and Music Issued between 1814 and 1864. An Annotated Bibliographical List with Notes of the Different Versions, Texts, Variants, Musical Arrangements, and Notes on Music Publishers in the United States. A noted private collector, Muller had access to many editions and documents in his own and other collections that had been unknown to Sonneck 21 years before. His commentary, particularly on the Carr family and the early printings of the song, is interesting and worthwhile. The great glory of his book, however, lies in his arrangement of the sheet music editions up to 1864 in chronological order, with facsimiles of over a hundred pages of covers and music. Thus the practice of identifying an edition as "Muller 15" has placed Muller's name in at least a small niche alongside Köchel and company. Muller 15, by the way, is the Atwill (New York) edition of 1843, which seems to have been the first to introduce the happy practice of beginning the melody on the descending third rather than on the static tonic anacrusis inherited from the Anacreontic Song. Less happily, it is the same edition again (if I remember rightly the word of my late mentor, Richard S. Hill) that was the first to corrupt Key's sober "when our cause it is just" to the chauvinistic "for our cause it is just" (sometimes "since our cause it is just"). An addendum to Muller by Lester S. Levy and James J. Fuld, "Unrecorded Early Printings of The Star Spangled Banner," appears in Notes for December 1970, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 245-251.
The mention of Richard S. Hill brings me, with some diffidence and much sadness, to a book that should be next on this list and should have been the great book on the subject for years to come. It was never finished, never published. Soon after coming to the Music Division of the Library of Congress in 1939, Dick Hill was asked to prepare a small pamphlet stating the salient facts about the national anthem. Two years and much study later, the project had become a "revision" of Sonneck that would have borne the same relation to Sonneck as RISM bears to Eitner. Several hundred pages of typewritten draft, plus much apparatus for this magnum opus, survive. So also do 160 pages of first draft for "The 'Unsettled' Text of The Star Spangled Banner," a different work that was almost completed when Dick had his first heart attack on Thanksgiving morning of 1960. Though devoted primarily to the text and its "unsettled" career in the various autograph manuscripts, broadsides, songsters, newspapers and periodicals, and sheet music editions, this draft also details at great length the activities of Key and the other important figures in the story (including the British fleet) before, during, and after the writing of the words. Had this draft been completed and published in 1961 or even 1971, it would have been the definitive book on the text and its early history. Now, most of its significant points have been made in more summary fashion by the 1972 book discussed below.
But "The 'Unsettled' Text" in the beginning was intended merely as a contribution to the American Musicological Society's "Kinkschrift" (see the special issue of the AMS Journal for 1960, Vol. XIII, Nos. 1-3) and was by no means the magnum opus, the universal work on all aspects of "The Star-Spangled Banner," that Dick Hill had intended to publish. If the "Text," like its author, was cut down in its prime, the magnum opus was never finished for a completely different reason. Very early in his work on the song, Hill became convinced—firmly, completely, but not obsessively—that the tune of the Anacreontic Song had not been composed by John Stafford Smith. Yet he could not, though he tried in England and Ireland and the United States, through much research and correspondence, succeed in proving another origin for the tune; and he would not publish until he had proof. He believed that "certain conflicts between the melody and the text" of the Anacreontic Song implied "that the words were written to fit a pre-existent melody," that the "conflicts" would not have been sanctioned by a professional composer like Smith in the course of setting a pre-existent text to music. He believed that the one lone attribution of the music to Smith during its first century of existence was ambiguous and should in fact be interpreted in the opposite sense. He was led by the triadic features of the tune, and the fact that much of it could be played on valveless trumpets, to believe that the tune had started life as a military melody. And with the discovery, in a California library, of an Irish bandsman's book of circa 1799 with the Anacreontic tune identified as "Royal Inniskilling" (the name of an Irish regiment), he came to look for an Irish military source for the tune. He found a few family traditions and bits of hearsay that he was sound enough to discount; alas, he found no documentary evidence. When the British Union-Catalogue of Early Music appeared in 1957, the name of Smith as composer of "The Anacreontic Song" was followed by a question mark. Dick sadly agreed that at least the question mark was correct.
Though neither of his larger works thus reached print, Dick Hill was responsible for three smaller publications relating to "The Star-Spangled Banner" and certain of his opinions appear in a fourth. For Collier's Encyclopedia (New York, Vol. 18, 1950, pp. 184-185) he wrote what is still the best short general statement on the anthem in print. To a volume of Essays Honoring Lawrence C. Wroth (edited by Frederick R. Goff, Washington, D.C., 1951, pp. 151-193) he contributed "The Melody of 'The Star Spangled Banner' in the United States before 1820," a study of the tune's fluctuating but remarkable popularity over here beginning in the 1790's. In Notes for December 1957 (Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 33-42) he reported, as Chairman of the National Music Council Committee appointed to advise Congressman Joel Broyhill, on "A Proposed Official Version of The Star Spangled Banner." And, in the printed "Hearings before Subcommittee No. 4 of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives . . . May 21, 22, and 28, 1958" Dick Hill testified regarding that proposed official version. Whoever would try to understand the complexities, the perils, the follies, and the plain cussedness of the process by which a bill is made into law in our nation should read the tragicomic report of those hearings, entitled The Star-Spangled Banner and published by the Government Printing Office in 1958. Three of its 174 pages contain Hill's comparison of nine early versions of the SSB text, and on other pages one can follow his painstaking attempts to make his points amidst a welter of misunderstanding.
In the decade following the hearings (which of course produced no legislative action) only one publication worthy of note here appeared. That was James J. Fuld's The Book of World-Famous Music/Classical, Popular and Folk (New York: Crown Publishers, 1966, rev. ed. 1971), which despite its awkward title is the supreme guide to the early printing histories of many important musical works. On pages 529-534 Mr. Fuld surveys and summarizes expertly the early circumstances of the Anacreontic Song and the national anthem. He says there that "the identity of the composer of the music is not certain," and in a conversation with me while this article was being written he agreed with me that the early printings and other bits of evidence all have the smell of a "traditional tune" rather than one composed by a noted composer of the day.
In 1969 (to draw back from that precipice) there was issued—albeit in unsatisfactory form—a curious but highly useful and scholarly work, the most voluminous in SSB history. Dr. George Svejda's History of the Star Spangled Banner from 1814 to the Present was written for the Division of History of the National Park Service, which administers the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore. It consists of 525 pages multilithed from double-spaced typewritten copy, held together by a highly imperfect "perfect" binding. A limited number of copies may even yet be available from the Input Section of the National Technical Information Service, 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, Virginia 22151. I hope the work will be reissued in more satisfactory form, because it performs a very valuable service, one attempted by no other book: it traces the development of "The Star Spangled Banner" in the American mind and American society by documenting its use on public occasions, and by spelling out the successive stages in its evolution from patriotic song to national anthem. Newspapers, service regulations (and, latterly, Congressional documents), books, and magazines were combed diligently to provide as far as possible a consecutive account of the song's public life.
It seems clear that until the Civil War the nearest thing to a national anthem the country had was "Hail Columbia"; that during the War, perhaps reflecting a new sense of urgency, "The Star-Spangled Banner" came to equal the older song in popularity. It is significant that in 1889 the Navy Department specified "The Star-Spangled Banner" for morning colors and "Hail Columbia" for evening colors, but only four years later the former was specified for both times and was referred to as "the national air." Much of Dr. Svejda's material is of necessity repetitive and tedious, especially when it involves the endless maneuvering in the Congress over the two decades before the 1931 Act, but it is well worth having brought together so conveniently. Dr. Svejda also deals, for the most part ably, with the circumstances surrounding the writing of the poem and its early history. He is weakest when it comes to the music, which is somewhat out of his field. He merely follows Sonneck in regard to Smith being the composer of the tune, and unfortunately helps to perpetuate some garbled nonsense that was widely printed in 1967 when I tried to make a hurried press association reporter understand the Hill theory of an Irish origin for the tune. I should have known better.
The same year that Dr. Svejda's book was released, the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore celebrated its 125th anniversary with what was probably the largest and most notable exhibition of SSB materials ever mounted. The Society itself possesses a remarkable collection of these materials, beginning with the earliest surviving Key autograph of the text (probably the one he wrote off from his initial jottings after he got back to Baltimore from the cartel ship), but for the occasion it borrowed richly from other institutions and private collectors. Star-Spangled Books (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1972) is the catalog of that exhibition, but it is much more than a catalog.
P. William Filby and Edward G. Howard, respectively Director-Librarian and Vice President and Consultant on Rare Books of the Society, have met skillfully and soundly the many challenges of the story. In "Some Facts About a Legend" they deftly cut through all the accumulated mythology and conflicting data and arrive summarily at reasonable answers for the many uncertain questions: when did Key return to Baltimore and write out his poem, who took the manuscript to the printer, whence came the title, how did tune and text come together, and so on and so on. A chapter on "The Early Texts" comes to much the same conclusions as Hill did in 1960 and before about their interrelationships. A series of biographical sketches of the "Dramatis Personae" is a convenient addition. The Director Emeritus of the Society, Dr. Harold R. Manakee, tells (in "Anthem Born in Battle") the military circumstances under which the poem was written, and the late Charles S. Kent provides a short and densely technical musical analysis of "The Anacreontic Song" whose purpose escapes me (though it does, Claude Palisca will be glad to know, mention musica ficta in regard to the natural fourth of the scale in the Anacreontic Song where the SSB changes to the raised fourth).
But, alas and alack, once again no one has seriously and with a fresh mind undertaken to determine the origin of the tune. Sonneck's 1914 attribution to Smith is allowed to stand with a "probably" that is later nullified by the claim that although "there are other theories of the tune's composition, it is generally agreed that Smith wrote the music. . . ." Agreed by whom? It should at least be recognized that the "general agreement" is among latterday writers of secondary and tertiary accounts, that until 1873 there is only a single and ambiguous piece of evidence linking Smith's name to the tune. It should also be realized that Sonneck in 1914 was careful to label his attribution to Smith a "personal opinion" and not a proven fact. There are two books, at the very least, with sections devoted to Smith; they were published at London in 1882 (revised in 1925!) and 1896, respectively, and they contain no reference to the Anacreontic Song among his works.
That one complaint aside, and allowing for the somewhat piecemeal character decreed by the catalog format, nothing but admiration can be expressed for Star-Spangled Books. The "Catalogue" itself is a fine piece of work, occupying pages 75-168 and divided into the various categories of materials displayed in the exhibition. The annotations constitute a fascinating lexicon of "Star-Spangled Banner" lore. The 54 plates are much more numerous and more clearly reproduced than the ones in Sonneck, and much more varied and wide-ranging than those in Muller. The volume is beautifully designed and manufactured. Altogether this is indeed a "star-spangled" book and a splendid achievement.
Unless some long-hidden proof as to the origin of the tune is henceforth discovered or adduced, the Svejda and Filby-Howard books are likely to represent for some time to come an end to historical studies of "The Star-Spangled Banner." But what, to return to my opening thoughts, of the present and future? It seems to me that today we need a profound study of the esthetic and sociological (not to say political, economic, and on and on) aspects of this national anthem, and also of the national anthem as a genre sui generis. There are rumblings across the land that say "America the Beautiful" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" or something else ("God Bless America" has been mentioned) should replace "The Star-Spangled Banner." This is an unsettling and potentially explosive issue, but so far only journalists have, to my knowledge, pursued it.
In the meantime, it seems to me that some guide or series of essays on Aufführungspraxis is long overdue. Some, at least, of the distress we all feel about many renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" might be eliminated if singers and band leaders could be persuaded to abandon long-winded, soulful, pompous, erratic, over-orchestrated, personalized renditions in favor of a crisp and no-nonsense style—and if (I realize this suggestion is heretical in some quarters) singers could be persuaded to use the words as vehicles for the music and not as ends in themselves. The flag is standard, it is not subject to personal whims in color and design. The national anthem is the musical counterpart of the flag and should be treated with the same common sense and respect. That problem is in addition to the matter of an official version—something badly needed by every performer who has to choose between dozens of discrepancies in details of wording and melody, but seemingly farther away now than 15 years ago. Professors, can you not foray out of your music libraries into the study of this particular cultural institution, at whatever artistic level you view it, and provide guidance—theoretic and practical—to your students and your society?
Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018