Concerning the National Anthem and its public singing

I thought about this during the National Anthem the other day, while sung at the sad inauguration and tweeted that often find these pop singers deeply annoying.  A Twitter respondent opined that these poptarts and others place their style before patriotism.

Someone sent me a page of the score for the National Anthem as sung by one of these poptarts.

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  1. Legisperitus says:

    Entirely too true.

  2. Jonathan says:

    My Choral Lit professor was fond of reminding us that the National Anthem as officially adopted in 1917 included not just the text but the four-part harmony arrangement (developed with help from John Phillip Sousa, among others), so any deviation from either the official score in rhythm, melody, harmony or text is no longer the National Anthem.

  3. Supertradmum says:

    Narcissism instead of Patriotism, which by the way, is one of the minor virtues……………..

  4. ckdexterhaven says:

    I suppose the instructions for the furious hand waving are on another page? It always looks like the “singer” is trying to spell the words up in the sky with their hands or something?

  5. Tominellay says:

    …that’s pretty funny…

  6. Ed the Roman says:

    Long ago at US Central Command, I commented to a chaplain that the guy who sang at the memorial service (we had just started taking casualties) really screwed it up. I was duly leaned on to volunteer, and told to submit an audition tape to the Chaplain’s Office so that they they could vouch to General Franks that I sang it “the way God wrote it” (General Franks’ words).

    It really is a challenging piece to sing a cappella to a large audience while standing next to an O10.

  7. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    I grant it is difficult to sing. I can’t stand the exhibitionism most “stars” sing it with. I applaud that the suffering of the audience is over.

  8. frjim4321 says:

    I did not mind Beyonce’s version of the anthem but I would agree that technically the four-part arrangement from 1917 is indeed part of the official anthem. I don’t see why it was necessary to create a different arrangement. The new arrangement was professionally done and did not seem to have any errors; but it was not the kind of harmonization that I prefer.

    Sadly it’s not often we hear four-part performed correctly.

    James Taylor, on the other hand, knocked “America the Beautiful” right out of the park and into the stratosphere. JT is an amazing musician. I am so glad he is still so active and producing such wonderful music.

  9. robtbrown says:

    FrJim4321 says,

    James Taylor, on the other hand, knocked “America the Beautiful” right out of the park and into the stratosphere. JT is an amazing musician. I am so glad he is still so active and producing such wonderful music.

    He first hit the national scene when I was in college. I have wide ranging taste in music, but I have never understood why anyone would like what he does.

  10. wmeyer says:

    Many years ago, when I was a budding cornet player in my high school band, we were instructed that the National Anthem was to be played with reverence and sobriety, as written. We were not permitted, even in the band classroom, to play around with it. During rehearsal, any ad libs were greeted with an immediate stop, and a stern reminder of what we were playing.

    I am appalled and disgusted by the “stylings” of most of the performers who are invited to sing the anthem before a sports event. Very few even try to rein in their egos. I was never much of a Kate Smith fan, but at least she sang it straight.

  11. frjim4321 says:

    I have wide ranging taste in music, rb

    . . . evidently not wide enough.

  12. Suburbanbanshee says:

    “To Anacreon with Heaven” was written with reverence and sobriety? A drinking song? Sobriety? Um… so I assume he was talking about the poem, not the music. Okay, fine. If we taught our kids more about history and the situation that called forth the poem, there would be more reverence in the singing. Since most schools pretty well skip the War of 1812, you can’t expect Beyonce to have learned about it, or that she was singing about events that were like 9/11 to the 1812 generation.

    “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a ballad. Our current ballad-singing style is more decorative than narrative. We also have established a tradition of elaborate ornamentation which is a sort of cut rate version of eunuch bel canto. Ergo, Beyonce. She was hired to do that, and she did what she was hired to do.

  13. wmeyer says:

    “To Anacreon with Heaven” was written with reverence and sobriety? A drinking song?

    I said we were taught how it was to be played. I made no comment on its origins. But I, for one, can do without the eunuchs.

  14. An American Mother says:

    “To Anacreon in heaven” may be the melody, but if we start fussing about where melodies come from, we’re going to wind up pitching an awful lot of very good Mass settings, like everybody’s L’Homme Arme’ Masses, and all those Palestrina parody Masses, and for heaven’s sake Clemens non Papa’s Entre vous filles Mass, which probably really does go over the line.
    It ought to be sung seriously and reverently.

    P.S. — our choir may have a line on singing it at a Braves game. We will certainly sing the Sousa four-part. Although the real thrill will be hearing our choirmaster on the stadium organ . . . er, keyboard.

  15. An American Mother says:

    The National Anthem is really not difficult to sing. It only has a range of an octave +4, and there’s only one wide interval and you don’t have to carry through it.
    But there is a trick to singing it.
    Everybody’s natural tendency is to start a song in the middle of their range, because that works best for most things. But the third note of the NA is the lowest note in the entire song, and it’s an outlier.
    So start at the very bottom of your range, and you’ll be fine. Most people have an octave and a half at their disposal.

  16. wmeyer says:

    On Sunday, I heard something I had not previously encountered. I believe it was Haugen lyrics, but the melody was from someone else–possibly Carole King? Thankfully, when these GIA/OCP Haugen/Haas abominations abuse my ears, my brain tosses them almost immediately into the discard bin, so I am unable to offer more clues. It was jarring. We ordinarily attend the 5:30 Saturday Mass, where there is usually only a pianist and one singer. No guitar, no drums, and a relatively low level of aural abuse.

  17. oldCatholigirl says:

    Suburbanbanshee hit the nail on the head about the current style of singing popular music which expresses emotions which may be presumed to be important to singer and audience (i.e., heartbrokeness, luv, patriotism, even love of God). If the vocalist put less feeling into the rendition, he/she might seem to be discounting the importance of the sentiment expressed. Personally, I have always loved to hear (and sing) a song, whether popular or religious, which says it (whatever it is) better than I can say it myself. However, I like the lyric to be allowed to speak for itself and hate it when the medium obscures the message.

  18. At my last parish, I belonged to the local Rotary, and at one of our meetings, a teenage girl came in who was scheduled to sing the National Anthem at the Dayton Dragon’s game. She sang the anthem for us. Just right! I told her so; and urged her not to be influenced by those folks on TV who mess it up.

  19. Wayward Lamb says:

    If you pay attention to the melody, there is plenty of emotion and drama already built into the tune. Too much embellishment destroys the song’s message.

    It is disappointing that our collective attention spans are so short and we are limited to a 75-second rendition at best. The Star-Spangled Banner has four verses, all of which are beautiful and increasingly patriotic.

  20. Wayward Lamb says:

    AAM, you are absolutely correct that most people select a key that is too high for their vocal range. That’s why my band switched to the key of A-flat several years back (most insteumental versions are in B-flat) and we can easily accommodate any vocalist who joins us now.

  21. cwalshb says:

    Thank goodness–I thought I was the only person who thought this. This is why I dread hearing the National Anthem, even though it is quite lovely when sung plainly, simply, and at the proper pace.

  22. pseudomodo says:

    I fear that the current renditions of the song have sunk so low that the most obvious improvement at this stage would be to play the Star Spangled Banner in the arrangement by Jimi Hendrix. Woodstock. 1969.

    At least he played it.

    No air guitar there….

  23. wanda says:

    Ha! That music looks exactly like what too many pop artists try to sing. I thought maybe I was the only one who braced themselves when someone steps up to the mic for the National Anthem.
    Big pet peeve for me.

  24. dominic1955 says:

    I too prefer the proper arrangement, which rarely gets done these days. Too many times I’ve heard it done as some sort of showcase for the abilities (real or imagined) of the person singing it-and it goes on too long.

    To me an anthem is kind of like a liturgical piece-it shouldn’t be a banal showcase of how high you can sing or how much warbling you can do. If there is some embelishments, make them more sober and don’t drag on and on.

  25. Unfortunately, this is also the way a lot of people sing sacred music at Mass, on the few occasions when sacred music is actually used.

  26. APX says:

    I used to think listening to Celine Dione sing the Canadian national anthem was painful because she’d add little flares and switches from French to English weirdly. I still find her annoying and painful, but listening to people try to sing your national anthem brings on a new kind of pain. Whomever came up with the above score, hit it dead on. It’s like pop stars think that because they’re pop stars, they have a free licence to re-write your national anthem. It’s never that bad in Canada, but then again, we don’t have really have “pop stars”, but rather musicians and singers. Perhaps you guys should stop getting pop stars to sing the national anthem and just get Joe Blow off the street who can sing it normally. When people complain, explain that all the pop stars kept massacring it with their artist flare and embelishments. That might kill their ego, or at least give it a good stab. Or you could just Alanis Morrisette to sing it for you guys. I think it’s sad when a Canadian can sing your national anthem better than your pop stars.

  27. The singing of the Natl. Anthem should be done by everyone, not by soloists who make it more about themselves than the nation. It may be an old English drinking song, and it may be hard to sing, but that’s irrelevant. It is our anthem and should be sung with respect by everyone who is a citizen.

  28. wmeyer says:

    I think it’s sad when a Canadian can sing your national anthem better than your pop stars.

    The nationality of a singer has little to do with it. But does she sing the Canadian anthem without embellishment? Or does she perhaps feel free to add her style in that case? I spent four years providing technical support for the video board at the SkyDome in Toronto, and heard many singers, Canadian and American, do unspeakable things to pre-game anthems.

  29. rtjl says:

    My favorite send up of the practice of murdering the national anthem is found on a Simpson’s episode.

  30. wmeyer says:

    …and on listening with some care, Ms. Morisette was unable to restrain herself, adding her own fillips in several places. All in all, however, much more reserved than most American renditions.

  31. disco says:

    The single worst rendition of the star spangled banner that I have heard was performed by R.Kelly at the Bernard Hopkins Antonio Tarver fight in 2006. He got booed after it.

  32. off2 says:

    My preference is for a good instrumental version. Let the people sing it if they wish. Preferably with some degree of patriotic reverence.

    Also, I’m old enough to remember when a public display of sloppy sentimentality was not the mark of a lady, or gentleman. Alas…. Time to walk the dinosaur.

  33. gloriainexcelsis says:

    to An American Mother: Your P.S. is spot on.

  34. Francis Scott Key must be spinning in his grave. I’m sure that he never intended to see his lyrics bastardized this way.

  35. APX says:

    Being Canadian, I didn’t bother to watch the inauguration, bu I just watched Beyounce’s rendition of it on YouTube. I noticed she removed her ear piece when she pulled out the stops, let us say. While the commentator stated she was having some “audio trouble”, her “audio trouble” was that she couldn’t stand listening to herself sing. That’s what those ear pieces are for.

  36. Margaret says:

    An American Mother has it right on the key range– start lower than you think necessary. In practice, the key of G works reasonably well, at least for an assorted assembly of non-singers. That bottom G below middle C is a bit below comfortable for some, but you’re only down there for a few notes during the entire song. Highest note is the D octave+1 above middle. We had an impromptu singing of it at a school assembly a few months ago, parents and children, and they did quite well, particularly considering how few of them grew up in the US.

  37. maryh says:

    It was written for four-part harmony? I didn’t know that.

    Huey Lewis and the News did the anthem before the recent Saints vs 49ers playoffs. They sang a capella 4-part-harmony. I found a you-tube of it, but it has a lot of noise over some parts. I do remember listening to it at the time, and being intrigued by the idea of singing it a capella in harmony like that.

    Here’s the link:

  38. VexillaRegis says:

    That score reminds me of some piano piece by Franz Liszt that I played a long time ago… Liszt sounds better than the poptarts, though.

    This kind of singing is painful to hear and see for classically trained singers – the constant portamenti and excessive “embellishing” (tonal diarrhoea) are annoying and I get tensions i my jaw watching them push their jaws forwards. (Thats a big No no in classical singing, because it causes the root of the tounge to go stale and you lose much of your main sound and projection. It works for microphone singers.)

    Regarding the “window cleaning”, that’s a compensational behaviour, i e, when you can’t make your voice deliver what you want, you compensate by “drawing” the feeling or moving to the music.

    At the next inauguration maybe there will be a good choir singing a four part setting. Let’s hope so.

  39. maryh says:

    Here’s a link to when they’ve done it before, that’s not as overcome by the noise:

  40. Wayward Lamb says:

    APX, alas even the average citizen who sings the national anthem in the states tries to jazz it up over half the time. I agree with the suggestion above to use a good instrumental version and let the crowd sing as they choose.

    Truly the most abysmal practice when singing the national anthem, though, has its home in Kansas City, where the citizens change the last word of the anthem from “brave” to “Chiefs!” It started at the Chiefs games and now creeps into almost every public performance of the anthem throughout the city. It spoils even the few well-sung renditions you’ll hear.

  41. Wayward Lamb says:

    Our servicemen sing the national anthem beautifully, respectfully, and may I dare to say reverently. They sing a capella, typically in four-part harmony. They performed during at least one of the presidential debates, and possibly the GOP convention. Well worth the listen when you can hear them.

  42. wmeyer says:

    Huey Lewis and the News did the anthem before the recent Saints vs 49ers playoffs. They sang a capella 4-part-harmony.

    And many other places over the years. The oldest recording I have found was from 1985. They were one of the few who played it straight at SkyDome. In my view, it’s become a signature piece for them.

  43. William says:

    Every hear the National Anthem as rendered in Verdi’s “Hymn of the Nations” and conducted by Arturo Toscanini?

  44. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Suburbanbanshee hit the nail on the head about the current style of singing popular music which expresses emotions which may be presumed to be important to singer and audience (i.e., heartbrokeness, luv, patriotism, even love of God). If the vocalist put less feeling into the rendition, he/she might seem to be discounting the importance of the sentiment expressed.”

    No, they would be a better musician. You know what they do to people who try to play The Stars and Stripes, Forever with melismatic fervor – they fire them.

    A musician who is well-trained knows that their job is to interpret tbe music according to the best wishes of the composer or conductor. They are mere vehicles, artisans, of that aesthetic. When they go off on their own, not only do they insult the composer (okay, tSSB is based on a drinking song – so what. It is contrafactum adapted to a hymn. It is not a ballad. That, by the way, is the proper reason why people stand when it is sung), but they display a lack of decorum and sensitivity to the aesthetic of the music.

    Most pop musicians have the aesthetic sensibilities of a wart hog. It takes years to come to understand the nuances of a genre. They certainly do not understand the supernatural, anymore, so they do not have the respect necessary to sing almost any national anthem (most of which can, rightly, be regarded as hymns, since most are or originally were, prayers of supplication) except the national anthem of Paganville.

    Musicians spend years learning to interpret the aesthetic of a type of music. What nit-wit would sing a hymn in a melismatic form?

    In my opinion, and I do not respect the ill-informed opinions of many of the aesthetic idiots who would call themselves record-producers or booking agents, if a person cannot properly perform a piece of music according to its proper sensibilities, they should not be hired to perform it. It would be like asking Art Tatum to perform the Chopin Nocturne, Opus 9, no. 2. It might sound interesting, but it wouldn’t be Chopin. We all know how difficult it was for Horowitz to perform jazz variations on Tea for Two. There is a tale about that (from,

    “It may be one of the stranger tales in musical lore, but it’s highly interesting nonetheless. The story goes that the legendary classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz often visited the jazz clubs of New York to listen to the improvisation sessions that played such a great part in the night-time scenery of early-to-mid-20th century America.

    On this occasion, Horowitz had in hand something that he was quite proud of. Over the past months he had been busy transcribing the jazz standard ‘Tea for Two’ and was eager to show Art Tatum the fruits of his efforts. He sat down at the piano and carefully picked out the notes of his version of the classic composition for Tatum to listen to. Once he had finished, Tatum (now virtually blind) sat down at the piano and played his own version of the piece.

    It’s said that Horowitz was amazed by Tatum’s interpretation and implored him to tell him where he could find the score he had used, to which Tatum replied: ‘Oh, I was just improvising’. Horowitz later said in an interview that he never played ‘Tea for Two’ in public again.”

    The Chicken

  45. wanda says:

    Father Gregory, Well said.

  46. Sieber says:

    The late Robert Merrill of the Metropolitan Opera was a Yankee fan who delighted in singing the National Anthem before each game long after he had retired professionally. Comment from his fans on his obituary were basically, Wow, I didn’t know who he was,but he sure could sing. My own Dad was the designated National Anthem singer at the Rose Bowl & the Hollywood Bowl.
    Today the soloist is like the presider on the N.O……it’s all about “look at me”

  47. Geoffrey says:

    “God Bless America” should have been chosen as the US’s national anthem. This country needs all the prayers it can get!

  48. albinus1 says:

    This is a big reason why I believe that *the people* should sing the National Anthem. I mean, it’s the National Anthem, for crying out loud. It shouldn’t used as yet another opportunity to stroke the ego of some self-important pop star.

    The reason people don’t know it and can’t sing it is because they don’t get the chance to. If people knew that they were expected to sing along with the National Anthem at sporting events, they would make the effort to try. The words could be projected on the Jumbotron.

    What we have done with the National Anthem at public occasions is yet another example of how we are increasingly becoming a society of passive spectators.

    A church choir in which I sang in Philadelphia once sang the National Anthem before a game in Veterans Stadium. It was fun. I doubt that anyone in the crowd knew who we were or cared. It would have been much better if the organist had played it and had the people sing along.

    The worst thing, though, would be to invite the people to sing along while also having a single, amplified voice leading the singing. Nothing kills participation like having a single amplified voice drowning everyone else out. Exhibit A is those awful “song leaders” (of whom, alas, I used to be one) at NO Masses.

  49. Harriet Vane says:

    Classic! It reminds me of the “Faerie’s Aire & Death Waltz” satirical score. Funny shtuff.

  50. Jonathan says:

    Last fall on C-Span, there was an really interesting lecture given by David Hildebrand about music during the War of 1812. It gives quite a bit of background to how the Star-Spangled Banner came to be, and I highly recommend it:

  51. Volanges says:

    Every time I hear one of these divas massacring the Star Spangled Banner I want to quote “Amadeus” Emperor Joseph’s “Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few lot and it will be perfect. “

  52. gambletrainman says:

    In case someone beat me to it, I’m sorry if I’m duplicating, but, you take some of these younger “popstars” (if that’s what you call them), notice the expressions they have on their faces—as if they were in a lot of pain. Maybe they are in a lot of pain.

  53. Suburbanbanshee says:

    There are some news stories now that claim Beyonce lip-synced at the inauguration. Which wouldn’t surprise me, since they hired Yo Yo Ma and then just had him stand there pretending to play, while jacking up the sound system on high.

  54. robtbrown says:

    rjim4321 says:

    I have wide ranging taste in music,

    . . . evidently not wide enough.

    You’re right–not wide enough to include no talent singers.

  55. Suburbanbanshee says:

    On a happier note, here’s a Don Camillo story with singing in it!

  56. mpolo says:

    It used to be that everybody sang along with the national anthem in the U.S. And I thought that was a very good thing. With these arrangements, it is essentially impossible for the crowd to join in.

    Germany seems to have kept the tradition of singing their anthem — even most of the soccer players sing along on the field. I can’t really imagine an American popified version of the Deutschland Hymn, though, so they may be protected just by the nature of their anthem.

  57. Gaz says:

    Dear @Supertradmum,

    I’d never have thought you’d say that narcissism was a virtue, even a minor one …

  58. Gaz says:

    I’m not a citizen or resident of the United States, although I have fond memories of putting a hand over the heart in Billings, Montana before the basketball games in 1975. I think the most touching rendition of the Stars and Stripes was the a capella one at the 10th anniversary of 11 September. Those events, and the memories thereof do strike deep half a world away. The singing was fabulous.

  59. Imrahil says:

    Dear @mpolo,

    oh, we had Sarah Connor (who is a German despite the name and that she usually sings in English, and claims to have nothing to do with the Terminator series) perform it in a “popified” version. This version was no good pop music (in fact good pop music is essentially music for everybody to sing along), and famously exchanged “blüh im Glanze” (blossom in the splendour) by “blüh im Lichte” (blossom in the light) or even “brüh im Lichte” (boil in the light). This, however, led to a patriotic outcry. At least.

    But then again, as the second stanza (which is no longer part of the anthem but unlike the first is not anti-subsidiarian and cannot be thought as fostering nationalism):

    German women, German faithfulness, German wine and Germahan song,
    may the keep throughout all of the word the good sounds that to them belong,
    and inspire us to noble deeds for all the time of our life long:
    |:German wihimen, German faithfulness, German wahine ahand Germahan song! :|

    Though good old traditions have a bad stand, still there is a good old tradition of German singing. [Which is why we all have copied the Lutheran way of hymn-singing in Holy Mass, way before any liturgy reform.]

    I have a habit of always ignoring that there is a choir or a solo singer in front, even in Church. Reason is not certainly not narcissm, but simply having fun with the music, though I’m not so sure whether I might break some rules of decency. The only thing I change accordingly is the loudness.

    Dear @albinus1,
    The words could be projected on the Jumbotron.

    I’d expect every American student that leaves the elementary school to know the Star-Spangled Banner by heart from the first to the last word.

  60. An American Mother says:

    They used to say that the only people who knew all four verses to the Star Spangled Banner were either “John Birchers” (a very conservative group in the 1950s) or Communists.
    Of course we know all four but we’re singers and pretty serious about it.
    I love the most politically incorrect third verse:

    And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
    That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
    A home and a country should leave us no more!
    Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
    No refuge could save the hireling and slave
    From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

  61. Imrahil says:

    Dear @AnAmericanMother,

    I wonder: To not let a schoolchild start a week without pledging an essentially military Pledge of Allegiance, which he of course does know by heart, is but good citizenship, but knowing the whole of an anthem is John Bircherism?

    Anyway, great stanza.

    I still prefer, though, the forgotten 3rd stanza of the Bavarian Anthem:

    God with us! and God with all men
    who keep mankind’s holy right,
    with true guarding and true defence
    from the morning to the night!*
    Joyful work! and joyful feasting!
    With rich harvests us imbue —
    God with thee, thou land Bavaria, under Heavens white and blue!

    [* lit. “through all the generations”. Which doesn’t rhyme in English.]

    White and blue are the colors of the flag and recur in each stanza; “God with thee, thou land Bavaria” is the beginning of the song.

  62. An American Mother says:

    Einige von uns haben es gar nicht vergessen . . .

    Gott mit uns und Gott mit allen,
    Die der Menschen heilig Recht
    Treu beschützen und bewahren
    Von Geschlechte zu Geschlecht.
    Frohe Arbeit, frohes Feiern,
    Reiche Ernten jedem Gau,
    Gott mit dir, du Land der Bayern
    Unterm Himmel, weiß und blau!

    (ich wohnte in Bayern, wenn ich ein Schulmädchen war . . . ‘ne sehr lange Zeit :-) )

  63. meunke says:

    There’s only one time here of late that I’ve seen the National Anthem sung at a public event that wasn’t butchered up by some attention seeking celebrity, and even that was fictional. It was when the boy at the stadium sang it in “Dark Knight Rises”.

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