On September 14, 2014, we celebrate the bicentennial of The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States of America. For many of us, most of the story is familiar, but did you know that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, like many American orchestras, played a role in promoting the song’s popularity?
In the midst of the War of 1812, thirty-five-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key witnessed the brutal twenty-five-hour attack on Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Bay by the British Navy that continued through the night of September 13, 1814. Early the next morning, Key’s sight of the U.S. flag—then fifteen stars and fifteen stripes—still flying over the fort inspired him to write the four-verse lyric Defence of Fort McHenry.
Contrary to many accounts, Key certainly had The Anacreontic Song (the song of a popular gentleman’s club in London), composed by John Stafford Smith, in mind when he wrote his lyric. After he completed it on September 16, it was printed as a broadside and initially distributed to the soldiers who had defended Fort McHenry. The first documented performance was a month later at the Baltimore Theatre.
During the nineteenth century, the song’s popularity grew and it was widely performed at public celebrations and as accompaniment to the raising of the flag. On the eve of U.S. involvement in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 ordered the song to be played at military and other notable events. Wilson also directed the U.S. Bureau of Education to compile an official version; the bureau tasked five musicians—Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck, and John Philip Sousa—to develop and agree upon a standardized edition. (An appraisal of one of the standardization manuscripts, featured on an episode of Antiques Roadshow, can be seen here.) Damrosch conducted the premiere of that version with the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall on December 5, 1917.
Almost simultaneously, Frederick Stock—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s second music director from 1905 until 1942—made his own orchestration of the Banner along with America (My Country ’Tis of Thee) and recorded both of them with the Orchestra for the Columbia Graphophone Company on May 28, 1917. And keeping with the emerging popular custom (as evidenced in newspaper accounts and end-of-season indexes), the Orchestra performed the song at the beginning of all concerts during U.S. involvement in World War I, even though the song was rarely listed on program pages—a practice that continues today.
Although the tradition had become firmly established, President Herbert Hoover made it official on March 3, 1931, and signed into law that The Star-Spangled Banner was to be the national anthem of the United States of America. And during the U.S. involvement in the Second World War, Stock and later his successor Désiré Defauw continued the practice of performing The Star-Spangled Banner at the beginning of every concert.
Currently, The Star-Spangled Banner generally is performed at the beginning of the first concert of both the Orchestra Hall and Ravinia Festival seasons in addition to Symphony Ball and Ravinia’s annual gala. One notable exception: Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were in Lucerne, Switzerland, on September 11, 2001, scheduled to perform Mahler’s Seventh Symphony that evening, only a few brief hours after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. At the beginning of the concert, Barenboim addressed the audience and announced that the Orchestra would begin the concert with the American National Anthem, “for tonight we are all of us Americans.”
Following the recording in 1917, Stock modified his orchestration, perhaps to conform to the standardized version. Stock’s version, with minor modifications, was later recorded by Fritz Reiner (the Orchestra’s sixth music director from 1953 until 1962) in 1957 by RCA; it was recently reissued as part of a comprehensive 63-CD set. The Banner was recorded a third time in 1986 for London Records, with Sir Georg Solti (our music director from 1969 until 1991) leading the Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Chorus, prepared by Margaret Hillis. (that same release included Bear Down, Chicago Bears and Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever). Stock’s orchestration—the one preferred by music director Riccardo Muti—is the version still used today.
In the community, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra also have performed The Star-Spangled Banner for Chicago sports teams. The brass section, led by associate conductor Kenneth Jean, helped open the Chicago Bears’s sixty-eighth season on September 14, 1987, performing the National Anthem at Soldier Field. And CSO violas—performing Max Raimi’s arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner—opened a Chicago White Sox game on August 25, 1998, at (new) Comiskey Park. On both occasions, the Chicago teams went on to victory. The Bears beat the New York Giants 34–19, and the Sox defeated the Baltimore Orioles, 6–4.
A slightly abbreviated version of this article appears in the September/October CSO program book.
Thanks to Mark Clague, Ph.D.—associate professor at the University of Michigan (and a former member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago)—for his guidance, and a tremendous amount of information can be found online at the Star Spangled Music Foundation’s website. Also thanks to CSO librarians Peter Conover, Carole Keller, and Mark Swanson, and Rosenthal Archives intern William Berthouex.