Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

I have been thinking lately about our national anthem as I tend to do on patriotic holidays. I had a close encounter with the song recently when I had to sing it for an audition for a choir festival in August. A capella.  Since my singing voice spans (if that’s the right word) an octave and a fourth and the anthem requires an octave and a half, there was a fallacy involved in my even attempting the song. With the help of a well-practiced falsetto I must have done all right since I was accepted. Or maybe they were desperate for tenors.

A while back “The Star Spangled Banner” had a bad rap as being difficult to sing. Garrison Keillor thinks that this has more to do with the key it’s usually set in (Bb) than the range and advocates pitching it in G. (I can’t sing that low. It’s just sad.) We really don’t hear much about the difficulty of the song any more and it is sung frequently these days, which is good. It is a stirring and memorable piece.

I think most people have heard the story of how the lyrics were written as a poem by lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key as he observed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814.  The poem was entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry” and has four verses. It was set to the tune of a British drinking song at the time “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Such an irony may seem strange to us, but it was common practice at the time.  Even hymn writers used drinking songs and other popular melodies since people knew them. The saying, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?” has been variously attributed to CharlesWesley, Martin Luther, William Booth, John Newton and Isaac Watts, but appears to have come from a sermon by a British pastor, Rowland Hill who said in 1844, “The devil should not have all the best tunes.” He was calling for an improvement in church music.

“The Star Spangled Banner” became the official national anthem relatively recently, in 1931. Before that it vied with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (using another British tune) and “Hail Columbia,” composed in 1789 by Philip Phile for the inauguration of George Washington. Joseph Hopkinson added lyrics in 1798, and the song was used as an unofficial national anthem until it lost popularity after World War I. It is still used instrumentally as entrance music for the Vice-President. Not to be confused with “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” the anthem was performed in the John Adams mini-series when it was sung by an actor and the audience in Adams’ presence in the theater scene. It sounds like a national anthem written by George Frederic Handel. A verse and the chorus are:

    Hail Columbia, happy land!
    Hail, ye heroes, heav'n-born band,
    Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
    Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
    And when the storm of war was gone
    Enjoy'd the peace your valor won.
    Let independence be our boast,
    Ever mindful what it cost;
    Ever grateful for the prize,
    Let its altar reach the skies.

    Firm, united let us be,
    Rallying round our liberty,
    As a band of brothers joined,
    Peace and safety we shall find.

I think the rarely sung fourth verse of “The Star Spangled Banner” is appropriate here as we think about our country, its freedoms and the sacrifices of so many people over the years and at the present time to insure those freedoms. 

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

No comments:

Post a Comment