Friday, January 22, 2021

Star-spangled banner still waves over us

     “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a strange song for a national anthem. Not just for its notoriously hard-to-sing melody that lurches over an octave and a half, straining toward that high F, “o’er the land of the freeeeeee.” Nor that fact the tune is an old English drinking song, repurposed.
     I mean, what the song is about. It isn’t a celebration, like Australia’s. “We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil.” It isn’t a call to arms, like “La Marseillaise.”
     No, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is about surveying the wreckage. It’s a morning-after song, about waiting for the sun to come up to see if the British Navy, which has been shellacking Fort McHenry all night during the War of 1812, has prevailed.
     “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming?”
     Is our flag still there?
     Those “broad stripes and bright stars” were indeed still there. The British guns were ineffectual at the range they were being used, and the ships didn’t dare come in closer, within range of the fort’s battery.
     And though I’ve been singing it all my life, with more gusto than tune, the song’s meaning never really sunk in. It never seemed a perfect fit for the moment, until Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday. When Lady Gaga came out in that enormous poof of red dress and sang, our nation emerged blinking from the four-year assault it has been enduring.
     Into the very bright light of Wednesday morning, squinting into the swirling smoke, asking: “Are we still here? Are we still a nation?”
     Yes. Yes we are.

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  1. Re the Star Spangled Banner, Lady Gaga, unlike most pop singers has the vocal chops to handle its difficult tessitura, and her rendition was reasonably straightforward, as befits its status as an anthem -- not a torch song or country and western ballad. A simpler melody would in many ways be preferable, but in some circumstances it can be thrilling. I was in the audience for the dress rehearsal of Lyric Opera's opening season, just a few days after 9-11. The work was Verdi's "Otello," the grandest of grand operas. The first opera of the season is preceded by playing of the national anthem, but in a break from tradition the curtain was first raised to reveal the huge cast lined up on the stage. The audience, full of retired choristers and principal singers from other operas on the schedule, joined in when Maestro Bartoletti gave the downbeat. It was a most memorable sonic as well as emotional experience.


    1. Neither is it a Jazz song. Performed straight forward, true to the sheet music, by a competent voice is most inspiring. No flourishes necessary. Just like Neil's description of perseverance and hope.

  2. "It never seemed a perfect fit for the moment, until Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday."

    That wouldn't have occurred to me, but it certainly rings true. A fine column evaluating what was really a remarkably uplifting day, all things considered.

    I can't read music, so it's lost on me, but this woman's transcription of Lady Gaga's version of the national anthem seems like it would be cool if one understands it:

  3. Whenever a celebrity is trotted out to render The Star Spangled Banner, I have this queasy moment of uncertainty, wondering if they're going to butcher it in some ar-TISTE-ic way or just sing the damn thing as written. Lady Gaga is someone I would consider to be a belter, but her rendition was... respectful?... with an overall air of "Don't worry; I got this." She did it justice.

    In fact, I was more concerned about her entrance, wondering if she was going to trip down the steps on her way in, given that her poofy dress made it impossible to see her own feet or guess where they were exactly. There is a moment during her entrance when the expression on her face is briefly that of "Stairs? No one told me there were going to be stairs!"

    Incidentally, you can make a decent bar bet out of the first verse of The Star Spangled Banner: "What nation's national anthem opens with two questions?"


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