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Classical 101

Stravinsky Arrested for Desecrating the Star Spangled Banner? Truth or Fiction

stravinsky_boston.jpg
WGBH
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Igor Stravinsky's "mugshot"

Did Igor Stravinsky desecrate the National Anthem? Others have done far worse.

I think all of us can agree...the Star Spangled Banner is one of the most difficult songs to sing. Many have tried and failed. Some have failed miserably. Here are some examples.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XffxvV1PAEI

That just scratches the surface.

Igor Stravinsky was in the United States to conduct a series of concerts of his music. He had been working on his arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner for three years when he headed to Boston for concerts with the Boston Symphony. It was 1944. The United States was at war and patriotism was at a fever pitch. It would be an honor to have a composer of Stravinsky's stature arrange the National Anthem, right?

It depends upon who you ask.

Day one...no problem. Day two, in a performance which had a large number of reporters in the audience, things got a little rocky. While the local press said nothing about it, the Associated Press writer apparently took umbrage at the Stravinsky version. Carly Carioli, writing for the Boston Globe, offered this recent recollection:

The next morning, Stravinsky’s “Star-Spangled Banner” is a national scandal, thanks in large part to the Associated Press. As Stravinsky conducts the anthem, the audience rises from its seats and attempts to sing along, the AP reports. “[B]ut soon the odd, somewhat dissonant harmonies of the sixty-one-year-old composer’s arrangement became evident. Eyebrows lifted, voices faltered, and before the close practically every one gave up even trying to accompany the score.” Newspapers from coast to coast run the AP’s item under sensational headlines, claiming that a “puzzled” audience has greeted Stravinsky’s anthem with “stunned silence.”

(You can read her complete story here.)

By the time the Saturday evening performance rolled around, the police were involved. Not only was Symphony Hall jammed, but NBC was carrying a national broadcast of the performance. Listeners all across the country were waiting to hear what version would be played and whether Stravinsky would get arrested.

The esteemed composer was a bit taken aback by all of the hubbub. He decided to revert to the original version, which disappointed listeners and, according to some, the police, as well.

Another writer, Timothy Judd, put it quite eloquently.

With the benefit of hindsight, and years of garishly over-embellished ballpark vocal renditions, Stravinsky’s Star Spangled Banner doesn’t sound so bad. This is the National Anthem through the ears of an immigrant. Its bass line and inner voices suggest a hint of “Great Gate of Kiev” Russian weight. There’s some interesting, unorthodox modernist voice leading that might vaguely remind you of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. You’ll hear the shocking seventh chord at the end, at the 1:30 mark.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=y1taQl-wOmo

Yup...I was also left scratching my head over that one.

What about the photo? It was, indeed, taken by the Boston Police department, but several years earlier. It was to be used, not as a mugshot, but for Stravinsky's visa. It DOES look like a mugshot though, doesn't it? Apparently, if you describe something as such long enough, it's true, at least on the internet.

Since we heard some of the absolute worst butcherings of our National Anthem, how about some of the best renditions?

Billboard's Top 10 Super Bowl National Anthem Performances

One of the most powerful renditions in recent memory was for the most recent Super Bowl, sung by Lady Gaga.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyqkN3zezso

However, I still think most performances become about the singer, rather than the song. It's a difficult song to deliver...but when sung well, has an amazing impact. From Super Bowl 50...Renee Fleming.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtQpCZWc-RQ