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Oh, say: a kinder, gentler anthem

'The Star-Spangled Banner' has a nonbelligerent sound for the Olympics. Some people are not cheering.

August 28, 2004|Philip Kennicott | Washington Post

Peter Breiner, whose 204 arrangements of the world's national anthems are being performed at the Athens Olympics, had no intention of wandering into the blue-state/red-state thickets when he arranged "The Star-Spangled Banner." But that hasn't slowed critics from reading political philosophy into his genteel, romanticized orchestration of the famous tune.

A "Europe-friendly version of the anthem," designed "to play down the notion of the U.S. as a chest-thumping, butt-kicking, jingoistic powerhouse," sniffed a writer in the Wall Street Journal, quoting an unnamed musician. "Even our warlike national anthem has been transformed, from blaring horns to peaceful, soothing strings," wrote Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, in a column about the toning down of U.S. bravado at the Athens games.

"What should I think?" Breiner asks, perplexed. "I wrote it in 1994."

That would be before 9/11, before George W. Bush became president and invited insurgents in Iraq to "bring 'em on," before the debate about preemptive wars and sensitive foreign policy.

Breiner, 47, a Canadian composer who emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1992, harmonized and orchestrated "The Star-Spangled Banner" for Marco Polo Records as part of a decade-old project devoted to the national anthems of the world.

Those recordings caught the attention of Olympics organizers, who asked Breiner to supply the anthems for the medal ceremonies.

Getting them all ready in time was a scramble, requiring approval from all nations and, in some cases, rewrites and revisions. But Breiner's version of the U.S. anthem, heard repeatedly over the last two weeks, is unchanged.

On purely musical grounds, however, it's easy to see why fast-on-the-draw cultural critics might find fodder for partisan speculation. Particularly subject to comment was Breiner's setting of the music accompanying the words "and the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air." Breiner went for contrast, setting some of the most martial lines of Francis Scott Key's poem to sharply contrasting music.

He uses, at first, violins and violas, high in their register, delicately played, ethereal in effect. It sounds tender and distant, even a bit sentimental. Then he brings in the cellos, adding a bit of depth, and a few woodwinds, giving it a pastoral flavor.

"I just followed my guts there," Breiner said in a telephone interview from Toronto. "My primary inspiration was the music, not the words. I knew the words, but I thought, what the heck, it is not unusual to be completely contradictory to the text."

He's right, from a composer's point of view. In opera, the most horrifying revelations may be set to chillingly sweet, almost whispered musical lines. But Breiner wasn't writing opera. He was orchestrating a tune that has a dual existence, as commonly shared patriotic icon and pure musical DNA.

Therein lies the problem. Are national symbols open to interpretation? And if so, where is the line between interpretation and desecration? With the national anthem, it's clear that, say, screeching it as Roseanne Barr once did, and then holding your crotch, crosses some kind of threshold.

But there's been considerable latitude for rethinking it musically, especially in popular contexts.

The solo R&B-inflected style, heard at innumerable ballgames, has become so filled with extraneous ornamentation, elision, slides and other egregious foofaraw that one can hardly find the anthem through the trees.

Jimi Hendrix's classic reinterpretation, once considered musical desecration, has evolved into its own kind of anti-authoritarian legitimacy.

Matt Haimovitz, a young classical cellist, has arranged it for cello because, he has said, it captures some of the complexity of his feelings about the current state of political affairs in America.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" didn't become the official national anthem until 1931. In 1971, a House joint resolution was introduced to bring some standardization to the anthem, setting down the words, the music and the harmonies, giving recommendations as to the best keys for singing (G, A-flat or A) and some vague guidelines about how "strange and bizarre harmonization should be certainly avoided." It did allow, however, for considerable discretion (" ... it is recognized that reasonable latitude must be allowed" and "the purpose of the performance and the available instruments will sometimes suggest different contrapuntal realizations of the basic harmonies").

That resolution never became law, and, in general, musical groups rely on versions of the anthem so old that in many cases no one is quite sure about their provenance. Tradition and taste are the primary guidelines.

Breiner has been compiling a list of reactions, taken from letters and postings on musical websites. Response, he says, is mixed but mostly positive. "I think it's lovely," wrote a New Yorker. "Very thoughtful, soothing and solemn," she says, and in marked contrast to the American reputation for being loud, arrogant "and idiotically happy."

But there is dissent. "As a musician, teacher and citizen of the U.S., I am deeply offended," writes another listener. "Why do performers and arrangers find it necessary to change the melody, harmony and bass lines?"

These feelings encapsulate some of the most elemental conflicts of democracy. A large, diverse, heterogeneous society needs generally held principles; but should it demand that symbols be universally respected?

Or does artistic freedom -- the license to mess with things like the flag and anthem -- trump the need for collective patriotic worship? It is an argument far older than the national anthem, an argument as old as Athens.

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