Tuesday, July 4, 2017

an 1814 banner ... sort of

Some time ago, I searched around for a modern, fair copy of the original arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner," as it was first published with music. It's different in several ways from the way we sing it now. I didn't find one.

So I started doing my own, copying the arrangement as it was, but with the awareness that it's now our national anthem, which means it's for group singing.

The original is for a soloist, then repeats the last line for group singing, so I took out that repeat. The original also has a piano interlude that seems to symbolize the faint bugle-calls and cannon-fire of the battle at Fort McHenry; I took that out too. The original has just a single-note right hand and left hand piano part, with the lyrics between; I followed standard sheet-music practice by writing a vocal staff and a piano part that's nice and full, while keeping to the harmonies of the original. I also kept the original notes and rhythms.

The result is, then, true to the original, but far from it. If you could go back to Mr. Key, tell him this is now our national anthem, and play him what the Air Force Band played today, followed by what I wrote, he might be puzzled at the band version but less puzzled by mine, which has the tune closer to how he sung it.

If he looked at the sheet music, though, he'd marvel at the inhumanly superb engraving, remark on the strange notation ("Stems on the left side of a half-note?! Jupiter!"), and wonder why on earth I couldn't count on pianists to realize (to use the old word) their own part, filling out what's implied from the melody and bass.

So. Here you go: click on the page to get a brand-spankin'-new edition of the national anthem as it would have been sung in 1814, notated for modern patriots. Play it and sing it, con spirito.

keeping promises

"All men are created equal."

The more I think about it, the more I think the 241-year story of these words and their effect doesn't sound as new as it does old. Thousands of years old, maybe. Just about every culture has a story like it, taking place in storybook land.

A king, or person of great power, makes a promise. The promise seems generous and reasonable. Then a crafty peasant comes along to hold him to the literal terms of the promise's wording. It's something far broader, that the king didn't foresee and wouldn't have agreed to. No one else would have foreseen it either, but his being forced to keep it winds up in great good being done, or a great evil being defeated, or a seemingly unsolvable problem solved.

Except with us, it took place in a real land. Let yourself be amazed by it: Hancock and Jefferson and company were trying to accomplish something. They did accomplish it. But in the process they generated words that later generations held them to, in ways they would have considered unacceptably broad. If you could go back and say, "All men are created equal? OK, then: all means all," they would have said, "Well yes, but." They did say that, with later words and actions.

America stands as a beacon to the nations, partially because we made the fairy tale come to life. It's crucial to recognize something, though. We're a beacon not just because we had that king in our history, but also because we had that crafty peasant. We had a series of them, each extracting, with much trouble, greater and greater implications from that phrase. Our greatest heroes are often people who brought about new actions from a new understanding of it. Even some of us as individuals, during our lifetimes, have had our own sense of that phrase expanded. In the process, great good has been done, great evils defeated, seemingly unsolvable problems solved.

What's in our future? More.