That Star-Spangled Banner

Today, we Americans remember those who have fought for the ideals of our nation. Although national pride isn’t as rampant as it once was, the flag still inspires feelings of awe and gratitude in many citizens, and it’s something that all Americans have looked upon at least once in their lives.

The National Anthem, based on the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” by Francis Scott Key summarizes the feelings of hope that Star-Spangled Banner gave him as he watched helplessly from captivity.

While Americans traditionally only sing the first stanza, the other three stanzas describe the long night Key witnessed and end with a call to action.

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
’Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d 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.

The first stanza is explosive, sounding as if Key watches fireworks all night, but these threaten to destroy everything he holds dear. It’s fitting, then, that Independence Day celebrations often include massive fireworks displays accompanied by this anthem.

Yet, the second verse stands in stark contrast. “On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep / Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes.” It’s dark and quiet, and perhaps that’s the most terrifying part. After the bombast that occurs only moments before, it feels as if the enemy is about to sneak up behind you.

Or worse. You lost.

But, light fills the darkness, and there the flag waves. To Key in that moment, it’s the most beautiful thing he’s seen.

With the light, sound also returns in the third stanza. In an almost mocking tone, Key asks where the enemy’s battle song went. He sings their song back to them and wonders why their words didn’t ring true. And there is that flag, waving now in triumph.

The very last stanza mirrors the first in patriotism, speaking of the ideals of his people and how they are free men. And then he ends with a call to action.

“Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just” refers to the freedom to take up arms but only if the reason you’re doing so is morally right. This is both a command and a warning to future generations who would read this poem.

But of course, no matter what happens to us, that Star-Spangled Banner waves above and represents what we believe in. Sure, an entire nation can’t agree completely, but the idea is that it reminds the soldiers out there why they’re fighting, olympic athletes what they stand for, citizens what is given to them: home.

Below you can listen to all four stanzas being sung to the familiar tune.

Like many patriotic anthems and folk tunes of America’s history, the lyrics and music were written by different people. Thus, while Key wrote the poem, an English gentleman by the name of John Stafford Smith composed the music.

The original tune was actually the official song of a music club in London in the 18th century. Below is a picture of the first page.

The Anacreontic Song

As you can see, while the backbones of the American National Anthem are present here, it is sung much differently today. This is due to a long history of being published and sung at different gatherings. Aural traditions tend to bear multiple contrasting versions of original tunes.

In 1937, President Woodrow Wilson wanted one standard version of the song, so the help of Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck, and John Philip Sousa were enlisted. This version is the one used today.

The way the current tune differs from the “Anacreonic Song” is most notably rhythmic. The original is very straight with very few dotted rhythms, but the modern version uses dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth (long-short, long-short) frequently. Historically, this rhythm expresses regality because of its association with the court, mainly due to the influence of the French Overture in Europe. Whatever the reason for switching to that rhythm, it gives the song a bouncy, triumphic feeling.

Like the flag itself, it gives hope to those who need it. Both remind Americans of what they treasure: their home.

And today, we Americans remember those who gave that to us. May we never forget the past, and may we fight but only “when our cause it is just.”

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Happy musicking!

Further Reading:

Defence of Fort M’Henry Lyrics

The Star-Spangled Banner

To Anacreon in Heaven

About the Author

Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.

She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.

Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.

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