The Star Spangled Banner is one of if not the worst national anthem ever for several reasons. Most people know this intuitively, but they can’t articulate it very well. Unless, of course, they’ve been in one of my classes where they got me to go on my rant. For those of you that haven’t heard it before, here it is.
1. The range is too wide and the traditional key is too high. In composer school, you learn that when you are writing for the average person, you shouldn’t go too high above a D. Check your local hymnal. D will be the highest note in most hymns with occasional E flats. You never ask the general public to sing an F. So, our anthem already takes itself out of the running for good communal singing by being unwieldy for untrained singers.
2. Our national anthem should be written by an American composer and not be a British drinking song.
3. Our national anthem should be written by a great American composer. Let’s consider this for a moment. Germany gets Haydn. Austria gets Mozart. Finland gets Sibelius. India gets Rabindranath Tagore. America gets a recycled British drinking song. I’m not a snob. I’d even take Carol King.
4. Aesthetically it is tragic from the beginning. I sometimes use it as an example for composers about how not to set text – or rather – what happens when you take a poem and force it into a pre-written tune. It crashes down a clunky fifth at the beginning only to rocket up a tenth. We get a descending minor sixth which can effect a sort of yodel from an average slightly drunk guy at a game trying to sing along. Then we hit our first major controversy. The applied chord necessitates the raised fourth, and this takes our anthem as it currently stands out of the running for national anthems. We have a habit of using popular singers to sing this monstrosity before games, and I can’t count the number of times I have heard it sung incorrectly. The raised 4th scale degree is some sort of Lydian kryptonite for many singers.
5. Aesthetically it is tragic in the middle and the end. You would think that “Rockets red glare” would be pretty high, and it is. However, the climax of the text is clearly, “O, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave”. In composition kindergarten, we teach baby composers to put the musical climax with the textual climax. Our anthem doesn’t do that. The highest note comes with the rockets, which might be ok, but in many arrangements, the horns all drop out and the strings play at the B section, so the “Rockets” are not only too high to sing, they are difficult because they are high, soft, quiet rockets. This makes no sense to me.
(And just as a note to composers, when you do the thing where you create energy by leaps and then gradually fill in the gaps – a tradition that has been passed down to us from Palestrina – why do we never hear the low C? It leaves me unresolved. Also, you don’t put your climax note at the very beginning of the B section.)
6. Perhaps the most damning testimony of our anthems unUSAbility came after 9-11. People did as people do in times of tragedy. They got together and spontaneously sang. It was all over the TV. Yet, nobody sang the national anthem. They sang “God Bless America” – a song written by a great American composer named Irving Berlin, or they sang “America the Beautiful” – which has much better musical and lyrical construction. If people don’t sing it at a time like that, it’s not really functioning the way it should.