Anthem Arrangements Raise A Red Flag Over Authorship

Peter Breiner worked on more than 200 national anthems for the 2004 Athens Games.
Peter Breiner worked on more than 200 national anthems for the 2004 Athens Games. (By Frantisek Ivan)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

Peter Breiner is a busy composer and he wasn't much interested in watching the Beijing Olympic Games. But then the calls and e-mails started coming in. His daughter was certain that the Chinese were using his orchestrations of the world's national anthems. He even heard from people who are not his fans -- people like Bob in Tuscaloosa, who knows Breiner's distinctive version of the "The Star-Spangled Banner," who doesn't like it one bit, and who isn't happy to be hearing it from Beijing.

That's when Breiner started watching the medal ceremonies. He says he is "100 percent positive" that the Beijing Olympic Committee is using his work -- without attribution, permission or compensation. Breiner's publisher, Naxos Rights International, is concerned as well, and has attempted to discuss the matter with the Chinese, but so far to no avail.

In an e-mail, Sun Weide, deputy director for communications for the Beijing Olympics, said: "We have not heard of Naxos. All the anthems and songs used at the Beijing Games were orchestrated by Chinese musicians." Weide did not respond to specific Washington Post questions about Breiner's work, or indicate where Chinese Olympic officials obtained orchestrations of the more than 200 national anthems that might be played to honor athletes who win gold.

Breiner is no stranger to controversy when it comes to national anthems. When his orchestrations were used at the Athens Olympics in 2004 (legally and with compensation), they sparked a brief cultural fracas, beginning when American conservative commentators deemed Breiner's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" insufficiently muscular in its orchestration. A writer in the Wall Street Journal described it as a "Europe-friendly version of the anthem" that plays down "the notion of the U.S. as a chest-thumping, butt-kicking, jingoistic powerhouse." Even New York Times commentator Maureen Dowd noted, "Our warlike national anthem has been transformed, from blaring horns to peaceful, soothing strings."

What they were noticing was the very idiosyncratic instrumentation Breiner used for the musical passage under the words "And the rockets' red glare." In Breiner's version, the phrase is indeed scored for soft strings, including a sinuous countermelody for second violins and violas. The effect is a sudden, almost introspective twist to the melody, as if the passage is heard from afar. That's how it was interpreted by another composer, Timothy Key Price, who claims descent from Francis Scott Key, author of the poem that recounts the 1814 British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.

"The image of fireworks, across the water, seen through the haze, seemed to me a stroke of genius," Price said four years ago.

Today, a side-by-side comparison of Breiner's version, recorded by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the version being used at the Beijing medal ceremonies, recorded by the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, reveals a few indubitable things. First, the Slovak orchestra is much better than the Beijing orchestra, which suffers from shrill upper-string sound. More to the point, the Beijing orchestra is using Breiner's ideas so blatantly that it would be accused of plagiarism if its arrangers submitted their orchestration as original work in any respectable conservatory.

It isn't just the rockets' red glare: Breiner's basic conception of the whole piece has been copied. The brass opening, the addition of strings when the opening melody repeats, the inclusion of complex bass lines in Measures 14 and 28, and the use of an archaic little cadence at the end of several phrases are all very particular to Breiner's original. The last of these features, what musicians would call a "4-2-3" figure, is the sort of thing one finds in an old-fashioned hymn setting. It is a decidedly quirky addition to "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Although the Chinese version leaves out some percussion accents that Breiner calls for, it distinctly emphasizes elements that make Breiner's version so individual. Musically, it advertises the very features that best confirm the theft.

Breiner, a native of Czechoslovakia who was living in Canada in 2004, was amused by the Athens Games controversy. But not so much by the current situation.

"My arrangements of public-domain anthems are actually original compositions from a legal point of view," he said this week from New York, where he now lives. "Which means if someone wants to record them, they have to purchase the material."

Orchestration and arrangement is an odd little niche in the music business. Although the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner," originally a British drinking song, is almost 2 1/2 centuries old, Breiner's arrangement of it for orchestra is considered his own work. Orchestral arrangements such as Breiner's involve a considerable amount of both technical and creative input, and orchestra parts are not easy to come by without going through an established publisher.

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