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 whole debate about preemptive wars and sensitive foreign policy. Breiner, 47, a prolific 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 all the medal ceremonies (many of which will never be heard, given how few countries take home gold).

Getting them all ready in time for the Olympics 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 past week, is unchanged since he finished it on July 13, 1994 -- the eve of Bastille Day, but no symbolism there. Which makes it a mid-Clinton administration artifact.

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," said Breiner in a telephone interview from Toronto, where his version of "O Canada" (jazzy, up-tempo) has caused an even more furious tempest. "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? The debate is familiar when the symbol is the flag -- and it's a perennial Republican favorite to attempt writing the line into the Constitution. With the national anthem, the situation is a bit messier. 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 the complexity of his feelings about the current state of political affairs in America.

Some states have laws governing how it is performed. In Michigan, for instance, a 1931 law made it illegal to perform the anthem "except as an entire and separate composition or number and without embellishments of national or other melodies," which, technically, makes it illegal to perform Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," which uses a portion of the anthem as a tag line (to suggest the ugly side of Yankee imperialism). In 1944, a version of the anthem reharmonized and orchestrated by Stravinsky (a dutifully patriotic act by the Russian emigre composer) got banned in Boston. Stravinsky's modernist retouchings ran afoul of Massachusetts law, and after the first performance, which left the audience "stunned into bewildered silence," Boston cops showed up at a later concert to make sure he didn't repeat the offense.

"Let him change it just once and we'll grab him," a Capt. Thomas Harvey told a Boston newspaper. According to musicologist Michael Steinberg, at some point Boston cops seized the music.

At the federal level, things are murkier. "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. The tendency to stick with the familiar is so strong that when Breiner's version started getting exposure at the Olympics, one group of music professionals that cares about this sort of thing -- the Major Orchestra Librarians' Association -- saw a flurry of curiosity among its members.

"We're often looking for other options," says Patrick McGinn, president of MOLA. "People have been asking, what is that? Where can I find it?"

Breiner's version sounds novel to most ears, especially those familiar with brass band arrangements. But its most striking moment -- the tender rocket and bomb music -- is no innovation. Stravinsky's version, which is even more harmonically adventurous than Breiner's late-romantic coloring, also goes light and quiet at that moment. The 1955 version of the anthem promulgated by the Defense Department and arranged for the United States Naval School of Music calls for a piannismo, or very soft sound, at precisely the place that Breiner writes his delicate figuration.

There is, in fact, a tradition of what might be called the "girlie" approach to the national anthem. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a New Orleans-born Creole composer who premiered a piano fantasy on patriotic tunes in 1862, sets the anthem like a love song. He marks the first phrase "Malinconico," Italian for sad or melancholy, and the next "dolce," or sweetly. The harmonies are vaporous and gauzy, with lots of little passing tones that suggest something languorous and sensual. It's curious that both Gottschalk and Stravinsky debuted their less strident, more personal versions during wartime.

Although Breiner says he had no particular political message in mind when he set "The Star-Spangled Banner," there's precedent (in the writings of composers such as Wagner and philosophers such as Schopenhauer) for finding philosophical and political meanings in even wordless musical elements such as harmony. Unlike standard versions of the piece, Breiner's harmonies are richer, more restless and searching. Traditional arrangements touch upon the most primary colors of the harmonic spectrum, three basic chords doing most of the work, with another three or four more adding brief shadings. Breiner's version uses passing tones and chromatic lines to destabilize these basic harmonies.

Put another way, his harmony is about nuance, about saying things obliquely rather than bluntly, and weakening the fundamental pull of basic chords in favor of more local variation and possibility. He may not have intended it, but he did, in fact, write blue-state music.

Master Gunnery Sgt. D. Michael Ressler, of the U.S. Marine Band, finds that Breiner's version lacks oomph precisely where others hear poetry.

"It just sort of loses momentum and doesn't build to a climax," he says. "It isn't exultant and victorious and thankful and it seems uncertain in its statement." This is, perhaps, red-state musical thinking.

Breiner has been compiling a list of reactions, taken from letters and postings on musical Web sites. 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?"

Timothy Key Price, a composer who claims descent from Francis Scott Key, says he has warmed to the arrangement. "I was disappointed at first," he says, from his home in Vermont. "It seemed hollow in the middle. But when I heard it on subsequent occasions, that's when the image of fireworks, across the water, seen through the haze, seemed to me a stroke of genius."

None of this argument, however, can compare with the furor that Breiner has sparked in Canada. When Canadian Kyle Shewfelt took gymnastics gold and "O Canada" was heard for the first time at an Athens medal ceremony, a Canadian Olympic Committee spokeswoman said it sounded like "the anthem on ouzo." Since then, Breiner has been at the center of tempest, criticized and defended in Canadian newspapers, and given lots of exposure on Canadian radio and television.

At issue, for the Canadians, was the brisk tempo and the jazzy blue notes with which Breiner filled out his arrangement. For some, this was tarting it up too much; for others, it was a refreshing breather from the diffident and dour Canadian national temperament. This was, says Breiner with weary amusement, his God-given 15 minutes.

"The media was crazy and it hasn't stopped since," he says. "It was a little overwhelming."

That description may apply to the entire project. Breiner has had to deal with new countries with new anthems, with countries that changed their anthems, with countries that didn't like the original version and demanded new ones. Most of the feedback was entirely unmusical and mostly unhelpful to a professional composer.

Poland, for instance, wanted its anthem to sound more like a march.

"I wrote back and said, 'that's a problem,' " says Breiner. "Your anthem is in 3/4 time, and it will never be a march because it is probably a mazurka, or some other dance in 3/4."

New Zealanders, he says, also were not pleased with his version. So Breiner asked them to send him a recorded version they approved of, which they did, and which turned out, in the end, to be originally by Peter Breiner. The list goes on. South American anthems, mostly composed during the rage of grand opera in the 19th century, tend to resemble bad Rossini, and go on far too long for the 60-second length suitable for a medal ceremony. Uruguay's clocks in at over five minutes, he says. Indonesia refused to truncate its song. And it was a cleaning woman, according to Breiner, who reminded the bureaucrats at the Russian Embassy in Athens that the Russian anthem had changed recently.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the whole project is that most national anthems are lousy music. Much of what is considered "sacred" music -- religiously or patriotically -- has vulgar origins. Some of the most revered Christian hymns were originally secular love songs. The music of "The Star-Spangled Banner" began life as a drinking song, and has no particular artistic merit. Nor, for that matter, does "O Canada."

But feelings run strong, and these feelings encapsulate some of the most elemental conflicts of democracy. A large, diverse, heterogeneous society, like the United States, needs generally held principles; but should it demand that symbols, too, 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.

The playing of the American national anthem at Athens brings gold-medal gymnast Paul Hamm, center, and the victorious U.S. softball team, top, to attention. The song played at this Olympics' medals ceremonies is a less bombastic version than most Americans are used to hearing.Composer Peter Breiner, above, has been accused of political leanings in his arrangement of the U.S. anthem, even though it was finished in 1994. The song is played at medal ceremonies such as the one for the men's 400 meters with, from front, Otis Harris, Jeremy Wariner and Derrick Brew. Gold medalist Carly Patterson stands in a medal ceremony for gymnastics. The U.S. anthem played in Athens is a less martial version than usual.