Since as early as World War II, American orchestras traditionally have performed the national anthem at the first concert of the season. “The Star-Spangled Banner” has become routine during holiday and outdoor performances, as well. But in the blaze of patriotism that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, some orchestras began playing the anthem at every concert, and 14 years later, a few are still clinging to that ritual.
It’s an odd, and frankly inappropriate, custom. In a performance that celebrates global artistry, this is no place for perfunctory patriotism. The pomp and circumstance of a national anthem mercilessly clashes with the complex creativity of classical composers.
The practice recently stirred controversy in Fort Worth. There, at each performance of the local orchestra, an opening drumroll cues a spotlight on an American flag on the Bass Performance Hall stage. The audience rises, and row upon row of patrons — hands earnestly over hearts — belts out Francis Scott Key’s vision of the 1814 battle of Fort McHenry. Rousing vocalism suggests an audience filled with serious church choir members.
A Dallas musician’s critical Facebook post, calling the ritual “an outrage,” launched a new debate about the practice. Dallas Symphony cellist Theodore Harvey told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the anthem is “very jarring for the people who are there just for the music.” Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra President Amy Adkins responded with a Facebook post of her own, saying the anthem “is a simple but poignant way that we can use music to honor those who serve or have served in the U.S. military, as well as those who have lost their lives.”
Those are worthy sentiments, but an orchestra concert is a bizarre place to press the point. That’s not why we’re there.
The national anthem makes sense for concerts celebrating national holidays. I also understood playing it as a prelude to orchestra concerts, even opera performances, in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. We felt damaged and vulnerable, and the familiar words and tune helped reassure us that we would survive that unprecedented attack. “The rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” must have put a lump in every throat. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra continued playing it for several weeks thereafter, then quietly dropped it. But the Fort Worth orchestra has been doing it ever since, and it has been a part of Oklahoma City Philharmonic concerts since 1990, after a group of patrons signed a petition for it.
We go to a symphony concert to be transported to another world, away from our daily concerns and frustrations — and away from narrow nationalism. Almost by definition, symphonic programs are international. They celebrate the musical genius of great composers from around the world, with many of the biggest names hailing from Austria, Germany and Russia. In August, for instance, the anthem made for an awkward opening to the Fort Worth Symphony’s three-concert “Classical Masters Festival,” featuring music by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. And in March, it preceded Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Don Juan,” about the legendary lothario. American patriotism was a strange bedfellow to German portrayal of sexual exploitation.
The sounds and tone of the American anthem have nothing in common with the great symphonic works of 18th- and 19th-century Europe. Sticking “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of a carefully designed program of global artistry feels arbitrary and out of place, the proverbial bull in a china shop.
If orchestras are so eager to display their nationalistic pride, they would do better to add more American composers to their repertoires. U.S. orchestras are far too neglectful of our own concert-music heritage. Audiences get the occasional Copland, Gershwin, Barber and Bernstein, along with token works by contemporary composers. But the performance of important American legacy composers — including George Whitefield Chadwick, Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Walter Piston — is rare.
This is just the latest collision between American nationalism and classical music. During World War I, a number of American orchestras banned performances of German music. No Beethoven! Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Karl Muck and the Cincinnati Symphony’s Ernst Kunwald were jailed for being from Germany and Austria, respectively. In Muck’s case, his problems started when a rumor spread that he refused to include “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the orchestra’s fall 1917 program.
Orchestra concerts are not the only place we should reconsider how we’re using the national anthem. I’ll grant that there’s an argument for opening baseball and football games with the tune. Our rah-rah national pastimes are about pride and triumphing over adversity, in line with the anthem’s lyrics and tone. According to Marc Ferris, who wrote a history of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it was first sung at a baseball game in 1918. Back when audiences sang along with the band or an arena organ, the anthem fostered a sense of community.
But at sports events these days, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is usually subjected to stylings — often grotesque distortions — by various pop singers. Roseanne Barr’s screechy rendition at a 1990 baseball game sparked a nationwide uproar. After Aaron Lewis scrambled the words at last year’s World Series, he felt obliged to issue a public apology. Even opera diva Renee Fleming couldn’t resist oh-so-artfully pushing and pulling the tune like taffy at the 2014 Super Bowl.
But even when played respectfully — as the highly accomplished Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra does — the national anthem doesn’t belong in a typical symphonic program. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is as out of place there as eating hot dogs and guzzling Cokes during a performance of a Brahms symphony. It feels forced, even desperate, as if we’re trying a little too hard to prove our patriotic bona fides. Can we please just get on with the music?
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