(One-half of the Two Charlottes is on vacation this week, so I’m filling in as an honorary Charlotte — or maybe “Charlie” would be more appropriate — for the Day.)
By now, more than 25 American athletes or teams have stood on the Olympic pedestal to receive their gold medals. But as Phillip Kennicot at the Washington Post reports, the victors are crowned to a rather unique version of America’s song.
“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,’” Kennicot writes. “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.’”
When I first heard the tune playing at a track-and-field medal ceremony a couple days ago, I didn’t even recognize it right away. There were no clashing cymbals. No trumpets climbing toward a crescendo at the “home of the brave.” In fact, I’m not sure how you could feel brave at all under the soothing sound of the Star-Spangled Ballad.
Ok, so maybe I’m one of those who doesn’t mind living in a “chest-thumping, butt-kicking, jingoistic powerhouse.” But I just can’t see how somebody can picture a flag enduring rockets flying past with red glare and bombs bursting in air in such a timid melody.
Kennicot explains that the composer sought to amplify the music rather than the words of the national anthem.
“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.”
This really gets at the reason one might feel uncomfortable at the softer anthem. As Kennicot points out, the music of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was taken from an old drinking song. So it’s Francis Scott Key’s lyrics that carry the deeper import, and few Americans don’t know the words of their nation’s song (though not necessarily in the right order).
Only a minor controversy I suppose. And there is plenty of room for numerous and diverse interpretations of our national anthem. But the central meaning of the song is one of endurance and strength, in spite of harrowing circumstances. What better platform than the Olympic stage to blare that theme at a time a triumph?