Happy 4th of July, everyone. This is a holiday in which I think about the Declaration of Independence, but sometimes find myself, like today, drifting to think about America’s national anthem. Views on the Star-Spangled Banner usually start – very sensibly – from the concession that as a piece of music, it’s mostly un-singable and not very attractive as a song. But most countries have fairly lousy national anthems, being accidents of history and all and America is no exception, so get used to it.
I don’t think this is quite true. Three terrific national anthems, and I’m sure there are others: Germany’s is genuinely beautiful (taken from a slow movement in a Haydn quartet). South Africa’s is what a good, idealistic national hymn should be, and a lovely song to boot. And, upon hearing the Marseillaise, who can resist at least a twitch to join the French Foreign Legion? Pour la France and all. A touching moment of one of the recent French elections, after all, is a split screen YouTube video of the two candidates and their parties on election night, each singing the French national anthem with a heart and soul that I’ve never heard an American confab match.
It’s not for want of patriotic spirit. But the musical hurdles are daunting – starting with a range of an octave and a fifth. There’s a reason, in other words, for the evolution – at ball games, of course, but if you look around, you’ll see a wide variety of settings where it is customary to open with the national anthem – toward having someone else sing the song while everyone else puts hand over heart and mostly mouths the words.
The New York Times has an article in today’s Arts section on the many pitfalls for those [...]