Classical 91.5

Of anthems and orchestras

Sep 18, 2016

It caught me off guard. I had forgotten that the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra plays "The Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of the first concert of the season. I stood up and started to sing along. 

Credit Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


It caught me off guard. Part way through the anthem, I suddenly started to think of the protests by athlete Colin Kaepernick and others, sitting or kneeling during the national anthem, over issues of social injustice in our country.


It caught me off guard. As we were sitting down, in the brief pause between the end of the anthem and the beginning of the first piece on the concert, someone near me said:

Take that, Colin Kaepernick.”


If not for that comment, I might have let go of my thoughts on our anthem and its place in our lives. Instead, it bothered me throughout most of the first piece, and now here I am: a few hours after the concert, up late listening to the rain, and still thinking about it.


I'm not going to say who should stand, kneel, sit, balance on their head, or whatever during The Star-Spangled Banner, but I'll share some resources on musical and social contexts for the anthem that I've been reading tonight and might interest you too.


In Fort Worth, they play The Star-Spangled Banner before every concert. It started after September 11th, and it has turned into a tradition. Some people object, due to the insertion of (more) politics into the concert experience or because it might not fit musically with the program. Others expect and enjoy the anthem at every concert.



There is some good history and context to be heard in a short program from WQXR, “Is the 'Star-Spangled Banner' Out of Place at Orchestra Concerts?” Naomi Lewin speaks to Marc Ferris, author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem, and conductor Leon Bostein. Take 15 minutes to listen to it


I don't find the anthem musically distracting at the beginning of the concert, but I do think Ferris's idea of playing it the middle of the program would be a serious intrusion. I also think that the RPO's practice of playing it on just the first concert makes more sense than doing it every time.


To Botstein, repeating the anthem every concert can evoke a “cheap” sort of patriotism, one that has lost its meaning. “It's like repeating a prayer every day without understanding its meaning.”


Tonight, it caught me off guard. As the RPO starts a season focusing on American music, that oft-repeated anthem has me to thinking about its meaning and all the things this country has been and strives to be.



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