Is the 'Star-Spangled Banner' Out of Place at Orchestra Concerts?


By Naomi Lewin : WQXR Host / Brian Wise

September 25, 2015

The "Star-Spangled Banner" that kicks off opening night concerts across the U.S. is often believed to be a great patriotic tradition. But some people think it's out of place and out of mood. The Fort Worth Symphony recently drew criticism over its practice of playing the anthem before every concert. A Dallas musician sounded off on Facebook that orchestra concerts were not meant to be patriotic events, and that the anthem ruined the mood a conductor was trying to set. Many others agreed.

In this week's podcast, two experts weigh in on the anthem at the orchestra. Marc Ferrisauthor of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem, says he has no problem with the piece's appearance, which is a holdover from 9/11 in many concert halls.

"Just to shoehorn it in there just for the sake of doing it could take away from the thematic program," Ferris said. "But you don't have to do it at the beginning. You could do it after intermission. You could do it at the end." He notes that the first time it was played at a baseball game was during the seventh-inning stretch at 1918 Brooklyn Dodgers game.

Leon Botstein, the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College, is more ambivalent. "I don't think it necessarily spoils the mood," he said in the second part of the segment. "But to repeat it at every concert is a kind of cheap patriotism. It has, unfortunately, a negative effect. It's like repeating a prayer every day without understanding its meaning."

However, Botstein believes the "Star-Spangled Banner" can be effective when American orchestras play it on international tours. He also thinks it provides an opportunity for an otherwise passive audience to participate in a concert.

Ferris dismisses the notion that the anthem's octave-and-a-half range and complicated lyrics are overly challenging. "It's a real myth that this is hard to sing," said Ferris. "What, a professional singer can't remember 81 words? We're only singing the first verse."

Botstein disagrees. "The 'Star-Spangled Banner' is not a great national anthem," he said. "It happens to be ours. It's slightly unsingable and the words don't really make a lot of sense. But it is our national anthem. If the audience actually likes it, maybe it doesn't spoil the mood."

Original story here.