A ‘World Premiere’ Recording of “The Star Spangled Banner”?

It’s an audacious claim to offer the premiere recording of the United States National Anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” in January 2013! Certainly, the song is already more than well known and often performed. It has been recorded by such vocal greats as operatic tenor John McCormack or soul superstar Whitney Houston. John Philip Sousa’s band recorded the anthem in 1898 (link), and American soprano Emma Eames recorded the anthem with lyrics in 1905 (link).

Yet each of these performances presents the song as we know it today — as the national anthem of the United States (a status the song did not have officially until 1931). In 1814 when the song was first published, it differed from the anthem we know today in details both small and large. For example, dotted notes were later incorporated into the melody’s rhythm serving to slow the tempo and lend more gravitas to the song as a statement of national pride and solidarity. Initially, Francis Scott Key’s lyric was sung more quickly as a song of celebration upon a rather unexpected victory. (Before attacking Baltimore, the British faced little resistance in burning most government buildings of Washington, D.C. to the ground. That Baltimore’s fighters turned the tide of the battle was both a turning point in the war and a big surprise, especially to the British!)

Key’s poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry” was initially published in September 1814 only as a set of lyrics—first as a broadside and shortly thereafter in newspapers. The Baltimore music publisher Joseph Carr published the original sheet music edition of the song that same fall, pairing the already famous words to its melody as arranged by his son Thomas Carr. This arrangement is based closely on the initial printing of the tune’s source, an anthem for a London-based amateur musicians club known as The Anacreontic Society.

The video here offers what I believe to be the first recorded version of Carr’s original 1814 sheet music edition, using methods of historically informed performance practice to capture a sense of what an early performance might have been like. We’ve tried to recreate something akin to the first documented performance of the song on October 19, 1814 when an actor identified as a Mr. Hardinge at Baltimore’s Holliday Street Theatre sang the song as part of a bill presenting August von Kotzebue’s drama Count Benyowsky, of The Conspiracy of Kamschatka.(1)

Rather than a group rendition, the lyric is performed mainly by a tenor soloist—here Mr. Justin Berkowitz, a master’s student at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Justin in effect plays the role of Mr. Hardinge who similarly echoes the president of The Anacreontic Society who likewise sang its club anthem as a solo. (This helps explain the rather wide range of the song’s melody which is intended for an amateur yet operatic voice.) Our chorus echoes the final line of each verse as directed by the original publication in precise imitation of “The Anacreontic Song.” All four verses of Key’s original lyric are presented here and the accompaniment is played as notated in Carr’s imprint.

With the 200th anniversary of the anthem rapidly approaching, I’m working to make a recorded history of the anthem available and have partnered with the Star Spangled Music Foundation to help share these and other historical documents related to the anthem with teachers across the nation. Please check back for updates. If you’re interested in learning more about the Star Spangled Music Foundation or finding out how you could help celebrate the anthem’s upcoming birthday, contact the Foundation’s Executive Director Susan Key at info@starspangledmusic.org.

(1) Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents: Harmonies and Discords of the First Hundred Years. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1975), p. 205

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About usmusicscholar

I am an Associate Professor of Musicology, American Culture and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
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