Stravinsky’s “Illegal” Arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” (1944)

In 1939, Igor Stravin­sky emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States, first arriv­ing in New York City, before set­tling in Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts, where he deliv­ered the Charles Eliot Nor­ton lec­tures at Har­vard dur­ing the 1939–40 aca­d­e­m­ic year. While liv­ing in Boston, the com­pos­er con­duct­ed the Boston Sym­pho­ny and, on one famous occa­sion, he decid­ed to con­duct his own arrange­ment of the “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner,” which he made out a “desire to do my bit in these griev­ous times toward fos­ter­ing and pre­serv­ing the spir­it of patri­o­tism in this coun­try.” The date was Jan­u­ary, 1944. And he was, of course, refer­ring to Amer­i­ca’s role in World War II.

As you might expect, Stravin­sky’s ver­sion on “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner” was­n’t entire­ly con­ven­tion­al, see­ing that it added a dom­i­nant sev­enth chord to the arrange­ment. And the Boston police, not exact­ly an orga­ni­za­tion with avant-garde sen­si­bil­i­ties, issued Stravin­sky a warn­ing, claim­ing there was a law against tam­per­ing with the nation­al anthem. (They were mis­read­ing the statute.) Grudg­ing­ly, Stravin­sky pulled it from the bill.

You can hear Stravin­sky’s “Star-Span­gled Ban­ner” above, appar­ent­ly per­formed by the Lon­don Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra, and con­duct­ed by Michael Tilson Thomas. The Youtube video fea­tures an apoc­ryphal mugshot of Stravin­sky. Despite the mythol­o­gy cre­at­ed around this event, Stravin­sky was nev­er arrest­ed.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Night When Char­lie Park­er Played for Igor Stravin­sky (1951)

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visu­al­ized in a Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion for Its 100th Anniver­sary

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

Hear 46 Ver­sions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 3 Min­utes: A Clas­sic Mashup

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Comments (30)
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  • david lincoln brooks says:

    What? It’s absolute­ly gor­geous, intel­li­gent, styl­ish, and yes— rev­er­ent. The afore­men­tioned Dom7 chord in the tag is exquis­ite. Some­body in Boston had mis­placed their corn­cob, methinks.

  • Andrew Petersen says:

    A beau­ti­ful and very human sound­ing arrange­ment. Not a proud day in the his­tor of Boston to have this pulled from the pro­gramme.

  • Tom S says:

    Good thing Wood­stock was­n’t held in Boston.

  • john says:

    The Irish-Amer­i­can police of Boston were not corn on the cob eaters.

  • Jeff says:

    I lis­tened to the arrange­ment. Can some­one tell me what exact­ly was the change. What does “adding a sev­enth chord” mean? I love music but am not a musi­cian.

  • ian maxwell mackinnon says:

    When the Bal­let Russ­es arrived to to per­form ‘Scheherazade’ in Boston in 1917, the local author­i­ties insist­ed the harem mat­tress­es be replaced with rock­ing chairs.
    ‑Jen­nifer Homans, ‘Apol­lo’s Angels: A His­to­ry of Bal­let’

  • William L says:

    I can only imag­ine the absur­di­ty: The goon(esque)squad, BPD “flat“foots harass­ing and threat­en­ing Stravin­sky over the tech­ni­cal fine points of music nota­tion. Good grief, what a bunch of maroons. Haha­ha!

  • Terry Vosbein says:

    I made a com­ment here yes­ter­day, and its dis­ap­pear­ance is dis­turb­ing. I wrote that I liked the arrange­ment by Stravin­sky, but that the author had mis­used the term “dom­i­nant sev­enth chord.” Today I find my com­ment erased, the arti­cle re-writ­ten, and the new ver­sion just as incor­rect.

    The orig­i­nal ver­sion of the Star Span­gled Ban­ner uti­lized dom­i­nant sev­enth chords. In fact. most tonal music from Bach on for­ward uti­lizes dom­i­nant sev­enth chords. A lot of them.

    It is true that Stravin­sky’s “sin” was to muck with the har­monies. But the descrip­tion as it stands is pret­ty mean­ing­less. He did not add a dom­i­nant sev­enth chord. He re-hamo­nized a few chords with tonal, yet not tra­di­tion­al, chords. They may be a bit star­tling to one used to the orig­i­nal har­monies, but I assure you, the inclu­sion of a dom­i­nant sev­enth chord is not the rea­son why.

  • Prof. Ken Ueno says:

    No true. It’s well doc­u­ment­ed now (e.g. Richard Taruskin) that the pho­to is a visa pho­to. Alas, the sto­ry of Stravin­sky’s arrest is an urban leg­end. Please cor­rect.

  • Patrick778 says:

    As I remem­ber (from read­ing Robert Craft), Stravin­sky said he was threat­ened with arrest if he changed the Nation­al Anthem and that police were sta­tioned in the con­cert hall. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know.

  • Patrick778 says:

    It’s plod­ding. Fans would fall asleep before the ump yelled “Play ball!”

  • ian maxwell mackinnon says:

    The statute in ques­tion?
    from my 1995 Com­pendi­um of Mass­a­chu­setts Crim­i­nal Law:
    Chap­ter 264, Sec­tion 9 NATIONAL ANTHEM; MANNER OF PLAYING
    Who­ev­er plays, sings, or ren­ders the “Star-Span­gled Ban­ner” in any pub­lic place, the­ater, motion pic­ture hall, restau­rant or cafe, or at any pub­lic enter­tain­ment, oth­er than as a whole and sep­a­rate com­po­si­tion or num­ber, with­out embell­ish­ment or addi­tion in the way of nation­al or oth­er melodies, or who­ev­er plays, sings, or ren­ders the “Star Span­gled Ban­ner” , or any part there­of, as dance music, as an exit march or as a part of a melody of any kind, shall be pun­ished by a fine of not more than one hun­dred dol­lars.

  • Wayne Hill says:

    Although the melody was unchanged, the under­ly­ing chord pro­gres­sion was cre­ative­ly manip­u­lat­ed in quite a few places. I think the arrange­ment was more inter­est­ing, musi­cal­ly than the orig­i­nal, but that.….is just my opin­ion! I would expect noth­ing less from Stravin­sky.

  • John Gronley says:

    The dom­i­nant 7th chord is a very com­mon musi­cal con­struct. The con­struct has been used in dif­fer­ent ways in music for hun­dreds of years. At its heart, “The Star Span­gled Ban­ner” is sim­ply a melody. The word­ing the author uses, “added a dom­i­nant 7th chord” makes no sense; all sorts of chords (cer­tain­ly includ­ing dom­i­nant sev­enths) and har­monies have been created/added in arrange­ments of the song since 1931 when it was made the nation­al anthem. Why would a dom­i­nant 7th chord, specif­i­cal­ly, be some­how for­bid­den? In any case, it’s an inter­est­ing, weird sto­ry.

  • John Gronley says:

    I agree. Strange word­ing.

  • John Gronley says:

    ^ How do I delete a com­ment? ;)

  • Daryl says:

    corn cob refers to a smok­ing pipe and not a food­stuff

  • Awesome Houston Welder says:

    Agreed. Sounds won­der­ful!

  • NikFromNYC says:

    God emper­or of Human­i­ty Trumpoleon sure­ly must approve of this Zarathrus­t­ian ode to Him­self.

  • Simon Lomberg says:

    Shades of his har­mon­i­sa­tion of Per­gole­si in Pul­cinel­la :-)

    The chord that would have caused all the fuss (such as it was) can only be the B flat 7th four bars from the end. So, yeah, a dom­i­nant 7th of sorts — but a sec­ondary dom­i­nant, a 7th chord built on the ton­ic, i.e. the dom­i­nant of the sub­dom­i­nant (if you get my drift), which does con­found expec­ta­tions some­what. How­ev­er, it was hard­ly “mod­ern”, let alone avant-garde: Beethoven’s very first sym­pho­ny, for one, starts in exact­ly that way.

    The writer of the arti­cle should have just asked a musi­cian for a lit­tle expla­na­tion of what was going on.

  • Harry Middlebrooks says:

    Stravin­sky did­n’t alter the melody al all. The dom­i­nant sev­enth is often used as a pass­ing tone to the ton­ic chord, and as far as I’m con­cerned is quite accept­able. Con­sid­er­ing how many of today’s “singers” muti­late the melody with their “rifts” and “show-off” notes, I felt that his ren­di­tion was quite patri­ot­ic and heart­felt. Shame on those who took issue with the few dif­fer­ent (and inter­est­ing) chord struc­tures he chose to use.….

  • gabrielle says:

    Pre­fer the orig­i­nal version…Happy Fourth of July! !

  • Nyal Williams says:

    Yes, the melody is a British drink­ing song, anal­o­gous to our “Nine­ty-nine Bot­tles of Beer on the Wall.” Appar­ent­ly the point was to see whether you could hit the high notes at the end as you got drunk­er and drunk­er. The words are a fine poem about our ear­ly his­to­ry, but, I believe our nation­al hymn should cel­e­brate more about our coun­try than one bat­tle. Per­son­al­ly, I pre­fer “Amer­i­ca the Beau­ti­ful.”

  • Doug Thomas says:

    Of course, the Jimi Hen­drix ver­sion is more noto­ri­ous! No one sleeps through it.

  • bill says:

    Com­pare the words “land of the free and home of the brave” in the Stravin­sky ver­sion to a tra­di­tion­al ver­sion. You will notice the tra­di­tion­al ver­sion reach­es the dom 7 chord sound on the words “of the”. The are three basic col­ors in tonal music. Ton­ic, Sub­dami­nant and Dom­i­nant. The often make a sen­tence with dom­i­nant fol­lowed by ton­ic. The tra­di­tion­al arrange­ment plays “land of the free” ton­ic “and” sub­dom­i­nant “the” altered dom­i­nant “home” ton­ic “of the” dom­i­nant “brave” ton­ic. Stravin­sky has a unre­solved dom­i­nant chord lin­ger­ing through the whole line “land of the free and home of the brave”.

    For a more com­plete expla­na­tion look at wike­pidia music the­o­ry explain­ing the roman num­ber har­mo­ny sys­tem of I major ii minor iii minor IV major V7 dom­i­nant vi minor vii dimin­ished with the under­stand­ing that most of the time ton­ic (or home col­or) is I, iv, and often iii. Sub­dom­i­nant is gen­er­aly ii and IV and Dom­i­nant is V7 and vii.

  • Messejproduction says:

    If you’re not a musi­cian the musi­cal def­i­n­i­tion of a dom­i­nant 7th chord would still be con­fus­ing. If you lis­ten the the songs I’m get­ting ready to men­tion it will help you under­stand all the fol­low­ing descrip­tions. So I’m going to use some very famil­iar songs you should know to help you hear (in your head) what a dom­i­nant chord sounds like. A chord is when you play dif­fer­ent notes at the same time, like when you press 4 dif­fer­ent notes on the piano at once and all togeth­er. The dom­i­nant 7th chord in this ver­sion of the Nation­al Anthem is heard as the word “…free” is sung. If you’ve ever heard of the syl­la­bles ” Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do”, these syl­la­bles rep­re­sent the 8 notes of a Major scale. If you notice the first syl­la­ble is “Do” and the last syl­la­ble is also “Do”; this is because a major scale starts and ends on the same note; the first “Do” is low and the last “Do” is high… i.e from one C to the next C on a piano. If you sing the first 8 notes to the song “Joy To The World “; this is an excel­lent exam­ple of a major scale sung back­wards. In the hym­nal “Amaz­ing Grace” the sec­ond chord ( the chord between “… grace, how sweet” ) is a dom­i­nant 7th chord.

  • Nicholas Cooper says:

    What a crack­ing arrange­ment, it was good to hear dif­fer­ent chords to the ‘Orig­i­nal’ ver­sion. I love it !!! Well done Igor.

  • Chris McConnell says:

    This was my ques­tion exact­ly. Yes, it’s (slight­ly) uncon­ven­tion­al, but there’s noth­ing AT ALL uncon­ven­tion­al about a dom­i­nant sev­enth chord. What a weird way to describe his rehar­mo­niza­tion.

  • LC says:

    Russ­ian infil­tra­tion!
    If this is “avant-garde”, his arrange­ment of Hap­py Birth­day would cer­tain­ly send some­one to hell!

  • David J Rodriguez says:

    it’s most­ly the chord voicings…in Puer­to Rico wout WiFi, lis­ten­ing in stream spurts…

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