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.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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

by | Permalink | Comments (30) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (30)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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:
    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… 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…

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.