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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Comments (3)
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  • Suzanne R Glaser says:

    It is an improvements over the English drinking tune. Can it be sung?

  • Casey Winstead says:

    My father told me a story that is a follow-on to this one. Stravinsky was conducting the Hollywood Bowl orchestra (where my dad was a bassist). The story goes that during rehearsals Stravinsky made his disdain for the national anthem as a musical piece clear by rushing through it in a cursory manner.
    During the dress rehearsal, as the anthem concluded, an L.A.P.D. motorcycle cop rode onto the stage right up to the conductor’s stand, and wrote Stravinsky a ticket for “Speeding the Star Spangled Banner.” Stravinsky was shocked, but then it was revealed that the cop was the brother of one of the musicians, and it was all just a practical joke.
    Funny thing is, my dad never mentioned the run-in with the Boston police, and I never knew about it until reading about it here.

  • Blake says:

    How is this “apparently” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra? It’s not apparent to me. You could have used reportedly, supposedly, possibly, allegedly, even beautifully, but you chose to incorrectly use the currently most overused word in the English language. Sigh.

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