Stravinsky’s Illegal "Star Spangled Banner" Arrangement

Did the Boston Police really arrest Igor Stravinsky in 1943 for adding a dominant seventh chord to the Star Spangled Banner? The unlikely mug shot, above, seems to back up the story…until you look carefully at the date.

The tale is an enticing urban legend of twentieth century music history, rooted in a few grains of truth. The “mug shot” was actually taken for a 1940 visa application. Stravinsky emigrated to the United States in 1939 and became a citizen in 1945, eventually settling in sun-drenched West Hollywood, California. He did arrange the Star Spangled Banner for a series of Boston Symphony concerts, explaining his

desire to do my bit in these grievous times toward fostering and preserving the spirit of patriotism in this country.

After the first performance, the audience was apparently shocked by what they considered to be an unconventional harmonization. The Boston Police, misinterpreting a Federal law prohibiting “tampering” with the National Anthem, told Stravinsky that he had to remove his arrangement from the remaining programs. Reluctantly, he conceded.

With the benefit of hindsight, and years of garishly over-embellished ballpark vocal renditions, Stravinsky’s Star Spangled Banner doesn’t sound so bad. This is the National Anthem through the ears of an immigrant. Its bass line and inner voices suggest a hint of “Great Gate of Kiev” Russian weight. There’s some interesting, unorthodox modernist voice leading that might vaguely remind you of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. You’ll hear the shocking seventh chord at the end, at the 1:30 mark.

In celebration of Independence Day, here is Stravinsky’s “illegal” arrangement:


71 Responses to Stravinsky’s Illegal "Star Spangled Banner" Arrangement

  1. andrew July 3, 2015 at 7:30 pm #

    I’d like to see any 21st century cop identify a 9th chord, period.

    • Frank Ney July 5, 2015 at 11:29 am #

      It don’t sound right to me. You’re under arrest.

      Thanks to. Supreme Court ruling a few months ago, cops can arrest you for a non crime bevause they’re ‘mistaken’ about the law and suffer no repercussions over it.

      • kate July 6, 2015 at 1:19 am #

        YIKES! it gets worse and worse…

    • Truett July 5, 2015 at 4:16 pm #

      Ok, but those “errant”notes from the lower scale horns just sound like “clinkers” to me >Ane , BTW in Eastwood’s movie “Bird”, Igor live in Beverly Hills!

    • Josh July 4, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

      Cop here, music major back in college. I know what a major 9 chord sounds like.

    • Tim July 11, 2016 at 11:51 am #

      Why didn’t Roseanne Barr get arrested

  2. Mike July 3, 2015 at 8:47 pm #

    Would be nice to have a 48 star flag to accurately represent the year 1943.

    • Larry R. Miller July 4, 2015 at 2:43 pm #


    • Norbert July 5, 2015 at 8:24 pm #

      That was Bernstein

    • Mikey July 4, 2016 at 12:36 pm #

      There are 48 stars on that flag.

      • Don Burt July 10, 2016 at 4:58 pm #

        No, actually there are not.There are 50–5 rows containing 6 stars and 4 containing 5 stars (30+20). The 48-star pattern had a rectangular appearance–six rows with eight stars in each row.

  3. Cody July 3, 2015 at 10:53 pm #

    Not actually a 9th chord but a V7/IV (read: five-seven of four). The recording is in the rather common key of Bb major for our national anthem. The chord in question is so jarring because of the addition of an Ab (a lowered 7th scale degree) to a Bb major chord that we would otherwise have perceived, and are used to perceiving, as an arrival to the tonic or “home” chord. The Ab causes tension and direction towards a foreign, albeit closely related key, but as composers are wont to do, the shift in tonality is only temporary and we find ourselves comfortably back in the key of Bb by the final chord.

    By the heading of the article I was expecting to hear an added C to the final Bb chord, so I was confused when no such chord made an appearance. A closer listen revealed a much different but equally intruiguing harmonic “surprise”.

    • Paul July 4, 2015 at 11:48 am #

      What I found most jarring was not the harmony, but the melody’s dotted eighth to sixteenth military sharpness. Our modern version always perform it with a lilting, tripleted, quarter to eighth, ‘daahh dat dah’ swing.

      • Robert Dean July 4, 2015 at 9:00 pm #

        Thanks, Cody. More intriguing, to me, anyway, are the major 7s in the strings at the beginning of the refrain, “Rocket’s red glare.” (really a nice touch.)

      • Mark P. Kessinger July 11, 2016 at 6:52 pm #

        Only sloppy musicians perform it as a triplet. When music is notated with a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth, it should be rendered rhythmically as the notation indicates, with a 3-to-1, not a 2-to-1, rhythmic relationship.

    • pat July 5, 2015 at 10:06 am #

      this is not a seventh at 1’30 this is a minor sixth and this note is always used in gospels

      • pat July 5, 2015 at 10:10 am #

        ah no this a minor seventh

        • Max October 12, 2017 at 6:03 pm #

          Neither, it’s a *dominant* 7th.

    • Bill Young July 4, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

      Well said…

    • Eugene Cottrell July 4, 2016 at 4:26 pm #

      Ditto, sir, ditto indeed.

  4. Doug Hicton July 4, 2015 at 12:02 am #

    That’s not a 9th chord at 1:30, where the word “land” would be. That’s a tonic (V of IV) Bb dominant 7th chord in 1st inversion (D in the bass). A 9th chord would have a C in it.

  5. Matt July 4, 2015 at 12:29 am #

    It’s not a ninth chord, it’s a seventh chord. Specifically, a secondary dominant with a lowered seventh scale degree (V7/IV). And it’s a lovely arrangement! 🙂

  6. Josh July 4, 2015 at 1:02 am #

    That’s a dominant 7th chord at 1:30, not a ninth.

    • Mark P. Kessinger July 4, 2016 at 4:47 pm #

      It’s a dominant 7th relative to the subdominant, not to the tonic. In other words, a V7 of IV.

  7. Timothy Judd July 4, 2015 at 2:45 am #

    Indeed it is an unexpected dominant 7th chord, not a 9th chord. Thank you to all who caught that mistake.

    • Mitchell July 5, 2015 at 4:00 am #

      Well, it starts as a dominant 7th chord, but it DOES actually turn into a 9th chord – for one note. On the second half of the word “LAND” in “land of the free,” we hear a Bb chord with the flatted 7th and the 9th.

  8. Mark July 4, 2015 at 9:55 am #

    Thanks Timothy for correcting this internet legend. Know that there’s no “Federal” law governing performance of the U.S. national anthem. The statute in question was a Massachusetts state law. Several of these were passed in the 1920s in support of Maryland lawmakers who were working to get the federal government to name “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official U.S. anthem. Such laws gave Key’s song legal precedence over other potential songs, such as “America the Beautiful.” There are also several versions and orchestrations done by Stravinsky. We recorded the mixed chorus version at the University of Michigan as part of the Poets & Patriots project. See

  9. Rick July 4, 2015 at 10:34 am #

    There have been variants of the Star-Spangled Banner, especially in recently. It was written in 3/4 time, and I’ve heard other versions in 4/4 time. Does that make it illegal? I see nothing wrong with a composer with the talents of Igor Stravinsky in composing his own version. His Firebird was controversial at first, but became accepted. And so should his version of the Star-Spangled Banner.

  10. Mr.B July 4, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

    I loved this arrangement.
    There are those who play it safe in life and never
    Contribute something new and creative.
    And then there are those who rather
    Make judgemental comments from the sidelines.
    I’d rather play on the leading edge of life
    Like Igor.

  11. Global Yoke; July 4, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

    Let’s avoid the whole issue and just go with “America The Beautiful.” Better melody, not such bombastic and militant lyrics. I like the ‘amber waves of grain’ and ‘purple mountain majesty.’

  12. Henry Null July 4, 2015 at 3:09 pm #

    Years ago and I have not forgotten this I watched an NBA AllStar game at the Forum in Los Angeles. Marvin Gaye
    sang the pre-game ritual in such an over the top rhythmic way that I could barely identify it as the national anthem. In fact it sounded nothing like the national anthem. However, it was enormously musical. This became a legend and I’ve read stories that no one from the Laker organization could find him before it, he had let himself in a back door and wandered out to the basketball court. Occasionally I will see talk shows with players talking about it. They also responded as I did. His version, at that time and that time only, was an expression of great musical creativity. Don’t have the video but Im sure one is around. There was great enthusiasm for this at the time. And a sizeable part of the commentariat self-righteously offended. Had they thought of the L.A. Police, I’m sure that avenue would have been pursued. As an amateur violinist I was interested in the Star Spangled Banner, in the variety of ways it is expressed. The Marvin Gaye event has to be up there. Maybe close to the police in Paris actually breaking up a party where the composer Cesar Franck played the Marseillaise and as one variation after another came out of his fingers, the noise and energy prompted nearby apartment dwellers to call the police.

    • Jay July 5, 2015 at 3:09 pm #

      Never heard Marvin’s rendition until your post, so I went and found it here

  13. Robert Heylmun July 4, 2015 at 4:00 pm #

    For a full and well-researched and extensive (126 pages) discussion of Stravinsky’s rendition(s), please see “Stravnsky’s Four Star Spangled Banners” by H. C. Slim (Musical Quarterly 2006, Volume 89, Numbers 2-3).

  14. Leslie Kaminoff July 4, 2015 at 6:16 pm #

    How about the Glenn Gould outtake in which he brilliantly, simultaneously mashes up the Star Spangled Banner with God Save the Queen?

    Has that ever been performed anywhere else?

    • haydesigner July 5, 2015 at 2:05 am #

      Here’s the Glenn Gould song:

  15. Leslie Kaminoff July 4, 2015 at 6:26 pm #

    Oh, and here’s the footage of Marvin Gaye’s performance of the Banner at the 1983 All-Star game in L.A. The audience totally ate it up:

  16. Jim Politowski July 4, 2015 at 10:17 pm #

    this does sound a lot more like what is reported to be the ‘original’ setting of the SSB. The only place where I’ve ever heard it was at the Smithsonian’s exhibit which accompanies the original flag.

  17. Barry Soldat July 5, 2015 at 8:46 am #

    There was also the performance by José Feliciano at game 5 of the 1968 World Series (St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers). No police action, but news directors at several TV stations had fits when they found out their news crews had filmed the first pitch and the scoring, but had ignored the National Anthem.

  18. Chris O July 5, 2015 at 9:13 am #

    Pretty awesome arrangement — esp on the “Rockets’ red glare” section. I actually love the “bomb-drop” of the dominant seventh itself, but I think he kind of got lazy as to how to dig himself out of it — I think if he’d fully embraced it and did some good ol’ Yankee 3-6-2-5-ey goodness to bring it back home the cops may not have roughed him up so much. 🙂 Having said that, the cat who wrote “The Rite Of Spring” can do whatever the hell he wants.

  19. Tim Turnbull July 5, 2015 at 10:54 am #

    Is it the chord Jimmy Durante was looking for?

  20. Joe July 5, 2015 at 2:42 pm #

    I enjoyed this enhance arrangement and the Russian flavorings over the standard ho-hum fare. This is so creative and refreshing and actually draws the listener in, despite a somewhat slower tempo. Thus, you have time to appreciate the unexpected textures and nuances, especially the woodwind parts at 0:53. And of course the whopping chords at 1:30 and 1:34. Stravinsky was a genius not only to create this, but also to recognize the potential for such an anthem. I wonder if they play this in Russia on occasion? It would be awesome playing this at the Olympics.

  21. Jonathan Wright July 5, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

    If I’m not mistaken . . . J.S. Bach was ? imprisoned ? detained ? for several weeks, I believe around 1717 or ’18. (I used to know this info, but my memory has gotten rusty.) I think he was leaving his Weimar court position to take a better-paying job at Anhalt-Cothen; and, he was technically trying to get out of his contract a little bit early. So, the authorities “detained” him. (Some composers have a wonderful tradition with the authorities.) I’d like to hear Bach’s harmonization of our National Anthem . . . ! He knew how to write fancy 7th and 9th chords.

  22. Fergus Currie July 5, 2015 at 3:06 pm #

    Actually its a third inversion dominant seventh (V7d) that caused the problem. I was more upset by the doubled leading note much earlier on. Still an interesting take on a well know tune. He did the same for Happy Birthday but they wouldn’t arrest you on your birthday now, would they?

    • Mark P. Kessinger July 4, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

      In his many chorales, Bach anticipated everything that would happen harmonically in Western music for nearly the next two centuries, up through and including Wagner and Schoenberg (before Schoenberg entered his 12-tone phase_.

  23. Jeff July 5, 2015 at 6:45 pm #

    I love music but am not a musician. I found all of your comments so interesting to read. That being said, I wish I could hear the seventh cord in isolation so I could better understand the shift. (I just found a more typical rendition and compared the two at the point in question and Stravinsky’s seems to have a minor chord in addition to the regular notes. Remember, I’m not a musician and am just responding by what I hear. Am I even close in understanding this?_

  24. skip sanders July 5, 2015 at 11:07 pm #

    I think its a Bb 7 with D in the bass or first inversion. Its perhaps setting up the iv (Eb minor)…even though it dosent stay on it very long. Ultimately it lands upon the tonic with the F in the bass (Bb/F)

  25. Thomas Murphy July 6, 2015 at 1:21 am #

    Classical music’s original punk rocker.

  26. Alan Whitney July 6, 2015 at 1:22 am #

    Well, color me stupid… I didn’t find anything unusual at all; sounded great to me.

  27. David Reich July 6, 2015 at 12:40 pm #

    I’m surprised no one’s mentioned the Hendrix version:

    • Timothy Judd July 6, 2015 at 12:45 pm #

      Thank you for bringing up Jimi Hendrix, David. This interpretation surely moves into the territory of political protest. An interesting comparison might be Alfred Schnittke’s rather shocking treatment of “Silent Night,” which I included in an earlier post, The Joy of Wrong Notes.

    • Ed Rush July 5, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

      I was just about to mention that. I’m guessing that the law mentioned in the article has since been repealed.

  28. James Mason July 6, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

    Great story and I enjoyed reading the comments. But I’ve got to add my own personal favorite Star Spangled Banner to the mix here. It’s a generational thing.

  29. Christopher DeLaurenti July 6, 2015 at 3:05 pm #

    btw, the photo appears in “Themes and Conclusions” (p. 160 in the reissued UC series of Stravinsky/Craft “Conversations” books) with the caption “Tagged by the Boston Police.”

  30. Nicole July 6, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

    Over-ornamentation is a far greater crime than any change of harmony will ever be…

  31. Linda Ashworth July 8, 2015 at 11:21 pm #

    So does anyone know of the sheetmusic to the Stravinsky arrangement is available anywhere? Thanks

    • David August 4, 2015 at 4:36 pm #

      G. Schirmer has the orchestra version available for rental.

  32. ColoMtnWoman September 7, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

    As usual, Boston police with nothing else better to do, and more time on their hands than they need. They should have spent more time going after criminals than letting morons with tin ears loose with a badge.

  33. Boris July 4, 2016 at 11:29 am #

    If only that Ab note went to a G on that climactic fermata chord, then chromatically climb down two steps to F.

  34. Mark P. Kessinger July 4, 2016 at 4:06 pm #

    I don’t find the dominant 7th chord to be shocking at all — unconventional, yes, but hardly shocking. But the article says that Boston police misinterpreted a law against “tampering with the national anthem.” One is is left wondering what that law actually did intend, and whether, say, Christina Aguilera’s butcher of the national anthem would qualify. 😉

  35. Linda K Donovan July 4, 2016 at 6:20 pm #

    This has got to be the most passionate yet civil discussion I’ve ever read on the Internet. I may not understand your musical opinions, but I’ll defend to my death your right to express them!

  36. Tim S. July 5, 2016 at 7:42 am #


  37. Derek Williams July 5, 2016 at 9:57 pm #

    Not what I was expecting at all, from the master.

  38. Kid Quagmire July 6, 2016 at 1:03 pm #

    Sounds godawful to me, what’s wrong with “normal” harmony?

  39. Dr. Robert Grechesky July 8, 2017 at 8:48 am #

    I did a marching band arrangement and played it at football and basketball games for years at Butler University. Also did it up for brass choir and gave it to the Indianapolis Brass Choir. The cover of the sheet music specifically states anyone can use it free of charge. Stravinsky wrote it as a gift.


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