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:

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

72 thoughts on “Stravinsky’s Illegal "Star Spangled Banner" Arrangement

  1. 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”.

  2. 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.

  3. 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! 🙂

    • 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.

  4. 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 https://play.spotify.com/track/5rH2dgx5ZH1o402HyKYRw1

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.’

  8. 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.

  9. 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).

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

    • 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_.

  16. 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?_

  17. 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)

    • 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.

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 I’m guessing that the law mentioned in the article has since been repealed.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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. 😉

  21. 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!

  22. 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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