The sight that stirred Francis Scott Key on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, from the deck of a ship on the Patapsco River, not only gave proof of the country's ability to survive a war with Britain. It also generated the verses that, set to a song of British origins, would one day be proudly hailed as our national anthem.
With its octave-and-a-fifth stretch, the melody can be considered vocally perilous, but that hasn't stopped people from singing, or ungallantly screaming, "The Star-Spangled Banner" over the centuries.
The piece got a good deal of its identity through the crisp and clear military band arrangement crafted by John Philip Sousa in 1879 and widely played, but the startling guitar version played by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969 ended up being nearly as iconic.
And many a starry singer, such as pop music's Whitney Houston and Beyonce and opera's Renee Fleming, has continued to spin the piece distinctively on national occasions.
"The anthem became inscribed in an almost genetic way as part of our DNA makeup," says Mark Clague, associate professor of music, American culture and African-American studies at the University of Michigan.
The bicentennial of the bombardment of Fort McHenry that Key witnessed provides a welcome opportunity to take a fresh look at the anthem and its legacy.
Several events in Baltimore during the days and weeks ahead will do just that, including performances that trace the musical origin of the anthem and early performance practice. A long-neglected orchestral fantasy on the anthem will be revived, and a mixed-media presentation will offer alternative approaches to the music.
This sort of thing is just what Clague hoped for when he helped to launch the Star Spangled Music Foundation two years ago to encourage greater appreciation of the national anthem and other American patriotic music.
"The anthem opens a window to look at American history," Clague says.
That history starts with the Anacreontic Society in London, a men's club of amateur musicians. Among the songs they liked to sing was one from the late 1770s with words by one of the society's presidents, Ralph Tomlinson, and music by member John Stafford Smith: "To Anacreon in Heaven."
A popular view of that song, which became the society's anthem and contains references to various Greek gods, is one of the myths Clague has been busy debunking.
"It's not so much a drinking song, although people keep calling it that," he says. "It speaks a lot to the spirit of the club, which celebrated Greek culture. The society members wanted to have a good time, and certainly alcohol was a part of that, but the song was not sung in every pub."
Cellist Allen Whear, artistic director of Pro Musica Rara, which has programmed the Anacreontic Society's anthem next month, takes a similar view of the piece.
"It's got this bad reputation of a drinking song," he says, "but it's really a fine, fun song celebrating Bacchus and Venus. What's wrong with that?"
Viewing "To Anacreon in Heaven" in a more respectful light is just the beginning of understanding how it figures into American musical heritage. The song made it across the Atlantic in time for our Revolution and had no trouble entering the hit parade.
"It was one of 100 or so melodies that every American would have known in 1814," Clague says, "and it was used with 85 different lyrics before 1820. So it was really an American tune for Francis Scott Key."
So American, in fact, that Key had already written words for it well before the Battle of Baltimore. That was in 1805, and the song was "When the Warrior Returns," which Key himself sang at a party in Washington to celebrate Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart, naval heroes of the First Barbary War.
There's a reference in that song to "the Star-Spangled flag of our nation," and the last line rhymes "wave" and "brave." No wonder Key could quickly dash off new verses by the time he found himself within earshot of all those bombs bursting in air nine years later.
"It is irrefutable that Key had that tune in mind," Clague says. "A lot of people claimed later that they fit the tune and text together. That's one of the basic myths we are trying to correct."
Early-music specialist David Hildebrand, director of the Severna park-based Colonial Music Institute and creator of 1812music.org, likewise is busy setting the record straight about Key and the anthem.
"It is important to dispel myths and legends," Hildebrand says. "One of them is that Francis Scott Key was tone deaf. He was not. Another is that he was a prisoner aboard a British ship, writing a poem on the back of an envelope. He was on an American ship [a flag-of-truce vessel detained by the British], writing lyrics. Notice I use the word 'lyrics.' What he wrote was very much not a poem."
Those lyrics have a clear purpose.
"The words are not about spreading the news about Fort McHenry," Clague says. "People would have read about the battle in the headlines of newspapers. It's about the emotional impact of what the news meant."
He is organizing a concert that features the Anacreontic Song, "The Star-Spangled Banner" and other music from the War of 1812 performed on period instruments, evoking the way it would have been done in Key's day.
This program will be presented at Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which has a direct link to the anthem.
"One of the key moments in the history of the song was the printing of the first sheet music, published by Thomas Carr, who was organist at St. Paul's," Clague says. "Carr was part of the network of Episcopal musicians Key was very connected to. He asked Carr to set it to music."
Published within weeks of the battle, the song underwent a few significant alterations. For one thing, Key's original title, "The Defence of Fort M'Henry," became "The Star-Spangled Banner." For another, the well-worn melody took a new turn.
If in the key of C, the second syllable of "early," as in "dawn's early light," would be sung as an F natural. That's how the Anacreontic Song has it.
"The F natural is kind of odd, kind of unmusical, really," Hildebrand says. "Thomas Carr changed it to an F-sharp, which is the normal way we sing it today."
Other changes would occur later to the melody, which originally started off with "O say" sung on the same note, rather than the two descending notes for the 'O' that we know today. Subtle rhythmic modifications were introduced as well along the way.
Concerns about the vocal difficulty of the tune started not long after "The Star-Spangled Banner" appeared.
"James Hewitt composed new music to the lyrics, a melody that would be easier to sing, in 1817," Hildebrand says, "so that's how far back the complaints go."
As for the original "Star-Spangled Banner," it was sung in a different manner than the one that became the norm.
"Early on, it was very much a solo song with a choral refrain," Clague says. "A single singer, usually a male vocalist, would sing it through and the chorus or audience would repeat the last two lines."
Back then, all four of Key's verses would have been sung. Along the way, various people added or substituted verses, including one written during the Civil War by Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Even before War Department regulations in 1917 designated "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem for military bands, use of the tune had been so widespread that Giacomo Puccini incorporated a few measures into the score of his 1904 opera "Madama Butterfly" to underline mentions of America in the text.
In 1932, a year after Congress made the anthem official, composer Ferde Grofe unveiled an orchestral work, "September 13, 1814," during the opening of Radio City Music Hall. Now called "Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner," the original full-orchestra version of the anthem-laced score will soon get its long-overdue second performance.
"It's a historical curiosity," says Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, who will conduct the resurrected music score during the BSO's anthem-theme gala concert this month. "And it's a pretty evocative little piece."
Over the decades, when orchestras and bands trot out the anthem to start an event, they tend to stick close to the straightforward, Sousa-type treatment. That sound was so ingrained that when Igor Stravinsky wrote an orchestral arrangement in the 1940s with a few daring chords, there was grumbling. (No arrest of the arranger, though — that's another anthem myth.)
It was hardly the only unusual approach the music would receive. A subdued arrangement heard at the 2004 Athens Olympics sparked controversy. Nothing subdued about Baltimore sports fans, of course, who insert the pronounced Bawlmer-ese "O." And it is common to hear carping about the practice of soloist's applying pop/gospel/rock styling to the music.
"It's disgusting what people do to it in public today," Hildebrand says. "Rock stars just want to make it all about themselves, not what the song is about. A lot of them also switch the meter from 3/4 to 4/4 to have an extra measure to play around with."
Baltimore beatboxer Shodekeh has no problem with that.
He has organized a music installation at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History that includes clips of such highly individualistic anthem performances as those by Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969, Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and Rene Marie at a mayoral event in Denver in 2008 (this jazz vocalist substituted the text of the African America anthem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" for Key's text).
"I want to go beyond the default culture of the national anthem," Shodekeh says. "I want to try to show how people in the 20th and 21st centuries have personalized it."
Clague takes a broad view of the interpretation issue. He notes there were criticisms in the 19th century about people singing the song in many different ways, and he notes that Congress did not specify an official version when it finally adopted the music as the national anthem.
"One of my greatest fears is that someone will pass a law about how it must be sung," Clague says. "That would show not love of country, but obedience. The expressive possibilities of the song are still very much alive."
A sample of anthem-related performances
Star-Spangled Spectacular: Patriotic music will be performed by the United States Marine Band, the Morgan State University Choir and others at 6 p.m. Sept. 13 at Fort McHenry. A concert (broadcast on PBS) features Kristin Chenoweth, Melissa Etheridge, Denyce Graves, Smokey Robinson, Kenny Rogers, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and others at 7 p.m. Sept.13 at Pier Six Concert Pavilion. 410-244-1131, piersixpavilion.com.
Singing on Key: The Anacreontic Song, 1814 version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and more will be performed by David Hildebrand, members of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and others. 5 p.m. Sept. 14 at Old St. Paul's Church, 233 N. Charles St. Free. 410-685-3404, stpaulsbaltimore.org.
The National Anthem Remixed: Beatboxer Shodekeh, members of Classical Revolution, Baltimore Boom Bap, and the vocal ensemble Embody will perform variations on the anthem. 5 p.m. Sept. 14 at Reginald F. Lewis Museum, 830 E. Pratt St. 443-263-1800, rflewismuseum.org.
O Say Can You See 2014 BSO Gala: Conductor Marin Alsop, narrator Kwame Kwei-Armah and the Morgan State University Choir join the BSO in an American music that includes Ferde Grofe's "Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner." 8:30 p.m. Sept. 20 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. 410-783-8000, bsomusic.org.