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28 April 2006
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I was dumbfounded by the words of this country's president in relation to the "national anthem" being sung by several Latin performers in Spanish.

The piece of music under discussion is "Nuestro Himno" (Our Hymn).

Asked at a news briefing in the Rose Garden on Friday whether he believed the anthem would have the same value in Spanish as it did in English, Mr. Bush said flatly, "No, I don't."

"And I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English," Mr. Bush said. "And they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English."

Rutenberg, Jim. "Bush Enters Anthem Fight on Language." NY Times 28 April 2006
N.B. You can hear an mp3 of "Nuestro Himno" from the article

Mostly, I am not qualified to disagree with the president: my understanding of military strategy, foreign policy and economics are all a little weak. What Bush is addressing now, however, is a musical issue; I have a degree in music (and I am about to get another).

In my mind, this debate brings up interesting questions about what the national anthem is and it's role as liturgical music par excellence in American civic religion. Additionally, there are all kinds of multi-cultural issues (which, again, I am not qualified to address).

What is the "Star-Spangled Banner"? The national anthem of the United States seems to be the marriage of words by Episcopalian Francis Scott Key with a diatonically forthright tune (which I will call ANACREON) by teenaged John Stafford Smith.

Due to a a Congressional resolution of 3 March 1931 (exactly 75 years before my master's organ recital), the piece of music defined above has some legal status. It is the combination of these two elements, the Key text sung to ANACREON that makes the national anthem.

It seems to me that when two or three gather together to record anything other than a combination of this particular text and tune, they are not recording the national anthem.

I don't believe the national anthem is under copyright, nor do I believe it has retained any kind of integrity as a piece of music. The Wikipedia article on the anthem should be commended for including a section on Modern history of the work's performance.

On integrity loss: Sadly, difficult "mainstream" pieces can lose their integrity when performed badly often enough. The Messiah is a good example.

The name Jimi Hendrix is invoked in this debate because of his iconic (and quintessentially American?) solo guitar rendition of the "anthem."

Hendrix's performances, however, did not include words. They do not, therefore, fit our definition of the anthem.

Hendrix's performances also did not invite congregational participation. Part of the scandal must have been that this was an extra-liturgical performance of a sacred national work.

On extra-liturgical performances of sacred work: Co-opting the established repertory for your own ends is a dangerous thing to do. Think about the backlash when young Mozart got drunk and performed Allegri's Miserere with a few friends in the street.

The lack of congregational participation did not strip Hendrix's performances of textual meaning. Music projects texts closely associated with it.

On music projecting texts: Take, for instance, Wilbur Snapp, the only organist to be ejected from a baseball game. Snapp, after a bad call at first, played "Three Blind Mice."

Conversely, do the words have this same power of projection? If I were to offer a public reading of Key's poem, perhaps even reading beyond the first stanza, would my audience believe that I was performing the national anthem?

Probably not, and so we see an unevenness start to emerge in the marriage of text and tune. Perhaps a new model is needed to express the function of the national anthem's component parts and what the national anthem is.

In keeping with the (admittedly heterosexual) marriage terminology, and in an open attempt to infuriate Susan McClary, we can label the components thusly:

Franz SchubertMasculine: ANACERON, the tune
Feminine: "The Star-Spangled Banner", Key's text beginning "O say, can you see . . ."

Hendrix and Snapp are seemingly both able to express the feminine through the masculine. (This is the same way that my future submissive, overly-domesticated (declawed) wife will be known (only) as Mrs. David Sinden.)

The feminine, however, does not seem to have this same ability to evoke the masculine. If I were to begin reading the words to Schubert's Winterreisse I seriously doubt anyone would be able to hum the tunes afterward.

On the promiscuous feminine: The feminine is often promiscuous in the relationship, serving many masculine partners. Imagine if I started reading texts of the Mass or the Requiem. If the words did evoke musical associations, how many composers would be involved?

"Nuestro Himno", however, represents neither the masculine nor the feminine: it is the ambitious gender-neutral child of the national anthem.

With respect to the national anthem, can it be considered . . .

This performance is pompously polyphonic, not hummably homophonic.

Masculine? There are some similar melodic contours, but "Nuestro Himno" is in duple time, but ANACERON is in triple. This highly edited, artificial, celebrity-heavy performance is pompously polyphonic, not hummably homophonic.

As is the case with these celebrity-heavy recordings, everyone has to have their "sing" which means that everyone has to sing in his or her range according to his or her style which means that the end result is a little like a smoothie. It might taste good, but you'd never have one for dinner. "Nuestro Himno," musically speaking, has even less integrity than most pop music.

Feminine? The text does not purport to be a literal translation of the text. Here is an English translation of "Nuestro Himno" via NPR:

By the light of the dawn, do you see arising,
what we proudly hailed at twilight's last fall?
Its stars, its stripes
yesterday streamed
above fierce combat
a gleaming emblem of victory
and the struggle toward liberty.
Throughout the night, they proclaimed:
"We will defend it!"
Tell me! Does its starry beauty still wave
above the land of the free,
the sacred flag?
Its stars, its stripes,
liberty, we are the same.
We are brothers in our anthem.
In fierce combat, a gleaming emblem of victory
and the struggle toward liberty.
My people fight on.
The time has come to break the chains.
Throughout the night they proclaimed, "We will defend it!"
Tell me! Does its starry beauty still wave
above the land of the free,
the sacred flag?

There are two things that struck me as profound about this text: the use of the word "sacred" and the line "We are brothers in our anthem."

It amazes me that the authors of "Nuestro Himno" refer to the American flag as sacred.

It amazes me that anyone could object to the sentiment of national siblinghood, a sentiment which is echoes Schiller's "Ode to Joy", the anthem for Germany and the U.N. (does that make it an "international anthem"?).

It confounds me that President Bush has embroiled himself in musical criticism. "Nuestro Himno" does not represent the national anthem, though it is descended from it. The government has no authority on this piece of music, nor do they have any business discussing it from the bully pulpit.

Additionally, Bush is striking out against a piece of music that seems designed to make the sentiment of the Key text available to Spanish-speakers, not serve as a replacement for it.

Saying that the national anthem should be sung in English is like saying that you should put peanut butter on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. What Bush needs to accept, however, is that some people have a severe allergic reaction to peanuts.

For further discussion: Something that mostly ended up being outside the scope of this already lengthy article is the national anthem as congregational song. The civic religion's liturgical customary seems to have changed the national anthem from being congregationally participatory to congregationally passive (sung by a cantor on behalf of the people). To the best of my knowledge, the end of this shift has occurred during my lifetime. Germane to the above discussion is a reiteration that "Nuestro Himno" is not designed to be congregationally participatory. The genre of national anthem in this country has been removed from the people and placed in the hands of the musical elite. The slow death of ballpark organs (designed to accompany the assembly's song) bears testimony to the shift in the performance model.

Below the belt: It's always fun to hear Bush tell others to learn English.

Under the suspenders: And has anyone heard Bush sing?

Labels: ,

Sometimes I have a smoothie for dinner.

Congratulations on another fabulously written and entertaining post.
If anyone cares... the song is now available on apple Itunes, just search under "nuestro himno".

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