Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: As American as tarte aux pommes! Celebrating the Fourth with some Real American Music! or Tampering with National Property

We mark the completion on July 4, 1941 – 81 years ago today – of Igor Stravinsky’s reharmonization and orchestration of The Star-Spangled Banner.  

Stravinsky in America

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Vera de Bosset (1889-1982) in Paris, 1939

In September of 1939, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and his long-time mistress Vera de Bosset (1889-1982) arrived in the United States from their home in Paris.  The couple were married in Bedford, Massachusetts six months later, on March 9, 1940.

Stravinsky had come to the United States to spend the 1939-1940 academic year at Harvard University, where he was to occupy the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry and deliver six lectures on music that were that year’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures.  

By the time the academic year ended in June of 1940, the Stravinskys, Igor and Vera, had no home to return to.  Nazi Germany had occupied Paris on June 14, and France surrendered to Germany 8 days later, on June 22, 1940.  

The couple settled in Los Angeles in 1941 and bought a house at 1260 North Wetherly Drive, just above the Sunset Strip, in Hollywood. Stravinsky and Vera would live there for the next 29 years, until his final illness forced a move to New York City.  (For our information, Igor and Vera became American citizens in 1945; their sponsor was Stravinsky’s friend, the actor Edward G. Robinson.)

In Los Angeles and in America, Stravinsky was a star among stars; a big fish in a big pond.  Having settled in LA, he made his fortune touring as a conductor of his own music.  At the time, like so many American sporting events to this day, an orchestral concert in the United States began with a rendition of the national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

(At the time Stravinsky settled in the United States in 1940,  The Star-Spangled Banner was the newly-minted national anthem, having been officially designated the national anthem of the United States by congressional resolution on March 3, 1931.  [For those who’d like to look it up, it is 46 Stat. 150; Pub. Law 71-823.])

Rather predictably, Stravinsky didn’t like any of the available orchestra arrangements of The Star-Spangled Banner, so in the great American spirit of DIY – when in doubt, do it yourself – he made his own arrangement, finishing it – coincidentally – on July 4, 1941, 81 years ago today.

Speaking for myself, I can take-or-leave Stravinsky’s arrangement.  In an attempt to make the anthem more interesting, he changes the harmony on pretty much every beat, overwriting in the process and creating, what is to my ear, a rather clunky and ungainly arrangement.  Most listeners won’t be in the least bothered by what I’m talking about with the exception of one harmony, a “it-sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb”, “what’s-that-doing-there?” Bb dominant seventh chord at 01:30 of the linked performance: 

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