The Municipal Anthem

June 21, 1994|By RICHARD A. DISHAROON

A contest for an official Baltimore song? Baltimore already has one.

Anyone who attended Baltimore City Public Schools from 1916 through the 1940s knows the tune anyone can play anywhere and instantly conjure up visions of Baltimore, the crown jewel of the Patapsco Drainage Basin, is ''Baltimore, our Baltimore,'' the city's municipal anthem. The contest being run by a local radio station is simply a replay of events which took place in Baltimore in 1915.

The impetus for the municipal anthem contest was an eight-day celebration in the fall of 1914 marking the centennial of the bombardment of Fort McHenry and the composition of the ''Star-Spangled Banner.'' (A high point of this celebration was the adoption of the municipal flag.)

Mayor James Preston, along with Municipal Director of Music Frederick R. Huber, decided to capitalize on the community spirit this celebration engendered by sponsoring two national contests: one for a poem, the other for a musical setting. The current competition does not have separate contests for words and music. A $250 prize was to be awarded to the winner of each contest. The prize for the winner of the WGRX contest probably will be a recording and air-play time.

In the 1915 competition, 600 and 300 entries were received respectively for the poem and the music contests. In each case the names of contributors were withheld from the panel of judges to avoid bias toward Baltimoreans. However, both winners were from Baltimore. The winning poem was authored by Baltimorean Folger McKinsey, a Sunpapers columnist known as the Benztown Bard. The winning composer was Emma Hemberger, wife of a local violinist.

While the entries in the current contest describe Baltimore in terms of events, the city that reads, or love at first sight for the city, the municipal anthem depicted Baltimore in more philosophical terms: the home of the Star-Spangled Banner, clipper ships, religious tolerance and famous medical institutions well as a world-class conservatory. The copyright for the ''anthem'' was sold by the City of Baltimore to local publisher G. Fred Kranz. (Kranz had a music store on Howard street for many years.) Kenneth S. Clark, author of ''Baltimore -- Cradle of Municipal Music,'' reported that Kranz ''agreed to provide free copies of the anthem for all school children and orchestration for those who desire them.''

The first performance of the municipal anthem took place at a gala concert at the Lyric Theatre on February 22, 1916. (This followed shortly after the inaugural concert of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on February 11, 1916.) John Oldmixon Lamdin, music critic for The Sun, described the concert in an article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the anthem:

''The big hall was crowded, Mayor Preston and his party occupying a box which had been decorated with national and city flags, while various city officials were seen in neighboring boxes, the rest of the 'golden square' being occupied by Baltimoreans prominent in both musical, civic and social activities here.''

Following preliminary music, Mayor Preston gave an address and awarded the prizes to McKinsey and Hemberger. The program finale came when 300 high school girls joined the United Singers and a small orchestra in the first official performance of ''Baltimore, Our Baltimore.''

Due to modern broadcast technology, I'm sure the new song will be heard more widely than the municipal anthem. We can only hope that the new song will enjoy the longevity of the anthem which has been played at every concert by the Municipal and Park Bands since it was first heard in 1916, nearly 80 years ago.

If New York, Chicago and other cities can have more than one piece of music which glorify them, so should Baltimore. But let's not forget the first song which brought fame to Baltimore; the one that every grade-school child was required to learn. Let the two compositions exist side by side with equal recognition.

Good luck to the current contestants!

Richard A. Disharoon chairs the music department at Pikesville High School.

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