Why clash over the less-martial anthem?

This Games' rendition is perfectly reasonable

Athens Olympics


August 25, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Before anyone launches Swift Boats for the True Spirit of the National Anthem, let's get one thing clear: The subdued arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner being heard in Athens every time gold is awarded to American Olympians is not part of some dastardly, U.S.-against-Them, patriotism-deflating plot.

I guess it's just another sign of these testy times that some folks are stirring up a little tempest about the fact that the rockets have not been glaring reddish enough, the bombs not bursting in air bombastically enough to celebrate our athletic prowess appropriately.

An unsigned writer at the Wall Street Journal wonders if "the tears welling up in Paul Hamm's eyes" as he savored his golden moment really signaled "embarrassment over The Star-Spangled Banner Lite that accompanied his victory." The article also quotes an unnamed friend of the writer's complaining that in this orchestral version, the rockets and bombs passage shifts "entirely to weepy strings with hints of [Samuel] Barber's Adagio," as if this were a "Europe-friendly version of the anthem designed to play down the notion of the U.S. as a chest-thumping, butt-kicking, jingoistic powerhouse."

Probably won't be long before every chest-thumping, butt-kicking, jingoistic talk-radio/cable-news host in the country declares that this whole sinister musical crime is specifically the work of the flimsy French.

Actually, the trail leads to those horrid hotbeds of anti-American diabolism - Canada and Slovakia.

It turns out that The Star-Spangled Banner and anthems for every other country entered in the Olympics were arranged and conducted by a Slovakian-born Canadian, Peter Breiner, and played by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Breiner and that ensemble recorded more than 200 anthems of the world for a multi-volume series released on the Marco Polo label back in the mid-1990s.

The Olympic Committee decided to use those recordings for all anthem-drenched moments at the 2004 games, rather than live performances, as in the past. It's one way to assure a certain musical continuity; previously, each nation submitted its own preferred arrangement. But a lot of nations have come and gone since Breiner's initial anthem project, while others have changed their anthems, so he spent the last year arranging and recording all the new items.

He also did some rearranging, because each country's own Olympic Committee had the right of approval over the arrangement being used. No objection from U.S. officials has surfaced.

And, for anyone prone to conspiratorial theories, please note that the version of our national anthem submitted by Breiner is the same one he produced nearly a decade ago, before he could have ever known he would be involved in the 2004 Olympics.

Given the often atrocious renditions The Star-Spangled Banner is subject to by professionals and amateurs alike, it's curious that this very respectful orchestration should arouse any sniping at all. Then again, there's a precedent of sorts. Orchestral parts for Igor Stravinsky's orchestration were confiscated by Boston police in the 1940s on the grounds of being "disrespectful." His harmonization couldn't sound more respectful - or invigorating.

Breiner's particular choice of chords - precisely at the spot where the "weepy strings" get to the explosive-laden passage - no doubt accounts for the squirming by the carpers. His unexpected harmonic twist gives the music a darker, sadder edge.

There are "tons of arrangements that all sound the same, and they are march-like and very strong and powerful," Breiner told the Kansas City Star. "I had the feeling, with the United States anthem, that it has a certain potential for lyricism and for a more introspective view of what [the country] represents."

The Fort Worth Star Telegram quoted him in an elaboration on that thought: "The music should have contrast. It's not just about glories of war. There should be contemplation, too."

Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. Breiner has treated the music - which, lest we forget, started out as a silly British drinking song - with great respect and appreciation for its expressive possibilities.

When that line rises to its highest point (the point where most people stop singing or drop awkwardly to an octave below), the words about rockets and bombs certainly suggest a peak of drama, but not necessarily of volume. The main emphasis, surely, is not firepower, but the realization that "our flag was still there."

Breiner's subtle treatment of those measures, with the unexpected tinge of bittersweetness in the harmony, strikes my ears as fittingly poetic and rather touching, especially considering things that have been bursting in air all too recently. And for those demanding a militaristic flourish with their anthem, Breiner includes enough brass and cymbal crashes elsewhere in the arrangement.

If his tempo is on the deliberate side, he's hardly the first interpreter to take that approach. Jaunty or leisurely, the music remains fundamentally the same, with the same collective memory behind it.

Finally, if anyone is still convinced there is malevolence behind this kinder gentler Star-Spangled Banner, consider what some folks are saying about Breiner's arrangement of his own country's anthem.

Reporting on the ceremony when gymnast Kyle Shewfelt received his gold medal, the Ontario-based National Post declared that the strains of O Canada sounded "more like a high school marching band than a pre-recorded arrangement by a pre-eminent Canadian conductor." And one "off-pitch crescendo was so noticeable that Mr. Shewfelt was distracted from his moment of athletic and emotional bliss and appeared to cringe."

For Peter Breiner, it looks like this Olympic contest is something he just can't win.

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