Did Fleming Play Fast, Loose With Anthem? You Bet
By Arthur Kaptainis
A lot of money was riding on the outcome Sunday evening. I refer, of course, to the duration of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as sung by Renée Fleming.
One popular over/under betting line was two minutes and 25 seconds – a time within sight of Alycia Keys’ noteworthy 2013 Super Bowl mark of 2:35.
Some might argue that all bets are off for R&B singers, who are likely to follow the curvature of the melody instinctively, add fanciful decorations at will and hold notes for as long as it suits them. Opera singers follow a beat.
But which beat did Fleming follow? Not the three-four time signature of the usual version of the melody, as codified by a committee (including John Philip Sousa) in 1917 and adopted (along with words by Francis Scott Key) as the U.S. national anthem in 1931.
Nor the six-four meter seen in a c. 1790 publication of “The Anacreontic Song” (to which this tune, composed by the Englishman John Stafford Smith before 1780, was originally attached).
Rather Fleming punched it out in a solemn four-four – common time – stretching the first beat into two. The effect can be heard most clearly at the words “And the rockets’ red glare.” In Fleming’s version, at the 1:45 mark, this line comes out distinctly as: “And the rawwww-kets’ red glare.”
There are smaller rhythmic nips and tucks, as well there might be in any vocal performance. And the four-four tread, with its attendant first-beat distortion, does not last. At the words “Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” Fleming picks up the tempo, or at least seems to, by reverting to the usual (and more energetic) three-four time. The fermatas – pauses – on “wave” and “free” are traditional. As for the flourish on “brave” – the final word of the poem (or its first stanza) – this can surely be accepted as reasonable musico-poetic license.
It should be recognized that three-four time is not entirely sacrosanct. Edwin Eugene Bagley‘s National Emblem March incorporates a feisty duple-meter rendering of the first 12 notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This composition (otherwise free of quotation) dates from 1902.
By my stopwatch Fleming’s rendition of the anthem (including a 10-second instrumental introduction) landed at 2:12. It was a soaring and noble performance, and distinctly a good thing for the public image of operatic performers. But without the time-signature switcheroo it would never have crossed the two-minute mark. I plan to discuss the matter with my local bookmaker.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for The Gazette (Montreal) and the National Post (Canada).Date posted: February 5, 2014
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MUSIC CRITICS ASSOCIATION CREATES ANNUAL AWARD FOR BEST NEW OPERA
I am pleased to announce the creation of the MCANA Award for Best New Opera, to be given annually beginning in spring of 2017. Presented by the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), the award will honor the composer and librettist of an opera that received its world premiere in North America during the preceding year. The winning composer and librettist will be profiled here at Classical Voice North America. Full story →
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