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
Search this site
Help Us Grow
Support quality coverage of the performing arts.
Click here to help Classical Voice North America resound!
CLASSICAL VOICE NORTH AMERICA – LOOK AROUND!
Welcome to Classical Voice North America (CVNA), an online journal of classical music criticism and commentary written by the expert members of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), with occasional guest contributors. We aim to convey the richness of musical life in the U.S. and Canada at a time when traditional print media is shrinking, and to bring classical music to life via digital images, audio samples, video and more. Full Story →
Are you a music writer? Join us. CVNA is writer-run, writer-written, and writer-friendly.
If you like what you see, become one of our sponsors. No contribution is too small!
We want to hear from you. Questions? Suggestions? Tell us at CVNA.email@example.com.
Visit These Classical Music Websites
Classical Voice North America is on Twitter
Stories We Like: Recommended by Members
Celebrated Bass-Baritone Plans a Surprise Debut at Conducting – By James R. Oestreich at The New York Times
Salonen Replaces James Levine at the Verbier Festival – By James R. Oestreich at The New York Times
Evolve or die: How the arts are courting young crowds – By Janelle Gelfand at the Cincinnati Enquirer
Berlin Philharmonic Chooses Kirill Petrenko as Next Conductor - By Rebecca Schmid at The Wall Street Journal
In choosing Petrenko, the Berlin players are putting music first - By Tom Service and Martin Kettle at The Guardian
Kirill Petrenko to succeed Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic -- By Ben Knight at The Guardian
Two Women channels Puccini, Hollywood in world premiere - By Janelle Gelfand at janellesnotes
L.A. Opera's 'Dog Days' goes out with a bang, not a whimper -- By Damjan Rakonjak at the L.A. Times
ASO ends season on high note with smashing ‘Samson et Dalila’ -- By James L. Paulk at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution
Susanna Malkki’s Wide Appeal on Both Sides of the Atlantic - By Zachary Woolfe at The New York Times
Dresden Music Festival Themes 2015 with ‘Fire and Ice’ -- By Rodney Punt at LA Opus
Minnesota Orchestra, in Groundbreaking Cuba Tour, Sells Out House -- By Michael Cooper at The New York Times
Lyric Opera of Kansas reorganizes with the goal of being 'indispensable' to the community -- By Robert Trussell at the Kansas City Star
Crafty Stephen Cohn Premieres in Pacific Palisades and Pasadena -- By Rodney Punt at LA Opus
Gardiner leads pastoral celebration with memorable ‘Orfeo’ -- By Anne Midgette at The Washington Post
New York Philharmonic’s Challenges Go Beyond the Music -- By Michael Cooper at The New York Times
English National Opera has betrayed British talent -- By Rupert Christiansen at The Telegraph
Tansy Davies's 9/11 opera is deeply moving, yet needs to bridge more than worlds – By Jessica Duchen at The Arts Desk
As interest wanes, classical music hits a sour note -- By Matt Daneman at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (USA Today)
Composer Philip Glass wins the 2015 Glenn Gould Prize -- By Nigel Hunt and Jennifer Van Evra at CBC News
Toronto Symphony cancels Valentina Lisitsa's concerts after talk of "deeply offensive" comments -- By Lauren Pelley at the Toronto Star