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).