The Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner (2010)

Lyric by Francis Scott Key
Melody by John Stafford Smith
Arrangement by Daniel Powers

for mixed chorus and large orchestra

Orchestra set / /  T+3 / harp / organ (optional) / strings
additional brass (in the hall) (highly desirable, but can be omitted if necessary)
mixed chorus

duration: 10 minutes (if a cut is taken, duration is reduced to 8 1/2 minutes)

The Star-Spangled Banner

View score


The song known around the world as the national anthem of the United States ironically owes its existence to the union of a poem written in 1814 by an American lawyer with a melody composed sometime in the 1770s by an English organist—the irony arises from the fact that at the time Francis Scott Key wrote his famous words, America and England were embroiled in the War of 1812.

And in fact, Key’s words were directly inspired by one of the war’s more significant battles, the Battle of Baltimore. Key witnessed the battle from the deck of a British ship, where he had been dispatched to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. The negotiations were successful, but since Key had overheard plans for a British bombardment of Fort McHenry, he was not permitted to return to shore until the battle was over. The British bombarded Fort McHenry for twenty-five hours, but because the fort had been recently strengthened, the attack was unsuccessful. When Key saw that the American flag still flew above the fort as dawn broke on September 14, he was inspired to begin writing a verse description of the battle and its aftermath, completing it a few days later after he and his party had been released.

The melody had been written some forty years earlier by John Stafford Smith, an English organist and musicologist. Smith had intended it for a very different purpose, with fairly bawdy lyrics celebrating wine and women. The song had been well known in the United States since Colonial days, and had already been the subject of many contrafacta, “the substitution of one text for another without substantial change to the music,” according to Grove’s Dictionary of Music. Key had, in fact, already written one such contrafactum, titled “When the Warrior Returns,” some parts of which he borrowed for “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The song was first printed on September 20 under the title “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” Within weeks it had been reprinted in newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire, and soon became the most popular patriotic song in the country, a popularity which continues to this day. Surprisingly, it was not officially recognized as the National Anthem of the United States until 1931.

The song is both well-known and not well-known. Every American (one assumes) has participated in singing the song at patriotic functions, sporting events, and so on, but it is possible that few Americans have ever heard the song in its entirety, or are even aware that Key wrote four verses. We sing the first verse, and then we stop. The effect is odd, since if we pay attention to the words we see that the prevailing mood is not proud and patriotic, but rather anxious and fearful. When the narrator of the poem, presumably Key himself, asks “Does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave?” he is wondering whether the American forces have surrendered; if they had, the flag would have been lowered.

The answer comes in the very next verse, but we never hear it since we have stopped singing at that point. Since 2014 is the bicentennial year of the composition of our national anthem, it would seem to be a good occasion to re-familiarize ourselves with it.

My arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner was commissioned by David Bowden and the Carmel Symphony Orchestra in 2010. I tried to remain true to the song as we know it while also trying to capture the sentiments expressed in the lyrics. It begins with a substantial orchestral prelude trying to capture some of the feeling of the ongoing battle; rockets glaring, bombs bursting, and so on. Darkness falls, and a male chorus anxiously sings the first verse. Dawn breaks (second verse), and the flag is still seen flying. The third verse rather viciously celebrates the defeat of the enemy, and patriotic fervor finally reaches its climax in the fourth verse, with thanks to God and triumphant fanfares.

Daniel Powers
August 2013