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Star-Spangled Banner stellar 200th birthday party at Library of Congress July 3

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'Poets and Patriotism: The 200th Birthday of The Star-Spangled Banner'

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"The Star-Spangled Banner" had a gleaming, gallantly streaming 200th birthday party at the Library of Congress July 3, with a concert by towering opera star Thomas Hampson, and an exhibit of artifacts in full glory.

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At the free program, "Poets and Patriotism: The 200th Birthday of The Star-Spangled Banner", the renowned baritone invited the audience to "Celebrate the history of our nation through the history of 'The Star-Spangled Banner'...There is no greater story of becoming this country..."

Hampson told the story through words and music, "the universal language of mankind," as Longfellow said. Hampson sang:

  • Various versions -- there are at least 60 -- of what became our national anthem.

-- One with searingly anti-slavery lyrics, like "the home of the slave" replacing "the brave," by E.A. Atlee.

-- The Spanish-language translation. "If you're Spanish-speaking, cut me some slack," said the endearing, fascinating Hampson. "I called Placido (Domingo), but he didn't answer."

-- The official version, enacted as our official national anthem in 1931. When Hampson sings our national anthem, forget all other such performances, whether by other opera stars; or Jimi Hendrix; or Christina Aguilera, who forgot some of its lyrics at a Superbowl XLV; or Beyoncé who admitted she lip-synched it at President Obama's 2013 inauguration; or...

  • Songs by Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, including "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free".
  • Poignant selections from Stephen Foster, like "Hard Times". Hampson opined, "Not much has changed." Foster was born on the Fourth of July, 1826, the death date of both Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
  • President Abraham Lincoln's "Letter to Mrs. Bixby" set to music by Grammy®-winning composer Michael Daugherty, commissioned for Hampson by his hometown Spokane, Washington. Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Bixby, "the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle", to express "the thanks of the Republic they died to save."
  • Walt Whitman's Civil War poem "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" set to music by Harry T. Burleigh. Hampson termed Burleigh "the grandfather, the dean of all African American composers".
  • Charles Ives' achingly beautiful composition for the World War One poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McRae.

"You can teach American history and civics through song," noted Hampson.

He did this in an engrossing, entertaining chat, joined by University of Michigan musicologist Mark Clague. (They were accompanied masterfully by the University of Michigan Alumni Chorus and pianist Matthew Thompson, who like Hampson is also a University of Michigan alum.)

"The Star-Spangled Banner" began as "The Anacreontic Song" of a British men's club -- "not a pub or a drinking club, although libations were served," Hampson explained. "It was a celebratory song praising the poet Anacreon," and sung at the society's club named for him.

"The Anacreontic Club -- don't say that too much, or you might hurt yourself," musicologist Clague faux-warned.

Another myth dispelled: "Francis Scott Key did not write a poem, but song lyrics to match the tune. Repeat: not a poem, but a song."

The anthem's actual birthday is Sept. 14, 1814, composed after the 25-hour Battle of Baltimore that gave us both Star-Spangled Banners. (Celebrate and participate in "Star Spangled Music Day" Sept. 12.)

Key, a Washington, D.C. lawyer and amateur poet, observed the flag from a truce ship, while negotiating the release of a friend held captive by the British. And there, in patriotic passion, Key wrote the lyrics -- no poem.

At the end of the powerful program, the audience stood and joined in singing:

  • "America the Beautiful"
  • "Lift Every Voice and Sing" -- "Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies"
  • And, hand over heart, the official national anthem.

It was a perfect way to celebrate not only the 200th birthday of "The Star-Spangled Banner", but also July 4, the 238th birthday of the Land of the free, the home of the brave.

For more info: Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov, "The Star-Spangled Banner Performing Arts Encyclopedia". Related display of artifacts including early and rare versions of Key's lyrics; "The Star-Spangled Banner"; and "The Anacreontic Song" continues through July 26 at the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building, Great Hall, 1st Floor, 10 First Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. The Library of Congress is the main repository for "The Star-Spangled Banner" manuscripts and history. Star Spangled Music Foundation, http://www.starspangledmusic.org. Thomas Hampson, http://www.hampsong.com; Hampsong Foundation, http://hampsongfoundation.org, and its "Song of America" radio series. To hear it, click here.

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