Top Five Classical Takes on Patriotic Songs

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Violin and American Flag (Tad Denson/Shutterstock.com)

July 4, 2015: WQXR will play Americana-themed selections throughout the day. Check out the full schedule at the bottom of this page.

Before Whitney Houston registered a hit with “The Star Spangled Banner” on the Billboard charts, composers from Igor Stravinsky to Giacomo Puccini had put their own marks on the tune. In honor of Independence Day, we’ve gathered five of our favorite classical takes on classic American songs.

1. Stravinsky's "Star Spangled Banner"

Igor Stravinsky may not take as many liberties with “The Star Spangled Banner” as Houston or other pop stars have taken with the national anthem, but few have had as great repercussions. Following its performance at Boston’s Symphony Hall, city police accused composer of defacing the anthem. They also threatened him with a $100 fine for tampering with the rhythms and harmonies of the piece. The charges were eventually dropped.

 
2. Ives's Variations on America

Charles Ives was only 17 years old when he wrote Variations on America, an almost improvisatory piece for organ. Inspired by “America,” or “God Save the Queen” as it’s known across the pond, Ives turned the sober melody in to a romping polonaise, and added comical dissonances in the variations. William Schuman arranged an orchestral version of the piece in 1963, and it premiered the following year at the New York Philharmonic.

 
3. Rachmaninoff's "Star Spangled Banner"

Among his transcriptions and arrangements for mostly solo piano and piano duet, Sergei Rachmaninoff included one of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The renowned pianist provides a romantically stirring variation of the piece, with sensitive dynamics and nuanced flourishes. During the last years of his life when he was primarily living in the United States, Rachmaninoff would frequently open his concerts with his version of the national anthem.

 
4. Vieuxtemps's Souvenir d’Amerique

The great Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps wrote Souvenir d’Amerique (Variations burlesque sur “Yankee Doodle”), an apt title for this virtuosic rendering of the pre-Revolutionary American tune, in 1845 after a tour of the United States. His embrace of American themes resurfaced in later works such as Salut à l'Amérique” and Bouquet américain. Meanwhile, his Yankee Doodle variations have become a popular encore for violinists, including Joshua Bell.

 
5. Beethoven's Seven Variations on God Bless the King

Sure, Beethoven may have been referencing the British Empire at the time he wrote Seven Variations on God Bless the King, Op. 78, but for our purposes, he might as well been serenading America. The collection runs the gamut from solemn to showy and from playful to melancholy, and is a welcome addition to any July 4th playlist.

Saturday, July 2015 playlist (all times approximate)

8:10a Elmer Bernstein: To Kill A Mockingbird

8:51a La Gioconda: 'Dance of the Hours' – the 1960’s hit song, A Letter from Camp (“Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”) was based on this music

9:16a Stephen Foster: I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair (Marilyn Horne, mezzo)

9:53a Shenandoah

10:18a George Gershwin: Catfish Row (Suite from "Porgy and Bess"): Catfish Row – a preview of today’s opera broadcast

10:55a Isias Savio: Batucada – the sound of summer

11:25a Leonard Bernstein: Candide: Overture

11:57a John Philip Sousa: Washington Post March

12:30p Aaron Copland: Rodeo

1p George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess from Lyric Opera of Chicago

4:36p Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture, Op. 49 – music for fireworks

4:52p William Grant Still: Folk Suite No.  2

5:45p Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man (from one of this week’s featured albums)

6p Joseph Guy Ropartz: Croquis d'Ete (Summer Sketches)

6:30p Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story: Symphonic Dances

7:25p Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring

8:24p Stephen Foster: Beautiful Dreamer

8:30p George Frideric Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV 351 – get ready for Macy’s Fireworks at 9pm

8:56p John Philip Sousa: Stars and Stripes Forever

10:09p Hector Berlioz: Les Nuits d'ete (Summer Nights), Op. 7: Villanelle

10:35p Charles Ives: Symphony No. 3 "The Camp Meeting"

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Comments [3]

Barry Owen Furrer

@ Ellen~ A lesser known work in the running for our national anthem prior to 1931 was Patrick Gilmore's "Hail Columbia," a piece he frequently wrote out a few bars of and gave away as souvenirs to autograph seekers. Gilmore's popularity as a bandmaster was second only to Sousa and is best remembered as the composer of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
I too, agree with "America, The Beautiful" as it is more melodic and easier to sing who's tune is not based on an English drinking song! I especially enjoy Carmen Dragon's setting for concert band of this piece.
Happy 4th!

Jul. 04 2015 06:18 PM
Ellen from West Chester, PA

Joseph, the melody of My Country 'tis of Thee is the same as the melody used for God Save the King(Queen). That is it's chief drawback when discussions are held about replacing The Star Spangled Banner" with another anthem. My personal choice would be America, the Beautiful.

Jul. 04 2015 04:07 PM
Joseph Pagani

Something is funky about the Rachmaninov video. Specifically it has pictures of Ives and is Variations on My Country tis of thee.

Jul. 04 2015 12:46 PM

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