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In My Words: Before WWI, the national anthem was star-spangled confusion

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Associate Professor of Communications Tom Nelson sheds light on the evolution of the national anthem during and after World War I. The column was published in the Greensboro News & Record. 

By Tom Nelson

The American national anthem, although hard to play and harder to sing, is now something of a worldwide popular culture artifact.

It’s recognized by nearly everyone not just at home but worldwide. Americans may not know every turn of a phrase or octave of sound but we most certainly know the basics of how the anthem should be sung and be played. 

It was not always this way — a thought to consider this Independence Day.

America’s entry into the First World War hastened the more or less standardization of the way our nation’s anthem is now performed. In the past, it was more a freelance exercise in musical rendition than a Rosetta Stone for Americanism. 

All this ended with America’s entry into World War One, and that is where our story begins.

Most people don’t know that early in the last century, the American music scene was dominated by Europeans who were working, composing and conducting here in America. Most of these Europeans were affiliated in one way or another with Germany. They set the bar for their more provincial American counterparts. There was not a slouch among them.

That was the cultural status quo until 1917 when America went to war with Germany and all things German became verboten.

Germans living in America became Huns nearly overnight. War fever demonized anything and anyone associated with German culture. Schnauzers, sauerkraut and, weirdly enough, German musicians were all under watch. 

The watch was often under the eyes of a focused American press that among other things demanded that all musicians, especially those with German affectations, perform the “Star-Spangled Banner” respectfully at any public concert.

“Respectfully” is the keyword.

The New York and Boston newspapers were on the front line of this patriotic imperative as were lesser members of the press in Providence, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and other cities across America.

Musicians of every stripe including those with the most naked German proclivities dutifully complied with the patriotic demands of the American press despite a common argument that symphony music was above such parochial concerns.  

But that was not the end of it.

The problem was not compliance. It was arrangement.

 The “Star-Spangled Banner” had no standardized arrangement. There was no predictable rendition.

Turns out America’s national anthem was more or less a freelance expression of patriotism. You felt it as much as you played it.

A German-born conductor working in Boston by the name of Karl Muck stepped on stage just as this star-spangled confusion was unfurling. Muck had been conducting symphonic music at the most accomplished levels for decades in America. He was a prince among vassals.

Despite doubts about the appropriateness of the American anthem in a concert hall, Muck dutifully surrendered to the passions of wartime America. He began conducting the “Star-Spangled Banner” with a sweet, rather than assertive, arrangement. 

Americans hated it.

 Or were made to hate it by much of the American press.

All hell broke loose.

American newspapers took Muck to task. The Los Angeles Times declared his arrangement to be “cacophony.” And that was the nicest thing written.

Forced to resign his position with the Boston Symphony and interned in an enemy alien camp in Georgia, Muck was finally deported in August 1919.

Muck got the worst of it.

Other musicians with German taint survived to compose, conduct and play in America but with a greatly reduced status that followed each to the grave.

The one good thing to come out of all of this wartime hubbub about the “Star-Spangled Banner” is the anthem settled finally into a familiar choice of accepted arrangements that reassure us with continuity every Independence Day.

Some might fudge with the anthem’s vocals but few muck with the arrangement. 

As for the unfortunate Muck; he returned to Germany and died in 1940 at the age of 81, midway through Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

Imagine Muck’s fate had he lived long enough to take creative license at the Berlin Symphony with Joseph Haydn’s “Das Lied der Deutschen,” otherwise known as “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles.” 

Views expressed in this column are the author's own and not necessarily those of Elon University.