There is no greater honor than to pay tribute to our forefathers, veterans, and citizens by performing our national anthem. But have we lost sight of the true meaning of Francis Scott Key’s lyrics? The inspiration behind my arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner has been the unanswered question at the end of the first verse. In my last post, I discussed my use of a minor key to indicate the unresolved fate of our country in this first verse. So how do I end the question and transition into the victorious third verse? At first, I ended the first verse with a Picardy third as an indication of America’s victory. Unfortunately, this completely defeated my goal to show that there is more to our national anthem than what we typically hear. I also loved the idea of creating a climactic major chord at the end of the phrase “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there” but did not want to overdo the Picardy third effect. I saw this as an opportunity for storytelling, first showing that our flag could still be seen amidst the bombs bursting in air and then questioning whether we survived the attack.
So how do I musically represent this question while creating a smooth transition into the final verse? After several unsatisfactory attempts, I decided to create the illusion of a major resolution and then move to a dissonant minor chord. Due to the limitations of the melody, I could not use a traditional deceptive cadence and move from V to vi. Instead, I allowed the voices to move to a I chord with a flat sixth on top. The combination of the anticipated resolution and an unsettling dissonant non-harmonic tone indicates the unrest of the question. Rather than resolving the nonharmonic tone into the major chord, the voices move to a minor iv chord. The bass stays on the same note to maintain some sense of stability and the resulting iv chord is in second inversion. To further emphasize the unrest, I included a 9th that creates dissonance with the minor third. The final result is a momentary dissonance that clearly conveys the question of verse one and then moves to the parallel major to show our victory.
At last, verse three reveals the answer to our question! This verse discusses the importance of protecting our land and thanking God for bringing us victory and peace. It does so through harmonic complexity and a march-like beat. When it reaches the lyrics: “And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave,” it creates a response to the first verse’s similar passage with a direct repetition of the notes. Finally, the piece comes to its conclusion with an unexpected IV – flat VII – flat VI – half-diminished ii – I chord progression.
I am incredibly proud of this project and hope that it will remind its audiences of Francis Scott Key’s response to “the unanswered question” whenever they hear one of our typically incomplete performances of The Star-Spangled Banner.