Arranging a well-known piece of music presents a set of challenges that are irrelevant in the composition of an original piece.  We are bound by the lyrics, rhythms, melody, and style of the source material.  While minor adjustments can be made, major changes can be viewed as a mistake even though we are merely exercising our right to creative license.  In an original composition, you can adjust the melody to fit the chords that you are writing as the song progresses but in an arrangement, you have to choose your chords based on someone else’s melody which provides little flexibility.  My composition process typically involves composing the melody, chords, and corresponding vocal harmonies at the same time.  For this project, I elected to begin with a clean copy of the melody and lyrics and then add chords like a lead sheet. (See picture above)  I found this especially helpful in deciding where the climaxes should occur and basing these decisions on the meaning of the lyrics instead of the flow of the music.

Many of my choices regarding the chord structure are a bit radical.  I ignored everything that I previously mentioned about making major changes and completely immersed this piece into minor.  The melody immediately sounds different but interestingly, it feels familiar.  Many of the phrases quickly move to the VI-chord as if the i-chord is merely a pick-up instead of the tonal center.  This creates a false sense that the chord structure centers around Ab-major even though melody is clearly in C-minor and blurs the line between a major and minor sonority.

I included a jarring reminder during the phrase “O say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave” by setting this passage completely in the parallel major with a traditional chord progression.  By reminding the audience of how the piece typically sounds, it emphasizes the uncertainty of our country’s fate when we move back into the parallel minor. (See picture below)

One of my largest complaints about our national anthem is that we create an enormous chasm in the middle of the important question: “O say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave……………………. o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”  The traditional fermata on “wave” and large pause before “o’er” could be one of the main reasons that listeners don’t realize that performances of our national anthem conclude with an unanswered question (see my previous blog post for more information here).  Honestly, a simple explanation for this illogical pause is that it is the solution to a long phrase that few soloists can perform in one breath.  This choral arrangement has allowed me to use the staggered breathing of many singers to bridge the gap in the middle of this phrase.  I continually questioned whether this was a good decision because it catches you by surprise but I finally decided that it has to be this way in order to emphasize the question of whether the flag still waves over our country.

How will I musically represent this unanswered question?  Tune in to my next post to find out!