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The Birth of the Star Spangled Banner (Edison, 1914)

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This week we’re celebrating the bicentennial of The Star Spangled Banner, which originated as a poem written by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the unsuccessful bombardment of Ft. McHenry by the British Navy on 14 September 1814.

Edison Kinetogram description for The Birth of the Star Spangled Banner

Although The Star Spangled Banner wasn’t adopted officially as our National Anthem until 1931, its repeated use in flag-raising and other government ceremonies accorded it an exalted status before that. The song’s 100th anniversary in 1914 was cause for commemoration, including a two reel dramatization from the Edison Film Company called The Birth of the Star Spangled Banner. The copy we present here comes from George Kleine Collection.

Edison published a twice-monthly magazine for distributors and exhibitors called the Edison Kinetogram (several volumes are available via the Hathi Trust), which provides a wealth of information about the company’s films. The entry of The Birth of the Star Spangled Banner is typical: complete credits–including for screenwriter J. W. Blake and director George A. Lessey–a plot synopsis (incidentally, a typed copy of this synopsis accompanied the copyright registration for the film), suggestions for promotion (the fact Edison offered a “six sheet” poster–a sizable 81″ x 81″–for the film indicates they considered it an important offering), and even some music cues for theater accompanists.

The score for our online presentation of The Birth of the Star Spangled Banner is provided by Andrew Simpson. Andrew is a Professor in the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at The Catholic University of America. When he’s not composing operas and orchestral works, he regularly accompanies silent films in the Packard Campus Theater and many other venues here and abroad. If there was ever a film that demanded the playing of a well-known song it was this one, so I was curious how Andrew would score it:

As a composer and film accompanist, most of the scores I create consist of entirely original material–but sometimes a film calls upon the accompanist to play a specific piece of music. Guess which tune I’m asked to play in this film?  But more on that in a moment…

Mine is an improvised piano score which uses several themes and textures, and while the mood of my score changes continually to match the film’s action, I also want to unify the music in some way. So, to serve as a unifying musical motif, I have chosen a three-note passage from the tune of The Star Spangled Bannerthose notes which set the words, “by the dawn’s [early light].” This three-note idea is easily recognizable and allows the listener to follow the thread of the music, even if unconsciously, while following the film’s story.

The film’s final scene shows the first singing of The Star Spangled Banner; the actor playing Francis Scott Key leads a group of men in song. At such a moment, the musician can play but one tune.

Playing The Star Spangled Banner on the piano is one thing: playing it in synchronization with a group of singing actors on screen is quite another. This is not as simple as it seems; a brief description of my process will give insight into just how challenging silent film accompaniment can be.

In that final scene, Key is asked to lead the singing of his song. He gives a couple of beats in a brisk tempo, and then the men begin to sing. The musician’s first challenge is to match the tempo of what the singers are singing. The actors don’t really start together, as a close view will reveal; still, one can move forward confidently. However, a problem then arises.

A few moments after we see the men singing, an intertitle comes up which gives the lyrics for the first part of The Star Spangled Banner. Now, the musician can no longer watch the singers and try to follow their mouths to keep time with them: he/she can only hope that the intertitle is long enough–and short enough–to allow the musician to play the tune at a steady tempo, because there is no certain way to know when the title will end. It’s a little bit like shooting an arrow at a covered target, the bullseye of which is revealed only after you have made your shot. When the title does go away, we return to the men singing. However, it’s unclear exactly where the singers are at this moment in the tune. Not all of them seem even to be singing the same song, and they certainly don’t appear to be singing together! Even some close lip-reading is not helpful here. My strategy, then, is to continue to play The Star Spangled Banner in as steady a tempo as possible. A few seconds later, a second intertitle comes up with the second half of the lyrics. The same musical process continues during this title. The return to the scene shows the men clearly singing “Land of the free/and the home of the brave,” then raise their hats and cheer. At this point, it all comes together as the music ends with the singers.”

The Birth of the Star Spangled Banner (Edison, 1914)

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