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Ode To The Star-Spangled Banner

“Ode To The Star-Spangled Banner”
Recreating a long lost piece of musical history

By Jari VillanuevaDawn's Early Light“By Dawn’s Early Light”

In September, 2014 the nation celebrated and commemorated the 200th anniversary of the writing of “The Defense of Fort McHenry”, a poem later set to music that would eventually become our national anthem. Among the celebrations were concerts in Baltimore marking this milestone. Coincidentally, two concerts featured works based on the Star-Spangled Banner held on September 20th. The Maryland Defense Force Band presented a concert “What so Proudly We Hailed-Music Commemorating the Star-Spangled Banner” and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented a special gala concert showcasing quintessential American music, artists and Maryland’s musical roots. Both concerts performed a work unheard in 80 years. This work, “Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner”, was the creation of American composer Ferde Grofé.

GrofeFerde Grofé

Ferde Grofé, born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, was a pianist, arranger, orchestrator, and composer. Born 27 March 1892, he lived until 3 April 1972 and over his lifetime produced many works for orchestra, and band including arrangements done for the Paul Whiteman orchestra of the 1920s. He is best known as the orchestrator of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” for which he scored versions for the original Paul Whiteman Orchestra, full symphonic orchestra and concert band. He is known also for his works such as “The Mississippi Suite”, “Kentucky Suite”, and “Aviation Suite” but remains mostly famous for his “Grand Canyon Suite.”Musical tone poems seemed to be his forte as he wrote many compositions based on subjects ranging from Broadway, Rip Van Winkle, Christmas, Kentucky Derby, Hudson River, Hawaii, to the Gettysburg Address and Edgar Allan Poe. Grofé today is less well-known despite his placement on a 1997 U.S. Postal Service stamp as part of an American composers and conductors series that included Leopold Stokowski, Arthur Fiedler, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives, and Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

What is even lesser well-known and forgotten for the past 82 years is Grofé’s musical setting of the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer who witnessed it, to write the poem that became “The Star Spangled Banner.” Grofé wrote what now is known as “Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner” for impresario A. F. Rothafel, better known as “Roxy,” the man behind the creation of Radio City Music Hall. The piece was to be part of the elaborate, celebrity-studded opening of the hall in December 1932.

Except for occasional, scaled-down performances by Grofé’s own jazz orchestra in subsequent years, the full orchestral rendition has not been heard since that 1932 debut, when an audience paid what Billboard magazine called the “ridiculously exorbitant $2.50 price per ticket to attend the glittering Radio City inaugural.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed Grofé’s ode in the national anthem’s birthplace, thanks to the history-minded instincts of a 1932 Johns Hopkins University freshman, William S. Grauer. He was in that Radio City Music Hall audience with his father, Albert L. Grauer, also a Hopkins graduate, who fortunately kept the program, and thereby rescued from oblivion what originally was billed as an orchestra-and-tableau performance entitled “September 13, 1814.”

The restoration of this long-lost tribute to “The Star-Spangled Banner” was made possible by the discovery of the program by William Grauer’s son, Neil-Albert Grauer, now a writer for Johns Hopkins Medicine. Neil is also a Gilbert and Sullivan fan whom I met through my years at the Young Victorian Theater in Baltimore and a writer whose book on James Thurber, “Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber” was published in 1995. Grauer recognized the long lost Grofé piece would be perfect for the Baltimore Symphony to perform on the anthem’s bicentennial.

First, Grauer enlisted the assistance of Dr. Charles Limb, a Hopkins otolaryngologist, researcher, surgeon and jazz saxophonist with a long association with the BSO, who contacted the orchestra’s musical director, Marin Alsop, and other leaders. Limb also used a contact with the Library of Congress, where the Grofé papers reside, to engage the help of Nicholas Alexander Brown, a music specialist and concert producer for the Library. Through diligent detective work, Brown went through more than 200 boxes of the Grofé papers before he uncovered the original score for Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner.

Next, permission was obtained from the son of Grofé, Ferde Grofé Jr. to allow the BSO to play his father’s piece.

The never-published score needed to be engraved, and prepared for performance. This is where I came in. I was approached by Mr. Grauer who told me about the project and was wondering about having the manuscript score engraved with parts produced for the performance. I agreed to do this project but had no idea of the challenges ahead.

The manuscript score was done in hand by Grofé and reading the notes was a bit problematic. The score also seemed to be somewhat incomplete musically although all the pages were intact. An Internet search yielded a recording conducted by Grofé in the 1930s. The recording confirmed my suspicions of an incomplete manuscript as the recording and manuscript score did not match. There was more material on the recording. So back to the Library of Congress I went. My long time friend Loras Schissell found a conductor’s score (a piano reduction) of the Ode which filled in the missing music. However, there was no orchestrated parts or score. So a basic engraving job turned into an orchestrating and editing project.

Original ScoreOriginal Score

Some of the hurdles encountered were deciphering the hand written score, correcting any wrong notes, editing and adding articulations, adding appropriate tempo markings and rehearsal letters along with orchestrating the missing music so that it flowed seamlessly. A large part of my job was making sure to stay faithful to the musical style and composers intent as possible. However, there were a few concessions made for the performance but the edition is as close to what was performed 80 years ago as possible.

modern scoreModern Score

Once the orchestral score was done I fashioned a band transcription with the approval of Grofé Jr. The band arrangement follows the same as the orchestral version with the exception of a lower brass fanfare in the beginning and the transposition of the final section from the key of B to B Flat to accommodate bands. This version was be performed by the Maryland Defense Force Band in which I served as conductor and commander from 2010-2017.

The composition starts with a brass fanfare, then launches into the opening of the anthem shifting through a few tonal areas before giving the listener a musical setting of the battle. “Rule, Britannia!” is quoted along with the anachronistic bugle call of “Assembly.” “Rule, Britannia!” and “Yankee Doodle” then play against each as the musical scenario develops. Markings in the score give indication of what is transpiring; “Sounds of landing party in the distance”, “Shriek of shells”, “Burst of bombs in midair”, and “Firing of muskets”. Grofé utilizes chordal patterns in the strings and woodwinds to achieve effects connecting the brass statements of “Rule, Britannia!”These are occasionally interrupted by “Yankee Doodle” in the woodwinds while the percussion play sounds imitating a battle. The slide whistle is used to great effect for the shrieking of shells. This continues and leads into a section that depicts the American victory. “Hail Columbia”is quoted along with “Yankee Doodle.” A fragment of “Rule, Britannia!” is used in the bass parts to describe the “Retreat of the British.” We are then carried to a full setting of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” This musical setting strays in territories where other composers and arrangers may have dared not trod. The chords stretch the harmonic boundaries while preserving the melody of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” On top is a wild rapid string part that produces almost a trill effect. The middle section has the flutes joining the strings in fast ascending scales that then follow the chordal pattern to the last section of the anthem. This brings us to the big ending with four musical ideas (the high string part, “Yankee Doodle”, a trumpet fanfare, and “Hail Columbia”) all playing against each other finally ending in a big Hollywood sounding finish.

To re-create the “tableau” depicting the bombardment, permission was obtained from the Arts & Entertainment Channels to use footage from a 2004 History Channel docudrama on the War of 1812. Jay Corey, a talented Hopkins videographer, now at Williams College, used the documentary’s scenes of the bombardment to create a modern visualization of the “perilous fight” to accompany the music at the BSO concert. This will all come together to bring this Grofé work to life.

So what began as a simple engraving project turned into a multi-media event that was premiered on September 20th with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Maryland Defense Force Band.


Key Monument
Here is the finished work.


  1. Brian Asher Alhadeff Brian Asher Alhadeff August 23, 2016

    How could it be possible for me to perform this work with my Lompoc Pops orchestra and perhaps the Opera San Luis Obispo Grand Orchestra during our summer pops season? I am a big fan of Ferde Grofe – i’ve always sort of fancied myself as a champion of his music and life… It would be an honor to conduct the West Coast premiere of this music…

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