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Sheet music cover for The Star-Spangled Banner from 1942

Photo by SSgt Rachel Ghadiali

Liberty Set to Music

9 Sep 2014 | Staff Sgt. Rachel Ghadiali United States Marine Band

Before five Marines and a Navy corpsman raised it on top of Iwo Jima, or three New York City firefighters hoisted it at Ground Zero, Maryland native Francis Scott Key hailed the Star-Spangled Banner flying over Fort McHenry 200 years ago—a symbol of victory and hope for a nation, and the inspiration for America’s national anthem. In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the anthem, the Marine Band will perform at 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 13, at historic Fort McHenry in Baltimore as part of the Star-Spangled Spectacular, an event hosted by Star-Spangled 200, Inc.

In June 1812, America declared war on Great Britain as they restricted trade and forcibly drafted American sailors, detaining them for work on their ships as they were embroiled in war with Napoleon’s French Empire. Still in its infancy and absolved from all allegiance to the crown, a young America was embattled in its third year of conflict with the British, a world superpower with a Royal Navy that dominated the seas and a standing army that could crush the American rag-tag forces of militiamen, farmers, and untrained volunteers.

The War of 1812 took its toll on the citizens of the United States; throughout the war, the British ravaged the shores of Virginia and destroyed the plantations across Maryland’s farmland. After a bloody battle at Bladensburg, the British descended upon Washington and torched public buildings. Americans wondered how much they would have to pay for absolute freedom.

Thirty-four-year-old Georgetown attorney Francis Scott Key didn’t live far from the smoldering remnants of the capital city. And upon learning that a family friend had been taken prisoner by the British, the accomplished negotiator received permission from President James Madison to execute a rescue mission along with government agent John S. Skinner.

Key and Skinner sailed from Baltimore to find the British harboring their friend. While the three were forced to remain with the mighty Royal fleet overnight, Key observed a perilous fight with the battery of Fort McHenry and wondered if the United States would prevail. After the smoke cleared from the barrage of rockets and bombs bursting in the air, he saw the American flag’s broad stripes and bright stars “gallantly streaming” over the ramparts. Key then penned “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” likely to the tune of “Anacreon in Heaven,” a well-known English song of the period written by John Stafford Smith. There, by the dawn’s early light, a national anthem was born.

The lyrics—known to many as a poem—were printed the following week in The Baltimore Patriot and Baltimore American newspapers. Only two years after the words were written, The National Intelligencer in Washington, D.C., reported that the Marine Band performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Jan. 8, 1816.

The Marine Band performed the song for decades before it was officially declared the national anthem. On July 26, 1889, the Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy designated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag. A year later, Tracy ordered the Marine Band to “play the National Air of the United States at the close of every public performance,” a practice the ensemble had already established. Although no song had been officially designated as the “National Air,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” had long served as the symbolic tune Americans had come to expect.

In the fall of 1891, the Marine Band departed for its first national tour across the United States; “The President’s Own” took the song to the citizens of America. Director John Philip Sousa found an “intensity of patriotic enthusiasm” toward the song and wrote that it “played an enormous part in arousing enthusiasm and patriotism.” Despite its critics, Sousa believed that “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been already adopted and accepted by the American people as their anthem.

“Besides its soul-stirring words ... it is the spirit of the music that inspires,” Sousa said. “It is liberty set to music.”

Leaders of the Marine Band were staunch advocates of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and strived to adhere to its musical precepts. By the later part of the 19th century, it was a popular tradition for the band to end every concert with a patriotic air. Americans began to stand in reverence while the song was performed. A Marine Band program dated July 3, 1916 stated:

NOTICE: The entire audience is required to stand to attention, men with their hats removed, while the National anthem is being played.

In early 1918, Leader of the Band Capt. William H. Santelmann wrote to the city of Baltimore for an official copy of the music, promising that it would “be of much value in tracing the modern version of the national air, and may assist in deciding some of the questions of harmonization and the exact form in which the melody should appear.” Santelmann desired that “The Star-Spangled Banner” “be played in a spirited and majestic manner, yet characterized by lofty breadth of style.”

While the original tune may have been spirited and energetic, some musicians preferred to perform or sing the anthem at a regal tempo. But Marine Band Leader Capt. Taylor Branson thought the tempo should be animato maestoso “with vigor and dignity” so “the hymn may not be sung too slow.”

On March 3, 1931, Branson led the band in a concert at Marine Barracks Washington and closed with the national anthem. Only a mile away in the White House, President Herbert C. Hoover signed a bill designating the country’s national anthem “the composition consisting of the words and music known as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” officially affirming what had been established in the hearts and minds of the American people. The following day, the Marine Orchestra performed the official national anthem in the U.S. Capitol for a Congressional Song Service to close the day’s session.

Today the Marine Band performs “The Star-Spangled Banner” thousands of times a year: in the East Room of the White House, on the Marine Barracks Parade Deck, by the monuments of D.C., and all over the country. Marine Band baritone vocalist Master Sgt. Kevin Bennear has sung the anthem at July 4 celebrations, Memorial Day ceremonies, in the Home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, and even at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2002, as a flag was unfurled to unveil the restored section of the building attacked just one year earlier. He especially loves to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the National World War II Memorial as part of Honor Flight ceremonies recognizing service veterans.

“Those are some of the most meaningful performances that I do,” said Bennear. “I do it to honor them. It’s not just about the notes that I sing. I’m presenting a musical representation of the sacrifice they made for the country. It’s a tremendous responsibility.”

“Some singers might try to make it their own and embellish the music, but that’s not the point,” Bennear continued. “When I sing other tunes, I can think about the notes and make them my own. But when I sing the anthem, it’s not about me. The purpose is to remember the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country; those who came before us and everything they did to ensure our freedom. We honor them.”

This month, the Marine Band pays homage to Francis Scott Key and those who fought that night two centuries ago.

“We are honored to have been invited to perform during the Star-Spangled Spectacular in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the poem that would eventually become our national anthem,” said Marine Band Director Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig. “Although the Marine Band was not present during the legendary battle at Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key penned his famous poem in 1814, the organization was already 16 years old and very active in nearby Washington, D.C.”

The program will feature patriotic selections spanning the past two centuries of American music as well as a performance in collaboration with the Morgan State University Choir from Baltimore. The concert will culminate with a grand finale honoring the national anthem and a spectacular fireworks show.

“Our country’s unique musical history will be on full display for this special and historic occasion,” Fettig said. “It’s an opportunity for us to come together as a nation to honor the birth of a cornerstone in our American musical heritage and a work that, 200 years later, still so eloquently celebrates the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Listen to the Marine Band Play The Star-Spangled Banner

Watch the Marine Band Play The Star-Spangled Banner

"The President's Own" will perform at 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 13, at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The free concert will be aired on PBS and will conclude with a dazzling fireworks display over the Chesapeake Bay. For further details and parking information visit