On Sept. 20, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will celebrate history by making history—with a little help from a three-generation Johns Hopkins family.
That night is the 200th anniversary of the first newspaper publication of the poem that became the National Anthem. To mark the occasion, the orchestra will feature what is believed to be the second-ever full symphonic performance of a recently rediscovered 82-year-old musical gem that pays tribute to the stirring patriotic song.
The piece, Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner by American composer Ferde Grofé, has its own interesting history: It premiered at the celebrity-splashed 1932 gala opening of New York's famed Radio City Music Hall. Also on that four-hour program were the Flying Wallendas, future Wizard of Oz scarecrow Ray Bolger, comedy stars Weber and Fields, and the first appearance of the Radio City Music Hall Roxyettes, now the world-famous Rockettes.
Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner will now be heard again thanks to a 1969 Johns Hopkins graduate and Johns Hopkins Medicine staff writer, Neil A. Grauer. His father and grandfather—both also Johns Hopkins alumni—attended that Radio City spectacular. Grauer uncovered a program kept by his father, William, who was a freshman at the time. Grauer had never known of the Grofé work but was intrigued.
"A little light bulb went off over my head that this would be great for the bicentennial of the War of 1812 if we could find the music," Grauer says. "I realized I'd never heard of this piece of music. When I tried to go online to search for it, nothing came up. So I knew it was a pretty obscure piece."
Also see: Bringing a piece by Ferde Grofé to the light of day (WYPR)
That led Grauer eventually to the Library of Congress and Nicholas Brown, a library music specialist; Brown dug out the long-neglected original score for the Ode after going through more than 200 boxes of Grofé papers.
"Nick says he had to inhale about five pounds of dust from the 1930s to find the score," Grauer says.
Grauer, an author, ex-newspaperman, and cartoonist deeply interested in history, realized the piece would be a natural for Baltimore's 2014 "Star-Spangled Summer" celebrations of the National Anthem's bicentennial. He, along with musician and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine professor Charles Limb, proposed a BSO performance. The piece is on the program for the symphony's Sept. 20 season-opening gala, along with George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Grofé orchestrated that piece.
Also see: "Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner" and #SSB200 (Library of Congress Performing Arts blog)
The Ode performance is a real Johns Hopkins project. Besides Grauer and Limb, it involves Jari Villanueva, a 1978 Peabody graduate. He donated his services to "engrave" the handwritten score, making possible the sheet music the orchestra players will use. And, since the original Radio City performance involved an onstage tableau of the events of the Battle of Fort McHenry, Grauer and Johns Hopkins videographers Jay Corey and David Schmelick created a video—using footage from an A&E documentary—that will be shown as the piece is played at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
The five-minute Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner interweaves Grofé's musical recreation of the Sept. 13-14 overnight bombardment of Fort McHenry with themes from the National Anthem's musical setting. The latter passages herald Francis Scott Key's joy at spotting the fort's giant flag at dawn, indicating that the fort still stood, the British were defeated and Baltimore was safe.
Key celebrated by writing his poem, originally published in the Baltimore press on Sept. 20, 1814, as Defence of Fort M'Henry. The author joined his words to the popular tune To Anacreon in Heaven; together they became the National Anthem in 1931—the year before Grofé's musical tribute.
Though Grofé did present scaled-down versions with his jazz orchestra, particularly during World War II, there is no evidence that the Ode ever until now has had a second symphonic performance. Grauer says it's been about three years since he began looking for the Ode and started down the path that has led to the piece's Baltimore premiere.
"This could be a lot of fun," Grauer says. "I'm really very pleased. If my father hadn't kept the program, nobody would know this piece of music of existed."
To mark the BSO performance, the Library of Congress will display rare historic documents related to Key, The Star-Spangled Banner, and Grofé at the symphony's Meyerhoff Hall.
The Library of Congress is also hosting a related panel discussion in Washington on Sept. 18, two days before the concert.
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