Rediscovering the 'Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner'

At the end, when the audience cheered, it was the culmination of a two-year project—the rediscovery of a long-forgotten piece of music by a once-renowned American composer. And I'd like to think that should the shades of my grandfather, Albert Grauer, A&S 1907, and father, William Grauer, A&S '36, exist somewhere, they were grinning from ear to ear.

The audience was attending the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's gala last September 20 to inaugurate its 2014–15 season at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. They had just heard the rousing "Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner" by Ferde Grofé (1892–1972). In his lifetime, Grofé had been celebrated as the composer of The Grand Canyon Suite, the arranger of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and as the "prime minister of jazz," heard often on the radio and while touring the country with his own orchestra. His name is less known today, however, and the "Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner" had not been performed by a full orchestra in 82 years—not since its debut at the celebrity-studded opening of Radio City Music Hall in December 1932.

That's where my father and grandfather come into the story. My grandfather had gotten tickets for them to the Radio City opening at what Billboard magazine called the "ridiculously exorbitant" price of $2.50 apiece. (That would be about $45 today.) My father, then a freshman at Hopkins, kept the program as a souvenir.

Around 40 years ago, I found that Radio City Music Hall program in the attic of our home in Great Neck, New York—the house in which both my father and I grew up. We are a family that tends to keep things. It wasn't until about four years ago, as I was preparing to donate the show's program to Special Collections at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, that I looked at it closely and spotted the third item on what had been a 19-act extravaganza. It was listed as "Sept. 13, 1814," and described as a musical evocation of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry and the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," played to accompany a dramatization of these events.

I thought it would be great if I could find that music and offer it to the Baltimore Symphony to perform a few years later to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. When I searched the Internet for "Sept. 13, 1814" and "Ferde Grofé," I found nothing—but I did discover that Grofé's papers are in the Library of Congress. I knew that Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist Charles Limb had worked with the BSO, so I emailed him and asked whom I should contact.

His reply: "Let's work on this together." He put me in touch with BSO music director Marin Alsop, as well as the artistic director, Matt Spivey, and a young researcher at the Library of Congress, Nicholas Alexander Brown.

Brown found the handwritten orchestral score for what had been renamed "Ode to the Star-Spangled Banner." He also found a 1937 recording of Grofé leading his own jazz orchestra in a scaled-down version of the piece. Brown then put me in touch with Ferde Grofé Jr., now 84, who eagerly granted permission for the BSO to perform it. Since the work had never been published, I contacted Jari Villanueva, an old friend and Peabody alumnus who had been the Air Force Band's arranger. He agreed to undertake the daunting task of preparing the score for printing.

I also remembered that A&E's History Channel had broadcast a docudrama in 2004 titled "First Invasion: The War of 1812," featuring scenes depicting the bombardment of Fort McHenry, as well as Francis Scott Key writing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Another friend and colleague, Jay Corey, then a videographer with Johns Hopkins, combined the music and the movie footage—thereby re-creating, in a way, how the piece had originally been performed.

That's what the Baltimore Symphony did on September 20. The orchestra did a magnificent job playing the piece to the accompaniment of the video, the audience cheered, and somewhere, perhaps, my dad, my grandfather, and Ferde Grofé Sr. smiled.