Analyzing An Anthem - A Lesson In Functional Reharmonization
By Gregory Jacobs-Roseman (Composer-Lyricist)
Who’s got Olympic fever? I sure do! Every Olympic games I feel this thing in my body – I think it’s called pride in my country – anyway it feels weird, but I like it. The sheer display of the human spirit as well as all those tear-jerking personal stories of the athletes, well I just eat all that shit up.
Perhaps my favorite part of the Olympics are the medal ceremonies. Especially when the USA wins. I hear the Star-Spangled Banner and I have to fight back the tears. Apparently every Olympics, they record a new version of all the participating nation’s national anthems:
That’s kind of cool, but this year it cheated me out of my favorite arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner I think I've ever heard. Four years ago in Beijing, the arrangement used was not only a wonderful rendition, but also a beautiful piece of music. The version being used for the London games, while straightforward, lacks the majesty of the one from Beijing. Let’s compare and analyze.
Now here’s the one from Beijing:
Wow, right? Big difference. And in my opinion everything about the Beijing version, from the counterpoint to the orchestrations to the harmonies is superior. No offense to Philip Sheppard, who had to arrange all 200+ anthems for the London games, a task I do not envy.
Let’s take a look at the opening verse (apologies to the non-musicians for the rest of this post, I tend to get somewhat technical when talking theory). The progression in the London version, which is in C-major is essentially (I'll be honest, I transcribed these very hastily so these chord progressions are probably approximate):
(Note: I studied harmony at Berklee College of Music, a jazz school. The “-'s” above mean “minor.” It’s a jazz thing.)
Pretty simple, though that A-minor chord on “proud” really hits my ear wrong and in my opinion throws off the rest of the phrase. Sure, it has tonic function, but you’re really expecting a full-on I tonic chord right there.
Now here’s the Beijing progression, which is in G-major:
I love all the chromatic root approaches here. It’s simply a much more harmonically interesting harmonization, and placing the tonic G major chord at the start of the second half of the phrase is what we expect.
But the most beautiful part of the Beijing version occurs in the B section, with the rockets red glare and bombs bursting and all that – a section of our national anthem that most singers belt the loudest, while placing fermatas on every note. Here, the brass cuts out and we’re left with a simple, gorgeous, and delicate arrangement of woodwinds, strings, and bells in their upper registers. Then the cherry on top: the cadence of subdominant to subdominant minor (IV to IV-, or in this case C to C-) on where the lyric “in air” should be. It's such a simple reharmonization that still just takes my breath away.
Of course, these are just my personal preferences. Whichever version you prefer, we can all agree it is better than this.
Alright. Enough musical anaysis. This is time I could be spending watching the games. Go team USA! Bring back gold to the land of the free and the home of the brave!
GREGORY JACOBS-ROSEMAN is a composer/lyricist and theatrical sound designer currently developing Save The Date: A New Musical Comedy. www.gregjr.com
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