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Length: c. 3 minutes

About this Piece

No song has sparked more controversy than “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Whether an artist nails it or fails miserably, they subject themselves to national scrutiny. Some performers have been forced to issue a public apology, but could tampering with the national anthem land you in jail?

Amid the charged political atmosphere of World War II, suspicions of one’s allegiance to the United States weren’t uncommon. For Igor Stravinsky, being a Russian-born composer did not help his case. However, hoping to become an American citizen one day, Stravinsky decided to try his hand at interpreting the national anthem (just as he had also done for Russia, Switzerland, and France). In a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Stravinsky wrote, “It is a desire to do my bit in these grievous times toward fostering and preserving the spirit of patriotism in this country that inspires me to tender this my humble work to the American people. Believe me.”

In an attempt to embellish “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a hymn-like sentiment and, in Stravinsky’s words, “express the religious feelings of the people of America,” the composer added a controversial dominant seventh chord to the “land of the free” lyric.

After the arrangement’s premiere in 1944, the revision didn’t sit well with some listeners—including the Boston Police. They believed Stravinsky’s arrangement violated Massachusetts state law: “whoever plays, sings or renders the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ or any part thereof, as dance music, as an exit march or as a part of a medley of any kind, shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.” Stravinsky, on the other hand, argued, “It makes the linear and harmonic best of the material, and is certainly superior to any other version I have heard.” Yet when threatened in his dressing room at the concert hall by the police commissioner, Stravinsky opted for a more traditional approach at the next day’s performance.

Decades later, an apparent “mug shot” of Stravinsky started circulating the internet, fueling rumors that he had been arrested at the premiere. With the composer staring into the camera with sunken eyes, a five-o’clock shadow, and a sign around his neck labeled “Boston Police” over an ID number, the story seemed believable. However, keen-eyed researchers later debunked the myth, pointing out that it was actually Stravinsky’s visa application photo—coincidentally captured at the Boston Police Department four years prior to the anthem altercation. —Piper Starnes