WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2013 – As Congress gathered on the east steps of the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 11 for its annual National Day of Service and Remembrance ceremony, Army Master Sgt. Antonio Giuliano took his place beside lawmakers and sang a powerful a capella rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
No matter how many times he sings the national anthem as first tenor section leader for the U.S. Army Band’s Army Chorus, Giuliano said, he experiences the same flurry of emotions.
“My heart is pounding before, during and after,” said Giuliano, who sang the national anthem 52 times in 2012 alone, including his first performance at the congressional 9/11 remembrance ceremony.
“There is nothing more exhilarating for me as a soldier-musician in ‘Pershing’s Own’ to sing the Star Spangled Banner,” Giuliano said. “I feel the nervousness and exhilaration of it, recognizing the importance of what I’m singing and wanting to get it right.”
Attend nearly any major public or sporting event — the Super Bowl, World Series or a White House honors ceremony — and chances are you will hear a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. For members of the elite military bands, who perform it more than just about anyone, it is the ultimate command performance.
Air Force Master Sgt. Bradley Bennett, a tenor vocalist with the U.S. Air Force Band’s 20-member “Singing Sergeants” chorus, remembers feeling the eyes of the world on him as he sang the national anthem on the U.S. Capitol steps for President George W. Bush’s second inauguration.
“It is the one song you absolutely can’t mess up,” said Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Sara Dell’Omo, a mezzo-soprano with the U.S. Marine Band. “That makes it the most nerve-wracking piece of music I sing,” despite hundreds of performances since joining the band in 2005, she said.
“You’d think it would get easier, but for me, it doesn’t,” she said with a laugh.
Despite the pressures of delivering perfect performances every time, Dell’Omo calls the Star Spangled Banner the most meaningful piece she sings.
“The anthem is not about me, and it is not about my voice and singing it. It is about what it represents, and trying to create the excitement and solemnity of that and translating that through music. I get a little excited about the anthem,” Dell’Omo said — an excitement she enjoys sharing with the high school choirs she coaches.
“After awhile, the kids get it,” she said. “They realize that this is not about making a Whitney Houston impression. This is about something bigger than me, and harnessing that.”
Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael Bayes, a saxophonist with the U.S. Navy Band for almost 17 years, said he feels that power with every single performance.
“Someone once asked if I ever got sick of playing the same piece of music over and over and over again,” said Bayes, who can’t count how many times he has performed the national anthem, numbering it in the hundreds.
“But to this day, every time I play it, it gives me chills,” Bayes said. “It is a different experience every time. But the second you hit the first note, you see a group of people stand up, take off their hats, put their hands over their hearts and take pride for those few minutes that the anthem goes by.”
Francis Scott Key captured that sense of wonder when he penned the words to the Star Spangled Banner 199 years ago this weekend, on Sept. 14, 1814.
A civilian lawyer during the War of 1812, he was negotiating with the British to secure the release of an American prisoner. The British, concerned that Key had heard too much about their plans to attack Fort McHenry, decided to detain him aboard a British ship in Baltimore Harbor until it was over.
The Americans were outnumbered and outgunned throughout the ferocious 25-hour bombardment. But “by the dawn’s early light,” Key was astounded to see the 15 stars and 15 stripes of the American flag still flying over the beleaguered fort. He pulled an envelope from his pocket and wrote the poem that later was put to a popular tune of the day.
Bayes, who also serves as archivist for the Navy Band, said a British colleague once asked him why the United States would celebrate an event that was more of a draw than a gallant victory.
“The flag that Francis Scott Key saw that day should not have been flying,” Bayes said. “The fact that the British had over 1,000 ships and several thousand guns, and that we had maybe 17 ships and about 400-some guns, it was a true David-and-Goliath story. So that flag, for all intents and purposes, should not have been there. It was a miracle that the flag was still standing at the end of the day.”
“It speaks to the tenacity and courage of the democratic republic, and for fighting for its survival and fighting for democracy and freedom,” Bennett added. “It encapsulates that spirit of pride that we all carry with us as citizens of the United States.”
Today, the national anthem continues to inspire and bring Americans together, the musicians agreed.
Giuliano said he felt that power this week as the United States observed the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. The magnitude of Key’s lyrics struck him with a particular intensity, he said, as Americans paused to remember and reflect.
“No matter where you come from, what gender, what color, all the differences are put aside. It symbolizes that sense of unity,” said Dell’Omo. “You hear the national anthem and we can all come together. It is the one flag, it’s the one nation. It is the anthem for all of us.”
Yet many people don’t realize how closely the Star Spangled Banner came to not being adopted as the national anthem – and the key role the military played in making it so.
It wasn’t until 1889 – 75 years after Key witnessed the Battle of Fort McHenry – that Navy Secretary Benjamin F. Tracy issued a general order requiring Navy and Marine Corps bands to play it during their morning flag-raising ceremonies, Bayes said. The following year, the Department of Navy ordered the traveling U.S. Marine Band to start performing the Star Spangled Banner at the end of its concerts.
Later, as the Spanish-American War was brewing, Navy Commodore George Dewey and the American Asiatic Squadron he commanded set sail for the Philippines the tune of the Star Spangled Banner, Bayes reported. Ironically, it was the British ships that were with them in Hong Kong who played it to cheer them on to battle.
When the fleet declared victory in the Battle of Manila Bay in May 1898, U.S. forces raised Old Glory to the accompaniment of the Star Spangled Banner.
“It is the first representation I have seen where the anthem symbolized our country in that sort of way,” Bayes said. “We weren’t just paying our respects during morning colors. We were signifying that the United States had declared victory. This was the musical representation of that.”
The U.S. government and military services recognized that significance.
The Navy issued a regulation in 1903 that required all of its members to stand at attention when the Star Spangled Banner was played. Fourteen years later, in 1917, an Army regulation designated the Star Spangled Banner as the national anthem – although in reality, it still wasn’t.
The problem, Bayes explained, is that many people thought the Star Spangled Banner – with a range of one and a half octaves and extremely high notes — too difficult to sing. Other popular songs, including “Hail Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle,” were considered catchier and more “singable.” Congress debated the issue, ultimately summoning the Navy Band to its chambers to settle the argument once and for all. Its members — joined by two professional vocalists, because the Navy Band had none at the time — performed the Star Spangled Banner “to prove its singability and playability,” Bayes said.
Congress was convinced, and President Herbert Hoover officially designated the Star Spangled Banner the as the national anthem in March 1931.
But the Navy Band’s work was not yet over.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who followed Hoover to the White House, was frustrated that the national anthem sounded different every time he heard it. Rejecting an arrangement by famous American composer Henry Filmore, he turned to the Navy to develop an official version of the Star Spangled Banner.
That version, arranged at the Navy School of Music, which operated at the time in Washington, was adopted in 1945. And although one still hears countless renditions of the national anthem, the Navy’s arrangement remains the official version played by all military bands. “It is the arrangement we use to this day [during] White House and Pentagon arrival [ceremonies] and the standard anthem played throughout any military honor ceremony,” Bayes said.
Almost two centuries since Key captured the spirit of the Star Spangled Banner and almost seven decades after FDR approved the official arrangement, military band members say it continues to inspire them as well as their audiences.
“It’s wonderful thing to see the pride in people’s eyes as they celebrate America and listen to the anthem,” Bennett said. “I love singing the anthem. … It is just a great tradition for America and the military.”
As she sings, Dell’Omo said, she sometimes tries to imagine Baltimore Harbor as Key witnessed it almost two centuries ago. “We can all imagine how it would be to visualize this flag being seen through the night sky,” she said. “Francis Scott Key captured that one moment in time, but somehow it has transcended almost 200 years.” Giuliano said he tries to concentrate on Key’s words rather than his audiences as he sings the Star Spangled Banner, but admits to feeling a ripple of excitement up his spine when he catches a glimpse of how the anthem affects them.
And no audience is more appreciative, he said, than those who serve or have served in uniform.
“It thrills my heart when I sing for the military. It is always awesome, because they get it,” he said. “They are standing tall, erect and at attention. They understand the enormity of it, and the commitment they have made.
“Just like Francis Scott Key, they understand that freedom isn’t free,” Giuliano said. “It never has been and never will be.”