Did the Star-Spangled Banner land Stravinsky in jail?
This story begins and ends with a photo. It’s Igor Stravinsky, the legendary modernist composer. He looks a little worse for wear. In fact, it looks like a mug shot. The date on the Boston police placard around his neck appears to be April 15, 1940.
The novelist Neil Gaiman thought it was a mug shot. He sent the image to the blog Boing-Boing a few years ago, along with an astounding plot point: He claimed that Stravinsky had been arrested in Boston — for the crime of performing a weird arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Gaiman was hardly the first to make that contention or tie it to the photo. Both the rumor and the image have been floating around in one form or another — lately on the Internet — for more than half a century.
Spoiler alert: The photo is not a mug shot, and Stravinsky was never arrested. But the real story of what happened to the composer in Boston is an incredible tale. He did compose a weird arrangement of the national anthem, and the Boston police really did ban him from performing it — sparking a national uproar and a tense showdown that played out live on the radio. Depending on how you read it, it’s a story of ego and hubris, or patriotism and generosity. I’ve come to think of it as a minor-key American tragedy: The story of a new immigrant who tried to give us a better and more democratic version of our national anthem, only to see his innovation branded as foreign and dangerous, then banned outright in the city that had once been one of his greatest supporters.
It should have been a triumph.
It’s January of 1944, and Igor Stravinsky, regarded as the world’s greatest living composer, is about to conduct an entire evening of his own compositions with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a high-profile guest appearance in a city that had become practically a second home to him. He’d lived here as recently as 1940, delivering the esteemed Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard and getting married in Bedford.
His reputation here is greater than perhaps anywhere in America, thanks in large part to BSO conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who has long championed the Russian-born composer’s work. This is no small matter. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Stravinsky was a polarizing figure, still hustling to make ends meet. He’s won international acclaim for compositions that incorporated 20th-century dissonance, a musical analog to the shock of an unimaginably violent great war. Now, in January of 1944, America is in the midst of a second world war. The BSO playbill this weekend suggests that in the event of a blackout concertgoers should remain in their seats. The pamphlet also notes, almost as an aside, that in addition to the main program, Stravinsky will be performing his new arrangement of the national anthem.
He’s been working on this arrangement since the summer of 1941, but it has been performed publicly just a handful of times. By taking up the baton with the Boston Symphony, regarded as one of the world’s great orchestras, Stravinsky is giving his arrangement a coming-out party. And the mercurial composer isn’t above a little pandering to the locals. His “Star-Spangled Banner” is a throwback to Puritan times, he claims, an attempt at highlighting the tune’s expression of religious feeling — a quality not usually associated with Stravinsky’s work. “I gave it the character of a church hymn,” Stravinsky tells the Associated Press the night before the BSO engagement, “not that of a soldier’s marching song or a club song, as it was originally.”
Stravinsky and the BSO kick off the weekend Thursday night at Sanders Theater, in Cambridge, without incident. On Friday afternoon, the program is repeated at Symphony Hall — the performance typically attended by the press. In reviews published the following day, neither The Boston Globe nor The Boston Herald reviewers makes mention of the anthem. (They may not consider it part of the official program; in wartime, orchestras have become obliged to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at every performance.) Instead, the big news to critics is the rapturous reception of Stravinsky’s Circus Polka — the closest thing on the program to a hit single. Commissioned by Ringling Bros., it’s the soundtrack to an elephant ballet choreographed by his friend George Balanchine. It goes over so well that Stravinsky plays it twice, only the third encore in the BSO’s history.
But that’s not what the rest of the country will hear about. The next morning, Stravinsky’s “Star-Spangled Banner” is a national scandal, thanks in large part to the Associated Press. As Stravinsky conducts the anthem, the audience rises from its seats and attempts to sing along, the AP reports. “[B]ut soon the odd, somewhat dissonant harmonies of the sixty-one-year-old composer’s arrangement became evident. Eyebrows lifted, voices faltered, and before the close practically every one gave up even trying to accompany the score.” Newspapers from coast to coast run the AP’s item under sensational headlines, claiming that a “puzzled” audience has greeted Stravinsky’s anthem with “stunned silence.”
To modern ears, Stravinsky’s arrangement wasn’t radical so much as . . . just slightly off. It’s “less a complete reharmonization,” one biographer wrote, “than a freewheeling gloss on the familiar text . . . with some scrunchy added notes here and there and a few quirks in the bass line.” But in the moment, critics took advantage of Stravinsky’s reputation to make it sound as if he’d mangled the anthem into industrial noise. One critic alleged that it “contained too much of the odd music responsible for the racket accompanying the earthquakes and creeping dinosaurs in ‘The Rite of Spring,’ featured in Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’.” “The general effect,” wrote Boston Post music editor Warren Storey Smith, “is a little as though the Squeedunk town band were trying to harmonize the tune by ear and not making a very good job of it.”
By Saturday evening, the police were quietly involved. Stravinsky was scheduled to conduct the program again that night — this time over NBC radio’s national airwaves. Early newspaper editions reported that Stravinsky was sticking with his version of the anthem despite the outcry. By showtime, Symphony Hall was packed, and across the country thousands were gathered around radios, waiting to hear what all the fuss was about.
They would never get the chance. In the audience at Symphony Hall were a dozen officers — including Boston Police Commissioner Thomas Sullivan and Captain Thomas J. Harvey, head of the police department’s “Radical Squad” — armed with a copy of the Massachusetts General Laws.
During World War I, the Massachusetts Legislature had narrowly passed Chapter 264, Section 9, which prohibits the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as dance music, as part of a medley, or with “embellishment.” And now the officers were apparently ready to arrest Stravinsky on the spot if the conductor attempted to perform his version of the anthem. “Let him change it just once,” one reporter quoted Harvey as saying, “and we’ll grab him.”
A half-hour before curtain, Boston police officers visited Stravinsky backstage and threatened to remove the sheet music from the music stands. He had a quick decision to make. “Stravinsky appeared on the podium at exactly 8:30 and strode with dignity, unsmiling, to the podium,” the New York Journal American reported. “He bowed to the right, to the left and then turned for the first number.” It was “The Star-Spangled Banner” — but not Stravinsky’s. At the last minute, he’d capitulated and switched to the BSO’s traditional arrangement. “[T]here was wide disappointment among those who thronged the vast hall,” the Boston Post reported, “waiting for the excitement of hearing the unorthodox version of the national anthem.” Shortly after the conclusion of the anthem, but before the rest of the program, Captain Harvey and his squad of would-be music critics got up and “stalked out indifferently,” according to the Post.
While many outlets maintained that Harvey was ready to arrest Stravinsky, the truth may have been less dramatic. Harvey told the Post that even if Stravinsky had performed his version of the anthem, “the squad would not have interrupted the concert.” Instead, they would have let Stravinsky finish, the police squad would have signed a complaint, and a court would have issued Stravinsky a summons. If he’d been found guilty, the price would have been a $100 fine — not an arrest.
Small comfort: The press was in an uproar, Stravinsky and the BSO were in a state of shock. Symphony Hall manager Charles Spaulding insisted the composer didn’t know he’d broken any law and stood ready to “conform to Massachusetts laws and render ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in the way it was written.” Stravinsky’s press flack told reporters, “He never intended to hurt any one’s feelings.” The Post finally cornered the composer, who claimed he’d just wanted to produce a more democratic version of the anthem. “My idea in arranging my own version was to make it simple for all the people to sing,” he said. “The standardized version is difficult for all but the experts, and everyone should be able to sing it with facility.”
A staged photo in the Post the next day shows Stravinsky, glasses perched on his forehead, signing autographs with a wide grin. The smile masked what would be counted as one of his biggest and strangest failures. He wouldn’t perform his arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” again for more than a decade. The Massachusetts law that supposedly forbids it is still on the books.
Almost immediately after Stravinsky’s “Star-Spangled Banner” was banned, the BSO began to push back. How could Stravinsky be punished for performing an embellished version of the national anthem when there was no authorized version to begin with? The Globe picked up the refrain, publishing an essay headlined “No Official Version Exists of the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’” which traced the many versions of America’s official song. By one estimate, in 1935 there were more than 200 different recordings of the anthem. Yet the Boston police and the national press seemed to think that Stravinsky’s version was distinctly subversive. Newspapers played up his Russian heritage, suggesting a foreigner conspiring to stage a sneak attack on a cultural landmark. (“Change Whitens Red’s ‘Blueing’ of US Anthem” ran the tortured headline in the Selma, Ala., Times-Journal.) One letter to the editor in the Globe wondered whether “there be some underhanded and sinister motive in the action.”
Nothing could’ve been further from the truth. Stravinsky claimed to have written his arrangement in one go, on the Fourth of July, 1941, in Los Angeles. He thought standard arrangements of the national anthem rendered it amateurish and practically unsingable. In this, he was in agreement with much of the country. Objections to “The Star-Spangled Banner” were as old as the anthem itself. The song hadn’t officially become the national anthem until 1931, at least partly because Congress spent years complaining about how hard it was to sing. But this was a problem Stravinsky felt he could fix. He took up the project of making a more singer-friendly arrangement out of “a desire,” as he wrote to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “to do my bit in these grievous times toward fostering and preserving the spirit of patriotism.” He hoped his version would become a new standard, and was even willing to forgo performance fees in order to make it more widely available.
He had grand plans for its unveiling. In August 1941, Stravinsky told friends that his “Star-Spangled Banner” would be premiered via a national broadcast from Los Angeles, by a Works Progress Administration orchestra of 100 musicians and 150 voices, with appearances by Nelson Eddy and Lionel Barrymore, and Stravinsky presenting a bound transcript of the arrangement to Roosevelt onstage. But Roosevelt declined Stravinsky’s invitation on the grounds, his secretary wrote, that it would be inappropriate “to receive a formal presentation of any particular version or arrangement of the anthem as a gift to the people of the country,” lest anyone get the idea that any “particular version or arrangement . . . is considered to be more suitable and desirable than others that are in current use.” The Boston police would soon beg to differ.
It was Stravinsky’s bad luck to suggest innovation at a moment when the president — and the country — just wanted to hear the national anthem the old-fashioned way. When Stravinsky’s arrangement eventually debuted in Los Angeles, critics were underwhelmed. Isabel Morse Jones wrote that Stravinsky “made the words and melody easier to sing — but duller to listen to.” Another remarked that he’d followed the basic structure of the song but made striking changes that “may be disturbing to the layman’s ear.” Wrote one listener: “Why do we need anyone to change our national anthem?”
The rollout became a tragedy of errors. Stravinsky arrived in St. Louis to conduct his arrangement for the first time on Dec. 15, 1941 — the week after Pearl Harbor. Amid grumbling from the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony, he was prevailed upon to substitute a traditional arrangement “because of the outbreak of war.” In San Francisco, members of the orchestra were said to be “not especially impressed” by the anthem, and the San Francisco Examiner deemed it “inappropriate and harsh, not to say absurd.” Following a performance in Washington, D.C., the audience was polled on whether it wanted to hear Stravinsky’s anthem again. The answer, by a vote of 279 to 198, was no.
Stravinsky must’ve thought Boston, finally, would be his ideal audience — he was popular here, patrons and subscribers knew his work. What seems never to have occurred to Stravinsky was that his “Star-Spangled Banner” might be a tune that Americans simply didn’t want to hear. Stravinsky’s anthem was a darker American song, familiar yet sad, its relentless optimism chastened by the weight of what the nation had been through — and, presciently, what the world in 1944 was about to confront. He arranged “The Star-Spangled Banner” not for the country America aspired to be, but for the wounded country it was. You can imagine Stravinsky, arriving at grand old Symphony Hall on a Friday afternoon, the orchestra seats quiet and empty, the conductor quite sure that this time, his new countrymen would hear his gift to them and raise their voices as one.
That leaves, of course, the question of the photo: If not a mug shot, what is it? The date on the card reads April 15, 1940 — a year before he even had the idea to re-arrange “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and four years before his Boston Symphony engagement brought him face to face with the Boston Police Department’s Radical Squad.
The best guess? It’s a visa photo. Stephen Walsh’s excellent two-volume biography of Stravinsky places the composer in Boston that April, worrying about visa issues. Margaret Sullivan, the archivist for the Boston police, thinks the Stravinsky image is most likely an ID photo — official government photos for immigration purposes could be had from the police department — and if so, it was probably taken at the old BPD headquarters on the corner of Berkeley and Stuart streets, now a hotel.
The unsmiling Stravinsky we see in 1940 is a man who has been through tragedy: His first wife, his daughter, and his mother have all died in the span of a year. But then, just weeks before the photo was taken, at a quiet ceremony in Bedford, he’d married his longtime mistress. (It was a complicated relationship: She was not yet technically divorced from her previous husband.) He’s at the pinnacle of his creative career; a new American life lays ahead. It is entirely possible that Igor Stravinsky is as happy as he’s ever been.
Carly Carioli is a contributing editor at POLITICO Magazine.