The quietly stirring arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that opens two Curtis Institute of Music orchestra concerts this weekend is one of the most unusual takes on the national anthem outside of Jimi Hendrix.
The character of the orchestration, written by the conservatory's late German-born conducting and orchestral pedagogue, Otto-Werner Mueller, is so different from the one Americans usually hear that it raises a question about the very character of our country.
Curtis pulls out the orchestration often. But the context of the times matters enormously, especially given how strikingly emotional this version is. Played in 2001 and 2002 after 9/11, it carried listeners from mourning to hope in two minutes. What Mueller's arrangement will mean now, given the political tumult of the past few weeks, is very much in the ear of the beholder, but the music itself promises to nudge perceptions strongly.
"Music that had a militaristic, aggressive nature was something that he hated," said Mueller conducting protégé David Hayes, music director of the New York Choral Society. "I think that very much had to do with growing up under the Nazi regime and endlessly hearing all those nationalistically aggressive military marches that saturated the soundscape of Germany in that period."
Mueller's widow, Virginia Allen, who formerly taught conducting at Curtis, said her husband considered the lyrics first and foremost. "His arrangement opens with a solo trumpet quietly asking this question" – O, say can you see … – "and the sound rises out of nowhere, similar to the light of dawn," she says. "He builds the textures in the brasses and bassoons to reflect different phrases of the lyrics before the full orchestra enters" – the rockets' red glare.
Mueller chose to put the arrangement in the key of C — B flat is common — she said, to purposely make it "even more difficult for the audience to sing, so that they would instead listen to the music and reflect on the lyrics."
Hayes says the build from lone trumpet to full orchestra represents the concept of out of many, one. "E pluribus unum, indeed," says Hayes. "He was never a fan of Hollywood-style splashy effects. I think his version of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is the way he saw so many things musically: tasteful, having a beautiful sense of sonority, ennobling."
Mueller and Hendrix both re-crafted "The Star-Spangled Banner" in their own image at about the same time. Hendrix famously played his at Woodstock in 1969. Mueller wrote his for the opening of a new humanities building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was teaching.
"They were going to dedicate the new building the same week as the Moratorium in Washington, D.C., and quite a few orchestra members were planning to go," says Ann Drinan, a violist and student at the school at the time, referring to the massive Vietnam War peace march on Nov. 15, 1969.
Asked to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the beginning of the concert, students refused, said Drinan. "So Maestro Mueller made a deal with us. He said he would rearrange it to make it nonmilitary – no snare drum at the beginning. In order to keep his orchestra in Madison, he agreed that we could have a dignified demonstration during the concert, and he would rewrite 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' "
Curtis' concerts this weekend are dedicated to the memory of Mueller, who taught at the conservatory from 1986 to 2013 and died last February at age 89. Inclusion of his "Star-Spangled Banner" was long planned, and not intended to make a political statement.
Still, having the work played at this moment, "I think somehow he would think of it as standing up for the ideals of the country," said his son, Peter Mueller. "Dad was an immigrant, and a proud American, although when he made this arrangement he was still Canadian. He always felt an affinity to other immigrants, wherever they were from. He explained to me when I was little how this arrangement began, symbolically, with the strong voice of an individual, gradually being joined by many other different kinds of instruments, different families of instruments, working together to make something beautiful – something not in unison, but harmonious."
Peter Mueller, who was in fifth grade at the time of the premiere, recalls how his teacher went to the concert, "and came back and made a point of telling the class how much it meant for her, that arrangement. She was the wife of a Green Beret in Vietnam, and it just really struck her."
"There is a poignancy and meaningful quality to the music that does speak out in tumultuous times like 1969," says composer David Ludwig, Curtis' dean of artistic programs and performance. "I think there is something in the music that is not about chest-beating, but is about dignity and respect and really a lot of the values that we associate with our best selves – the way we would like to define ourselves in this country. It's amazing that you can take the same tune and that the sensitivity with which he treats this arrangement can convey a powerful message of hope and humility and respect all at the same time."
Ludwig says there is also empathy in it. "I think a lot about the pride that immigrants feel coming here – certainly in my own family they did, and I feel like you hear that from the page." One of Ludwig's grandfathers was a pianist who fled Europe: Rudolf Serkin.
Asked what Mueller might think the effect his orchestration would have now, given the state of the country, Allen said: "I think he would hope that it would inspire people to put politics and differences aside and reflect on how fortunate we are to be part of this great country."