American Anthem, B411

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The national anthem of the United States of America, the song The Star-Spangled Banner, was only codified as the country’s national anthem through a congressional resolution in 1931. During Dvořák’s time in the United States (1892–1895), the patriotic song My Country, ‘Tis of Thee (also known as America) served as the de facto anthem, whose text was written by American journalist Samuel Francis Smith. This latter’s melody is identical to God Save the Queen (alternatively, God Save the King), the British national anthem. Dvořák often heard the song during his stay in New York, particularly immediately after his arrival, since grand celebrations were under way in the city to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. The fact that the melody for the American national anthem had simply been taken from the British anthem did not appeal to Dvořák, and he decided to set Smith’s words to music himself. Thus, on 19 December 1892, he wrote the sketch for a melody that was to have become the future American national anthem. According to the memoirs of the composer’s American assistant, Josef Kovařík, Dvořák was said to have declared: “Well, this is going to be the next American national anthem and it will be arranged for baritone, choir and orchestra.” The melody he jotted down was used in the summer of the following year as the basis for the variation movement of his String Quintet in E flat major. That the idea for a musical setting of Smith’s text was not merely a passing whim is supported by Dvořák’s letter to his publisher Fritz Simrock, whom he informed back in October 1893: “The quintet’s melody derives from an as yet unpublished song, written to an English text, which I will bring out later on as an independent work, and I reserve the right of publication.” Dvořák’s plan never came to fruition, but we may at least get a rough idea of Dvořák’s American national anthem from the third movement of his String Quintet in E flat major – specifically, the major-key variant of the main theme, from bar 17 onwards.