John Williams will conduct a new version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

John Williams conducts the National Symphony Orchestra and other musicians for the upcoming debut of a new arrangement of the national anthem.
(Paul Morigi / Associated Press)

America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” turns 200 this year.

In honor of this momentous bicentennial, film composer John Williams will conduct a new arrangement of the notoriously hard-to-sing song during the annual Fourth of July celebration on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

Williams’ arrangement is big, bold and, yes, cinematic. It features a patriotic combination of talent including the Joint Armed Forces Chorus, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, the National Symphony Orchestra and cannons.

The splashy show will be a departure from tradition. Usually a soloist performs the anthem during the elaborate “Capitol Fourth” celebration in Washington, capped by a spectacular fireworks display.


“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written in 1814 (during the War of 1812) as a poem by the 35-year-old lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key. The inspiration hit Key after he was detained on a British ship in the Chesapeake Bay and watched the bombardment of Ft. McHenry by the Royal Navy.

In the morning the flag was, indeed, still there.

Key set the poem to the melody of a well-known English tavern song, which had been recycled many times (a common practice in those days).

The song became popular, but it didn’t rise to anthem status until President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional resolution making it so on March 3, 1931. Before that, the song was recognized for official use by the Navy in 1889 and President Woodrow Wilson in 1916.


You can catch Williams’ arrangement when PBS and NPR broadcast “A Capitol Fourth” at 8 p.m. on Friday.

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