When did we stop playing the National Anthem?

When did we stop playing the National Anthem?


norman lebrecht

September 12, 2015

When I was a 1950s kid, growing up in London, the anthem was sounded before important opera performances and concerts. Also before the first and last screenings at the local cinema. And at the theatre.

And then it stopped. When? Why?

I was reminded of its absence when a journalist in Fort Worth contacted me about a debate they are having at their symphony orchestra about playing the Star-Spangled Banner.

You can read his Qs and my As below, and here‘s the full article. But I’m wondering what you think. When and why did the anthem stop playing?
joyce on her knees

Q. You say you don’t miss the days of the National Anthem being played at various events in England, including symphony performances. Why do you feel it is out of place?

A. Times have changed. There was more pomp and circumstance about a live performance 50 years ago. Now it’s less formal. I prefer the informality.

Q. Do you feel that it ruins the mood that the conductor is trying to convey with the rest of the evening’s programming? Does it make the concert feel more like a football game?

A. It’s a distraction. I go to a concert for art and elevation, not national service.

Q. Would you worry that it panders to an empty, rote form of patriotism?

A. At a football game, it creates an illusion of unity in a divisive atmosphere. It can feel false. Myself, I’d prefer the anthem to be reserved for solemn and state occasions.


  • Tom Hartley says:

    Does the New York Philharmonic still open each concert with the Star-Spangled Banner?

    • B Bailey says:

      No, they don’t. One hears the National Anthem once at the beginning of the concert season and that’s it, barring times of national crisis. If you hear old Met broadcasts from WW2 they played the anthem before every performance. Once the war ended, it was no longer played except on opening night. .
      Obviously it was suitable that Jacobs’ arrangement of the British anthem be played at the Proms to commemorate Elizabeth as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.

      • RODNEY GREENBERG says:

        It wasn’t Gordon Jacobs’ version of the National Anthem that was played at the Last Night of the 2015 Proms. It was Benjamin Britten’s ingenious arrangement. He gives you two verses in two different keys. His name is shown in the Proms programme and the Proms Guide to the whole season. Just one reason for buying programme notes (re the other thread on SD about their cost and usefulness).

        • Ray Richardson says:

          Absolutely right, but in this case you didn’t need the Proms Brochure, programme note, announcer’s voice or whatever, to know it was no Gordon Jacob effort. The Britten arrangement is spine-tingling, immediately it catches your ear and all your emotions, you’re hooked, no matter how many times you’ve heard it before. I’m no royalist, but people who knock the British national anthem from a musical point of view have the wind taken from their sails with this. I’ve read, thought it’s probably apocryphal, that the Queen once asked after hearing it, who had been resposible for the magnificent performance…and she’s heard it more than anyone else!

          It would be interesting to know which British orchestra was the last to play it regularly before all concerts. I left Manchester in 1962 and have only heard the Hallé live there a few times since. They certainly continued the practice after Barbirolli’s death…I feel sure it was still being played when I heard them give Mahler 6 under Loughran in the 70s.

          The practice in cinémas became a farce. At least in the concert hall you were press-ganged into hearing all of it (not all verses!) at the beginning of the concert, but in cinémas the practice was to play a crackly recording of about half of it at the end, with the audience walking out as it was being played!

          • Halldor says:

            I don’t think he’s talking about the Last Night. I believe he’s talking about the version of the National Anthem that was played at Wednesday night’s Prom to celebrate the anniversary of the Queen’s accession and which was unquestionably the Jacob arrangement.

  • Holger H. says:

    National anthems have to stay out of cultural events. One main purpose of classical music is to overcome man dividing constructs like the – artificial – idea of national identity.
    The same is true for sports events. Shameful how the bigger olympic idea got hijacked by primitive tribal instincts, allied with commercial interests, which appeal to the same primal instincts.

    • AM says:

      Moderately amused how the comment manages to equate primal instincts with artificial constructs.

      • Seeker64 says:

        I wouldn’t say they are equated but put together as the intellectual crutch (the artificial device of national identity) gets confounded with the instinctual mental handicap. Actually, should it be understood as such, the crutch would not properly serve its purpose (i.e. self-esteem life-suuport). 😉

    • Halldor says:

      Ha! ‘Heilges deutsches kunst’ ‘Claude Debussy, musicien francais’ ‘1812’ ‘Finlandia’ ‘Va, Pensiero’ ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ ‘The Spirit of England’

      In which universe?!

      • Max Grimm says:

        It should read “Heilige Deutsche Kunst” (without the ‘s’ ending on the first two words) and given the provenance and background of that phrase, it’s a good reason why flag-waving and chauvinism should be driven out of the arts. But I agree, “in which universe”…

  • Una says:

    I don’t mind the Anthem being played for sporting events when people win for their country, but not your average classical music concert. I remember the days when the Halle used to play it at every concert – I think that was the 70s or 80s. Tonight is the wonderful Last Night of the Proms. There will be plenty of flag waving of all different flags.It will be interesting – or will amuse me – again to see parts of the UK relay, as opposed to the English relay, and they bow out for Jerusalem and some other songs because they are English!!!!. But this year we have Kaufman singing Land of Hope and Glory – hilliarious given our history with the Germans. The National Anthem will be played and sung – probably Britten’s wonderful arrangement. And if that fails, you can always here the Anthem being played on Radio 4 at 12.58am each night before it flicks over to th world service. Our Anthem is a much more matter of fact tune and the words are prayerful for the Qeen than many Anthems go, and rarely sung unaccompanied.

  • Martin says:

    I hate the anthem playing in North American sporting events. Every bloody game. National team games, yes. Club games, no. Unless they’d actually play a regional anthem like they to in Kazan with the beautiful Tatar one, I really don’t want to hear anthems for every game.

    For classical music and opera? Please not. Unless it is a special occasion like i.e. the national day, when state heads are visiting or when a sporting national team has an important game.

  • Stephen says:

    I was lucky enough to hear the dull ditty enlivened by Stokowski and Solti in the 60s (though the following prelude to “Rheingold” really showed the piece up). I think managements realized that most people were annoyed at having, after being settled comfortably in their seats with their overcoats in their laps, to jump to their feet and then hurriedly settle in again.

  • SoCal Dan says:

    The Los Angeles Philharmonic plays the Star-Spangled Banner at the beginning of its summer concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. Everyone rises to their feet (including the musicians), and many audience members sing along. It’s a wonderful shared experience.

  • Patrick says:

    Years ago I broke a long standing tradition and began a season-opening performance of La Traviata without the customary singing of the national anthem. I just couldn’t imagine beginning the evening in that way and then jumping to the opening bars of Verdi. There was no outcry or complaint. Of course, I do know the tragic story of Boston’s Karl Muck…

  • Jones says:

    The ASO traditionally plays it for the opening weekend of the season; the music to “Anacreon in Heaven” (the origin of the Star-Spangled Banner’s melody) never sounded better.

    We’re going this coming Saturday to the season opening concert – will have to see how it works to follow the national anthem with the Mahler 2nd…………..

  • Peter Phillips says:

    The practice probably died out in the UK – not just “England” – in the 1960s. I remember Barbirolli playing it in Reading in 1960 and 1961. It is said that he would take his heavy brass to concerts of Haydn and Mozart simply to play the national anthem. In Wales, of course, there were two to be played and Sir Malcom Sargent endeared himself to a Swansea Festival audience by repeating the chorus of “Mae hen wlad fy nadhau” not just once but twice. The whole audience sang with great fervour of course.

    • Halldor says:

      It was being played before every orchestral concert at Preston Guild Hall as recently as 1998. I don’t know if it still is.

  • Mr Oakmountain says:

    Far more important:
    When did we START to play the National Anthem, and why?
    Did Purcell and Handel play the National Anthem at the beginning of their operas?
    Would it only be played if the monarch was attending?
    Information on that would be appreciated.

  • Robert Levine says:

    Norm in the U.S. appears to be once at the beginning of each orchestra’s season.

  • Phillip Sear says:

    The National Anthem to start a concert is not entirely dead in the UK. I went to a bandstand concert (one of four) in August given by the Eastbourne Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and they certainly started their programme with the National Anthem, for which we all stood. Alas, because I so rarely have to sing it these days, I can never remember the exact words….

    • Derek Castle says:

      I happened to be in Elgar’s Malvern for a matinee of G&S’s The Gondoliers this afternoon.
      Knees creaked and sticks wobbled as we were called to attention by the playing of the National Anthem before the overture.

  • James McCarty says:

    I enjoy singing the Anthem before Fort Worth Symphony performances. It is obvious that the great majority of the audience does as well. No one is forced to attend, much less sing. The article in which Norman was quoted, which appeared (shamefully) in the September 11 edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, stated that the Fort Worth Symphony is the only orchestra in the US that still plays the Anthem before every concert. What a horrid thing it is to show respect for one’s country! No one should rest until this last vestige of patriotism is eliminated!

    • Max Grimm says:

      The article states that the Fort Worth Symphony is “one of the few major-city orchestras that play the national anthem before every full-orchestra performance”, not that they are the only one in the entire US. And I wouldn’t worry Mr. McCarty; I would describe US American patriotism as steadfast and indomitable.

  • Derek Castle says:

    In the early 50s my friends and I attended Saturday morning children’s cinema. The show always began with the National Anthem. In 1952 the MC, who was there to impose some kind of order on the noisy, restless kids, insisted the show wouldn’t begin until we all sang “God save the Queen” properly (after years of singing “God save the King”)

  • Tom Gossard says:

    Another [Los] Angeleno here, since my first LA Philharmonic inaugural concert, I am stirred (not shaken) to hear the orchestra play the National Anthem, for sake of the tune itself, alone, which is bracing, especially so when it is played at a relatively brisk tempo and less ritardando at the phrase “for the land of the Free; and the home of the Brave.” In other words, the way it was written, which is sufficient for the purpose it was notated. I’m as sophisticated a musician and listener as any, and I don’t scorn a song just because it happens to be written to a patriotic text.

    I admit, however, I am an unabashed romantic who since childhood has thrilled to hear marches and patriotic tunes, mainly because they can be so spirited and joyful. Odd, I suppose, that I am mainly anti-war. I’ll take the music, however, any day!

    Once a season is my preference, but if an orchestra chooses to play TSSB at the beginning of every concert, bravo, more power to you!

  • DESR says:

    The National Anthem was certainly played at the start of the season at the Royal Opera House until the closure in 1997.

    Does it still happen? And when did it cease to be played before every performance (assuming that once it was…)?

  • Quasifaust says:

    How about the Israel Philharmonic playing Hatikva and the host country’s anthem while on tour? I’ve no idea if they play it while at home as well.

  • Jones says:

    And the answer is: yes, the ASO did play the national anthem last night (one of two opening-weekend performances). Spano conducted with brio, and since the ASO Chorus was on stage for the Mahler 2nd, the anthem was superbly sung.

    Oh, and the Mahler was fantastic. I note that mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor will be performing in this same piece this season in Colorado, Detroit, and San Francisco; get your tickets now.