The enthusiastic celebrants in my neighborhood didn’t wait until July 4 to set off fireworks; they were indulging in patriotic detonation for several days before the holiday weekend (unless those were gunshots I heard). Fireworks always remind me of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. The only time I’ve ever fallen asleep in class was while listening to that piece in high school. (There were a few close calls during my first semester of music history in undergrad, when the professor would dim the fluorescents, light candles, and throw some Perotin on the stereo—in some states this qualifies as entrapment.) I like Handel, generally speaking—once upon a time I could belt out a respectable “Si, tra i ceppi”—but something about that piece and a few others, such as the Water Music, is like warm milk to me.
It’s unlikely to hear much Handel played during Independence Day celebrations across the country. Brass band flag-wavers are the norm. But “The Star-Spangled Banner,” whose lyrics were written during the British attack on Fort McHenry in 1814, is no more or less a piece of propaganda than the Royal Fireworks music, written to commemorate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle. They’re both supposed to make you feel good about your nationality, which is to say that they’re both intended to be manipulative.
The difference, I guess, is that someone made Handel write the Royal Fireworks Music—namely, King George II—whereas lawyer and sometime poet Francis Scott Key was moved by the sight of an American flag (not quite the same as the one we have now, of course) to write “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which was later wed to John Stafford Smith’s “The Anacreontic Song.” I suppose that’s something to be proud of—rather than being written to fulfill a contractual obligation, our fireworks music came about in a spit-and-twine, piecemeal, almost accidental manner. The tune is difficult to sing and the words are earnest but not especially poetic, but I like that—it hearkens back to a time when the USA was by no means a guaranteed proposition, when there was a possibility that you might wake up one morning and all your dollars would suddenly be worthless. It’s a MacGyveresque contraption thrown together in response to uncertain times, and no amount of jingoistic accretion can change that.