Originally appeared under the title “Inter-National Anthem” in Note: Summer 2016, published by Classical Music Indy.
When I listen to Igor Stravinsky’s arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” I hear much more than our national anthem: I hear America at its best. I hear America opening itself up to a talented stranger who sought refuge here during troubled times abroad. I hear America growing and changing for the better, redefining the American Experience to include those whose brilliance was threatened, however temporarily, by totalitarianism elsewhere in the world.
To enjoy classical music in the United States is to reap the benefits of centuries of immigration. It was immigrants who taught us to love opera. From Japan’s taiko to the waltzes and polkas of continental Europe and the percussive beats of Africa, we have inherited a rich musical tradition, none of which was native to this land. And so today, when I hear politicians try to scare voters into halting or decreasing immigration, I hear an attack on a part of America that I hold dear.
In March 2016, while I was sitting in the airport in Istanbul, a group of Syrian school children lined up to board the plane. They were all dressed in uniforms, and when we asked where they were heading, they told us that they were going to Paris to give a performance. As their country descends deeper and deeper into civil war, these children were given the opportunity to travel abroad away from the danger and terror running rampant in their homeland. They were, in a way, ambassadors, reassuring the world that the Syrian conflict does not tell the entire story of their people. Around that same time, German orchestras – the Berlin Philharmonic, Konzerthaus and Staatskapelle – opened their doors to hold concerts in solidarity with refugees as they streamed into Europe seeking safe haven. After the terrorist attack in Brussels, a group of elected leaders got together to host “Syria’s Got Talent,” an evening showcasing the traditional musical abilities of several Syrian refugee performers meant to remind Belgians that the perpetrators of those crimes should not be confused with those who are legitimately seeking a better life in a safer place.
What is see lacking in our discussion of immigration policy in the United States is twofold: compassion for those seeking to make a home here and an acknowledgement of all the benefits immigration has bestowed upon us through the centuries. Better than arguing whether people brought here unlawfully should be sent home to countries they can’t remember, we should be asking ourselves what we have gained by their presence and what we gain by their desire to stay here and contribute to our society. While questions of security are absolutely essential to ensuring that we remain an open and free culture, these concerns have a tendency to overshadow any and all other considerations, leaving the entire debate less robust and more inclined to result in isolation.
My favorite composer, Paul Hindemith, arrived in the United States in 1940 after falling out of favor with the regime in Nazi Germany. While here, he taught at Yale and lectured at Harvard. Stravinsky came to the US after similar difficulties with the Soviet regime in Russia, eventually becoming so American that he earned himself a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At times in our past, we have summoned the compassion and imagination to welcome immigrants. When we focus only on our fears of what the stranger might bring with them, we potentially miss out on the opportunity to learn and grow. Currently, my hometown orchestra, the Houston Symphony, is being led beautifully by Colombian conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada. It is clear that, on a smaller scale, we are able to look beyond our fears and hesitations to see the wonderful improvements that immigrants can bring to our communities.
Whether you prefer the raucous bounce of the national anthem as arranged by Sousa or Stravinsky’s curious usage of the dominant seventh, both were arranged with reverence for a country which has – at some times more than others – appeared as a beacon of hope to those living around the world under totalitarian regimes. It would be silly to try to rank different types of patriotism, but only one of these types has the perspective of living in another land under another form of government, and only one type actively chose to take on the identity of America. Surely that merits some celebration.