Finding common ground with song

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Whenever I sing the "Star-Spangled Banner," "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," or "America the Beautiful," I think of Miss Cunningham, and of the sunlit music room at the American School in Japan, or ASIJ, where I learned these patriotic songs. Eloise Cunningham, herself a graduate of ASIJ, was my first music teacher.

Miss Cunningham taught us our scales, our sharps and flats, the position of middle C. Every time I try to remember how many sharps there may be in a particular scale, I remember the phrase she had us memorize: "Forward! commanded General Doolittle after eating breakfast." (F, C, G, D, A, E, B) She had us work on a corollary for the flats, and eventually, with much help from her, we came up with: "But every afternoon Doolittle gets cold feet."

Miss Cunningham was a slender, brown-haired lady, quick on her feet, with an infectious smile. She often sat on her desk when teaching us, and once she walked into the classroom munching an orange. I ate apples, and sometimes even peaches, without peeling the skin, but never oranges. So I was consumed with curiosity as to whether she found the orange skin tough and bitter. But she looked as though she was enjoying every bite, so I decided American oranges must be different.

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In class, we experimented with instruments, like drums, tambourines, triangles and clashing cymbals. We sang simple rounds, like "Bees gather honey, paying pollen money." And sometime in the second or third grade, we learned the "Star-Spangled Banner." Sitting on her desk, Miss Cunningham told us the story behind the song. How, during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key was on a boat, on a mission against the British fleet, which was shelling Fort McHenry in Maryland. Amidst the "rockets' red glare," he saw the American banner flying proudly, and the next morning, he was anxious as to whether the flag was still there. We were all duly impressed, and learned and sang the song with gusto.

The next week we went on to "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." One of our classmates was English, and his father was a colonel in the Salvation Army. So Miss Cunningham told us what he already knew: that this song, with different words, of course, was the British national anthem, "God Save the King." Thus we learned that each country has its own national hymn.

Japan's official anthem, "Kimigayo," was like "God Save the King." "May thy reign last for tens of thousands of years, till stones turn to moss-clad rocks." My father taught me the words, and I may have sung it in the Japanese kindergarten I attended before being enrolled at ASIJ. Despite the words, the melody sounded somewhat mournful to me. I associate it with the Rising Sun flag, which we and all our neighbors flew on national holidays.

Later, in my teens, I came across a songbook my mother had brought back to Japan from New York many years ago. It contained the anthems of several nations, such as the stirring "Marseillaise," which I always associate with the movie "Casablanca." "Deutschland ber Alles" was not in the collection, but the pre-World War I Austrian anthem set to the same music by Haydn, was. There was even the Hawaiian anthem, "Hawaii Ponoi," composed by King Kalakaua, which I learned just to impress my friends.

But that, as I say, was in my teens. What I first learned from Miss Cunningham about national anthems was that, as with "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" and "God Save the king," the same tune, set to different words, provides an entirely different context to the people singing it. Haydn never dreamed that the hymn he composed for the Austrian emperor - which, with different words, is still sung in Christian churches - would also become the symbol of German imperialism in World Wars I and II.

In Japan's case, "Kimigayo" was adopted as the national anthem in the late 19th cen- tury, after the country had emerged from feudal isolation into modern statehood. The bureaucrats who then ruled Japan decreed that, like any modern nation, Japan should have its own flag and anthem.

But both the flag and the anthem became tarnished - in international eyes, and in those of many Japanese - by the militarism that led to aggression and eventually to decisive defeat in World War II. It is only this year, more than half a century after the war, that the Japanese Parliament has finally voted to adopt once again "Kimigayo" as the national anthem.

I have nothing against the words, although I think they are outdated. My own candidate for Japan's national hymn is a shorter poem by the 18th-century philosopher Motoori Norinaga: "If you should be asked, What is the heart of Yamato [an old name for Japan], tell them: It is the wild cherry blossoming in the mountains and perfuming the sunrise air!"

Back to that music room at ASIJ: The week after we learned "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," Miss Cunningham taught us "America the Beautiful." Of all American patriotic songs, this one is my favorite. Japan is a sea-girt land of narrow skies, with a succession of lovely but miniature landscapes, and its amber waves of grain are rice, not wheat. So, when I sang "America the Beautiful," I would close my eyes and see a landscape so vast that the plains literally met the sky at the horizon, and all I heard was the wind whistling through the grass, or the thundering hooves of buffaloes.

Miss Cunningham subsequently went on to a distinguished career not only as a music teacher, but as a founder of symphony concerts for young people in Japan. Some years ago, she was decorated by the Japanese emperor for lifelong service to music.

"America, America, God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea." At the age of 7 or 8, I couldn't articulate what these words meant to me, but they glowed with warmth and beauty.

This was not a paean to a monarch, nor a celebration of victory over enemies. It was a hymn to the majesty and brotherhood of a land of infinitely unfolding horizons. Miss Cunningham is the person who first brought those grand vistas into my range of vision, and for that I shall always be grateful.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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