our national anthem -- 12/15/14

Today's selection -- from The Star-Spangled Banner by Lonn Taylor, Kathleen M. Kendrick, and Jeffrey L. Brodie. Francis Scott Key wrote the words to our national anthem during the Battle of Baltimore, and recommended it be sung to the tune of a recently composed song called "Anacreon in Heaven," which is often misleadingly described as an old English drinking song:

"[Francis Scott] Key started composing his famous poem as he watched the enemy's bomb vessels pulling back toward the fleet and observed the flag streaming over the fort and did not finish the poem until minutes before reaching shore on September 16. Taney indicated that Key began with 'brief notes ... upon the back of a letter which he happened to have in his pocket.'

"Key copied the four verses of the poem and on September 17 showed a copy to his wife's brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, chief justice of the Baltimore courts, asking Nicholson what he thought of it. Judge Nicholson, who had commanded a volunteer company in the fort during the bombardment, reacted enthusiastically. Either he or Skinner the accounts differ -- took the poem to the office of the Baltimore American, where it was set in type and printed as a broadside. Entitled 'Defence of Fort McHenry,' the broadside featured a short introductory paragraph, likely written by Judge Nicholson, that described the circumstances under which the lyrics were composed. It also contained the instruction that the words be sung to the tune 'Anacreon in Heaven.' The broadsides were taken to Fort McHenry, where every man received a copy. Judge Nicholson evidently kept one of Key's manuscript copies. That manuscript, which was passed on to Nicholson's granddaughter Rebecca Lloyd Shippen, is today in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society.

"On September 20 the text was published in the Baltimore Patriot, and on September 21 in the Baltimore American. By mid-October 1814 it had been printed in at least seventeen other newspapers in cities along the East Coast. Sometime before November 18, Thomas Carr's music store in Baltimore published 'The Star-Spangled Banner' in sheet-music form.

"'Anacreon in Heaven,' the popular British tune Key chose to accompany his inspirational lyrics, was widely known in America during the early nineteenth century. Historians believe that Key probably had the melody in mind as he was composing the poem. At least a half-dozen American songbooks published before 1814, among them the two-volume Baltimore Musical Miscellany (1804 and 1805), included the tune. In 1805, Key himself had used the melody for a poem he wrote in honor of Captain Stephen Decatur, American naval hero and victor over the Barbary pirates, entitled 'When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar,' That song, like 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' has four verses. It begins:

When the warrior returns from the battle afar
To the home and the country he has nobly defended
Oh, warm be the welcome to gladden his ear
And loud be the joys that his perils are ended!
In the full tide of our song, let his fame roll along
To the feast flowing board let us gratefully throng
Where mixed with the olive the laurel shall wave
And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.

Francis Scott Key's original manuscript

"The last two lines appear in each of the four verses. The third verse contains the couplet 'And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscured / By the star-spangled flag of our nation.' The poem appears in Henry V. D. Jones's 1857 edition of Key's poems, just after 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'

"'Anacreon in Heaven' is often misleadingly described as an old English drinking song.
Its foreign, seemingly disreputable origin was advanced in the 1900s as an argument against congressional recognition of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' as a national anthem. 'Drinking song,' in the sense of students with linked arms and raised steins, is in fact a misnomer. Actually the tune was written in 1775 or 1776 by John Stafford Smith, a London composer of secular and sacred music, to accompany words written by Ralph Tomlinson. It was the 'constitutional song' of a mid-to late-eighteenth-century gentlemen's musical club called the Anacreontic Society, named for the sixth-century B.C.E. Greek poet Anacreon, who wrote a number of short verses in praise of wine and women.

"About a dozen times a year Anacreontic Society members assembled in rooms above various London taverns to play instrumental music and dine together. Guests at the concerts included composers Franz Joseph Haydn and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and the meetings were described in 1787 as being 'conducted under the strictest influence of propriety and decorum.' After a concert lasting two or so hours, the members would adjoin for a cold supper, followed by lighthearted songs performed by the members. The meeting continued with the singing of 'Anacreon in Heaven,' usually performed as a solo by the club's president. The words of the song invoked the spirit of the Greek poet to inspire the club's members"


Author: Lonn Taylor, Kthleen M. Kendrick, and Jeffrey L. Brodie


The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon




Copyright 2008 by the Smithsonian Institution


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