To Anacreon In Heaven

The words of Ralph Tomlinson's "To Anacreon in Heaven" are unknown to most Americans, except for musicologists who study late 18th century European lyrics. The tune however, is universally known to all as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The Society

The Anacreontic Society was a popular gentlemen's club in London, named in honor of Anacreon, a lyric poet of Greece. The society's patron saint was Anacreon, the "convivial bard of Greece." The society's membership, one observer noted, was dedicated to "wit, harmony, and the god of wine." The lyrics were written by Mr. Tomlinson, who had been president of the society.

The Tune

There does not seem to be a single composer of this tune, rather it was a collective effort by the members of the Anacreonic Society. The new society song, "To Anacreon in Heaven" required a new tune and thus all got together and worked on this project. John Stafford Smith (1750-1836) a court musician and member of the society was probably the guiding force behind this endeavor and most likely is the person responsible for the tune as we know it today.

As early as 1798 the tune appeared in American papers under various lyrics, among these was Robert Treat Paine's (1731-1814) popular "Adams and Liberty," perhaps the most prominent American song prior to "The Star- Spangled Banner."

Key and the Tune

As early as 1806 Francis Scott Key adapted the tune to an earlier poem he wrote entitled "When the Warrior Returns" in honor of an American naval victory over the Barbary pirates. Hence, there is no doubt that Key was well acquainted with the tune, when in September 1814 he saw the flag over Fort McHenry "by the dawn's early light." Soon after the battle, the poem and tune were published, a reminder of the American victory.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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