“The Anacreontic Song”—British Source Tune for the U.S. National Anthem

“The Anacreontic Song,” or “To Anacreon in Heaven” with words by Ralph Tomlinson and music by John Stafford Smith is the source for the tune Francis Scott Key had in mind when he composed the lyric “In Defence of Fort McHenry” to celebrate the surprising and heroic victory of American troops stationed at Fort McHenry and aided by the people of Baltimore against the British Fleet on 14 September 1814.

The precise date that this club anthem of London’s Anacreontic Society was written is unknown (at least to me), but it was likely in the 1760s or early 1770s. This performance is realized from its first 1779 imprint, published by London’s Longman and Broderip and a copy of which is held by the University of Michigan’s Clements Library. (Full lyric below.)

An anthem of The Anacreontic Society, an amateur musician’s fraternity, the song was performed by the club’s president and is thus most appropriately realized in a semi-trained “operatic” styled voice. That the tune was intended for solo performance by an experienced vocalist helps explain why many complain today that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is difficult at best to sing. Turns out the tune was never intended for mass singing.


To my knowledge the video and recording above is the first attempt to try to recreate a performance as it might have been experienced at a meeting of London’s Anacreontic Society. We sang the final verse as a group in response both to the text and a stage direction from an 18c. play discussed by Sonneck that parodied the Anacreontic Society with a similar anthem. Here the actors were instructed to literally join hand in hand in imitation of the Society. Thus, we’ve repeated that gesture here.

For more on “The Anacreontic Song” and its reputation as a drinking song, see my earlier post on the topic.

Lyrics by Ralph Tomlinson

To Anacreon, in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be;
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian —
Voice, fiddle and flute, no longer be mute.
I’ll lend ye my name, and inspire you to boot,
And, besides, I’ll instruct you, like me, to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

The news through Olympus immediately flew;
When Old Thunder pretended to give himself airs —
If these mortals are suffer’d their scheme to pursue,
The devil a goddess will stay above stairs.
Hark! already they cry in transports of joy.
Away to the Sons of Anacreon we’ll fly…
And there with good fellows, we’ll learn to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

The yellow-hair’d god, and his nine fusty maids,
From Helicon’s banks will incontinent flee.
Idalia will boast but of tenantless shades,
And the biforked hill a mere desert will be.
My Thunder, no fear on’t shall soon do its errand,
And dam’me! I’ll swing the ringleaders, I warrant.
I’ll trim the young dogs for thus daring to twine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

Apollo rose up; and said, Pr’ythee ne’er quarrel,
Good King of the gods, with my vot’ries below!
Your thunder is useless — then, shewing his laurel,
Cry’d, Sic evitabile fulmen, you know!
Then over each head my laurels I’ll spread;
So my sons from your crackers no mischief shall dread,
Whilst snug in their club-room, they jovially twine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

Next Momus got up, with his risible phiz;
And swore with Apollo he’d cheerfully join —
The full tide of harmony still shall be his,
But the song, and the catch, and the laugh shall be mine;
Then, Jove, be not jealous of these honest fellows.
Cry’d Jove, We relent, since the truth you now tell us;
And swear by Old Styx that they long shall entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

Ye sons of Anacreon, then, join hand in hand;
Preserve unanimity, friends and love.
‘Tis your’s to support what’s so happily plan’d;
You’ve the sanction of gods, and the fiat of Jove.
While thus we agree, our toast let it be.
May our club flourish happy, united, and free!
And long may the sons of Anacreon entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.


About usmusicscholar

I am an Associate Professor of Musicology, American Culture and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
This entry was posted in Banner Legends, Music, Mythbuster, Spangled History. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “The Anacreontic Song”—British Source Tune for the U.S. National Anthem

  1. Pingback: Star Spangled Cantata—Michael Gandolfi’s Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 | O Say Can You Hear

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