The Anacreontic Society
In the mid-1760s, a London society of amateur musicians, the Anacreontic Society, commissioned a young church musician, John Stafford Smith, to compose music for material written by its president, Ralph Tomlinson. Smith’s tune, entitled “Anacreon in Heav’n,” was a vehicle not only for the Society’s accomplished amateurs, but for its best baritone singer to display virtuosity through an astounding vocal range. Its musical complexity has been compared to that of the famous “Toreador Song” in Bizet’s opera Carmen.
First published in England, the tune appeared in North America before the end of the eighteenth century where, as often happened, new lyrics — including “Adams and Liberty” and “Jefferson and Liberty” — were written. The song’s appeal may have been due at least in part to its unique metrical structure. Not found in any other song of the period, its striking meter may have been what attracted Francis Scott Key. By all accounts tone deaf, Key had already composed one other poem using the meter of the “Anacreontic Song” when he wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The Anacreontic Society was founded around 1766, and named in honor of the ancient Greek court poet Anacreon, who in the sixth century B.C., entertained his tyrannical patrons with lyrics celebrating wine, women, and song. In 1791 Franz Josef Haydn was the Society’s honored guest at a performance of one of his own symphonies, which indicates the primacy of the group’s musical interests. Yet as one witnesss wrote of another occasion:
At ten O Clock the Instrumental Concert ended, when we retired to the Supper rooms. After Supper, having sung “Non nobis Domine” we returned to the Concert Room … After the Anacreontic Song had been sung, in the Chorus of the last verse of which, all the Members, Visitors, and Performers, joined, “hand in hand,” we were entertained by the performance of various celebrated Catches, Glees, Songs, Duettos, and other Vocal, with some Rhetorical compositions, till twelve O Clock. The President having left the Chair, after that time, the proceedings were very disgraceful to the Society; as the greatest levity, and vulgar obscenity, generally prevailed.
Copies of this song may be obtained by contacting email@example.com.
Treadwell, William; Treadwell, Daniel; Ranlet, Henry; Paine, Thomas; Nightingale-a-collection-of-the-most-popular-ancient-modern-songs-set-to-music. Daniel Thomas Abington, Mass.: 1804. pp. 69
Musical Miscellany. Edinburgh: 1786.
Murphy Ms. c. 1790.