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Music manuscripts from the composer of the Star-Spangled Banner
It’s been a while since my last post, but the genesis of this post began with July 4th, 2010. I was thinking: What better way to observe the anniversary of the United States of America than with the national anthem. (The image above ‑ seen through mylar protection ‑ is of the first edition of the Star-Spangled Banner owned by the Music Division – one of only nine surviving copies.)
No lyricist is indicated, but we know the text is Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem “Defence of Fort Henry” (which he wrote upon seeing a skirmish during the War of 1812). Although no composer is listed, the right-hand caption indicates the source of the tune: “Air, [To] Anacreon in Heaven.”
The music of the song “To Anacreon in Heaven” (The Anacreontic Song) was composed John Stafford Smith (1750-1836), an English organist and composer. He composed it as a result of his membership in the Anacreontic Society, which he joined in 1766. The Anacreontic Society was a gentlemen’s social group who were devoted to the promotion of music. (It appears that many members composed songs dedicated to the society – possibly it was a requirements of a certain level of membership.)
Aside from his composition that has become the national anthem of the United States, Smith is best known as having an interest in music of earlier times. Today we would call him a music historian, or a musicologist. He was associated with a number of publications of earlier music such the collection Musica Antiqua, whose title page is shown below. Note how a portion of the title page reads: “...some of them now first published from manuscripts and printed works of great rarity & value,” suggesting the publication is a great discovery.
Where did Smith find these “manuscripts and printed works of great rarity”? They were probably from his personal library. Through his connections (no doubt many of them fostered through the Anacreontic Society), Smith amassed a large personal library containing many unique items.
Where is Smith’s library today? His biography in the New Grove Dictionary reveals the answer:
"Some of the riches of Smith's library can only be guessed at, for it passed on his death to a daughter. In 1844, the daughter being pronounced insane, her property was sold by an incompetent auctioneer, and the greater part of it disappeared without trace and without even an adequate catalogue or description being made. 2191 volumes of music were disposed of, including 578 in manuscript."
From Grove’s description it sounds as if we may never gain any insight into Smith’s musicological activities. Yet this this is not entirely true. To understand how music was circulated during Smith’s time in the 18th century, it’s important to understand that the main method of dissemination in the 18th century was through hand copying. If you wanted a copy of a musical work (many of which had limited print runs), the most reliable way of obtaining a copy was to copy it out yourself, or pay someone to do it for you. No doubt, Smith must have learned much about older music by copying it out from publications he borrowed. (One gains more insight by copying out a work by hand, rather than today’s method of photocopying it.)
The Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is fortunate to own three manuscripts containing music copied by Smith. (Additionally, we have a microfilm of another manuscript now located in the Library of Congress.)
Here’s a sample page of Smith’s work, in this case a copy of a Benedictus by Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521)
Smith’s penmanship was rather distinctive, if only because it’s often messy.
I find the page below particularly interesting because it includes many “musicological” observations in the areas above, below, and to the left of the music:
With international attempts to learn of disparate manuscripts scattered around the world, it is possible that someday we’ll know more about the dispersion of Smith’s library. Until then, we can take satisfaction in studying the known manuscripts of the composer of the Star-Spangled Banner.