Sunday, March 22, 2009

From the Myrtle of Venus to the Shores of Tripoli

Olivia, of "Olivia's Sunrise of New Beginnings," has been giving her readers a virtual tour of the museums and other attractions of our nation's capital. (And you could pay good money for a tour that's a lot less informative and interesting than hers.) A recent post included a tour of the Museum of American History, and a description of the original Star Spangled Banner--the one that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814, and which inspired Francis Scott Key, a prisoner aboard a British ship, to write the poem, "The Defence of Fort M'Henry," which became the words to our national anthem. It reminded me of the story of the poem, and of the only well-known tune that fit its meter and rhyme, "The Anacreontic Song," better-known by its opening line, "To Anacreon in Heaven."

"The Defence of Fort M'Henry" appears to be a reworking of an earlier poem Key had written in 1805, to celebrate the return of Stephen Decatur, jr., and Charles Stewart from the Barbary Pirates' conflict. Entitled simply, "Song," it follows the same meter and rhyme scheme, and ends each stanza with: "...mixed with the olive, the laurel shall wave,/And form a bright wreath for the brows of the brave." Even the phrase "Star Spangled flag" appears in "Song."

The Wikipedia article on "The Anacreontic Song" states that Key's brother, "on hearing the poem Key had written, realised it fit the tune of The Anacreontic Song." I suspect, though, that Key had the song in mind when he wrote the first poem, as it refers at the end of each stanza to the mixing of two plants. The final chorus of "To Anacreon:" "And long may the Sons/Of Anacreon intwine/The Myrtle of Venus/With Bacchus's Vine."

"The Anacreontic Song" was sung at meetings of the Anacreontic Society, an eighteenth-century London gentlemen's club for amateur musicians. It got its reputation as a drinking song because of a tradition that if a member could sing a stanza of the song successfully, he was sober enough for another round. And the difficulty of singing the tune, even when sober, has been one of the strongest arguments of those who wish to replace "The Star Spangled Banner" as our national anthem with something more singable, such as "America the Beautiful."

The late writer and scientist Isaac Asimov wrote a very powerful defense of "The Star-Spangled Banner," though even he had a problem with the third stanza. It's a little embarrassing to have the line, "No refuge could save/the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight,/or the gloom of the grave" in our national anthem. But, of course, few people ever get beyond the first stanza.

Another song with roots in the Barbary Pirates conflict is The Marines' Hymn, which makes reference to "the shores of Tripoli." Actually, the Marines never made it to Tripoli in that conflict, but they came close. Like "The Star Spangled Banner," the poem was written first, and a tune was found to fit it. And it appears that the Jacques Offenbach's "Gendarmes Duet" from the comic opera Genevieve de Brabant was the tune used. The men-at-arms who sing it are portrayed as, well, not exactly models of Marine Corps values:

I don't think anyone has suggested the Marines change their hymn, though. The tune works in spite of its beginnings. And it's not hard to sing.


Lisa said...

I have always been puzzled by the reference to "the shores of Tripoli". I knew the Marines hadn't been there and now thanks to you I understand how it got in there!

Elizabeth said...

Have I ever told you that I'm related through my maternal grandmother's side to Betsey Ross? And George Ross, too, who signed the Declaration of Independence.

steve on the slow train said...

Lisa--That was quick! Thanks for your comment.

steve on the slow train said...

Elizabeth--No, I didn't know that. I've heard a little about the Italian side of your family, but not the English. When I lived in Philadelphia, I walked by Betsey Ross's house several times, but, sadly, didn't have the time to go in. You've probably heard Stan Freberg's take on Washington, Betsey Ross, and the flag.

Olivia said...

Ohhhh dear! This is quite funny. a bawdy song and a carousing ditty form the basis of two of America's most soul-stirring songs.

*Shhh, I won't tell anyone if you don't*

P.S. Thanks ever so much for the mention :)

steve on the slow train said...

Olivia--You're welcome. I learned about the Gendarmes Duet from Peter Schickele's radio show, which isn't on the air anymore. He included a stirring performance of the Marines' Hymn by baritone Sherrill Milnes.

Sildenafil said...

Very interesting videos, I love the idea of the "virtual tours" of the museums.