John Stafford Smith

John Stafford Smith


• 1750 1836


John Stafford Smith has been called "virtually the first English musicologist." He was also a popular composer of glees (unaccompanied part songs) and remains a significant figure in American history as the composer of the tune that Francis Scott Key adapted into "The Star-Spangled Banner," the national anthem of the United States. Smith's father Martin was the longtime organist at Gloucester Cathedral (1739 - 1781). After studying with William Boyce in London, Smith began a long association with the Chapel Royal, starting as a chorister in 1761, later becoming a Gentleman of the Chapel (1784), an organist (1802), and from 1805 - 1817 the Chapel's Master of the Children. He also held positions as a lay vicar at Westminster Abbey (starting in 1785) and organist for the Gloucester Music Meeting (from 1790).

As early as 1773, Smith won prizes from the Catch Club for his songs and over the next few decades, published five collections of glees. Songs like "Flora Now Calleth Forth Each Flower" became popular hits. His fame was such that in 1766, he became a member of the select London drinking and singing club the Royal Anacreontic Society (named after the sixth-century B.C.E. Greek poet Anacreon). Around 1775, he wrote the music for a song that became the "constitutional song" of the Society, "To Anacreon in Heaven." This melody gained wide circulation and was borrowed for the early patriotic song "Adams and Liberty" (setting poems to popular pre-existing melodies was then commonplace). Francis Scott Key had first used Smith's tune to accompany his 1805 poem When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar and returned to it for his Defense of Fort M'Henry, inspired by the attack of Fort McHenry, MA, by the British fleet in 1814 (during the War of 1812). The U.S. Army and Navy adopted the song and in 1931, the U.S. Congress officially made what became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner," the country's national anthem.

Smith was an avid collector of rare music manuscripts and such was his expertise that he aided in assembling the music examples for Sir John Hawkins' General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776 - 1789). In 1812, Smith published his huge Musica Antiqua, an anthology of vocal works and dance tunes from the twelfth through eighteenth centuries for which he drew extensively on his own manuscript collection, providing historical annotations for each work. The volume remained in use through the nineteenth century and reinforced Smith's reputation as a musicologist.