Rare ‘Star Spangled Banner’ First Edition Price Expected to Rocket

A very rare first edition of the lyrics and music of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key was found bound in a young Pennsylvania woman’s music book. It will be auctioned off at Christie’s on Dec. 3 and is expected to between $200,000 and $300,000.

NEW YORK – A very rare first edition of the lyrics and music of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key is expected to bring between $200,000 and $300,000 when it goes up for auction as part of Christie’s autumn Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts sale on Dec. 3.

This copy of the original sheet music is the only known copy in private hands and is one of just 11 known copies. The other copies are all in institutions or university libraries.

Francis Scott Key’s famous patriotic verses were inspired by a shipboard vigil on the night of Sept. 13-14, 1814, when a British naval flotilla bombarded Fort McHenry for hours, prefatory to a planned full-scale assault. Key, a young lawyer, and a colleague had gone on board a British ship under a flag of truce to secure the release of an American physician, Dr. William Beanes, held as a prisoner. To ensure that no military information on the impending attack could be passed to the American defenders, Key too was detained. He spent the night on the deck of the flag-of-truce sloop, which gave him a sweeping view of the dramatic scene.

Key watched anxiously as British naval cannon-fire and incendiary bombs and rockets rained onto the American fort. During the shelling, the very large stars and stripes flag flying from the fort’s ramparts was clearly visible, giving heartening evidence that the fort’s defenses was weathering the storm of shot and shell. But when the bombardment unexpectedly ceased, the American flag was obscured. Key was heart-sick. Had the fort been forced to surrender? But at dawn, when the smoke of the shelling lifted, the flag was again visible. Key’s patriotic emotions were powerfully stirred by the welcome sight. His first draft of the anthem was written on shipboard—on the back of a letter—and then a final version, containing four eight-line stanzas, was completed in the next few days upon Key’s return to Baltimore.

His rousing song perfectly mirrored Americans’ heightened patriotic fervor in the wake of the destruction of Washington and the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Broadside and newspaper printings under the title “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” swiftly circulated. The verses’ runaway popularity was given strong impetus when Key’s lyrics were set to the tune of a well-known drinking tune “The Anacreontic Song,” attributed to the English composer, John Stafford Smith (1740-1846).

Capitalizing on the great popularity for the song, the enterprising Baltimore music publisher Thomas Carr (1780-1849) quickly engraved and printed words and music together. Because it was a rushed job, there are many typos in the first edition, including the name of the poet, Francis Scott Key, was omitted, and the heading proclaimed the song to be “A Pariotic Song.”

Today, though, only 11 copies of the first edition are recorded; all but the present, newly discovered copies are in public institutions:

Census of Copies of the Star-Spangled Banner

1. Library of Congress
2. Indiana University, Lilly Library
3. Maryland Historical Society
4. New York Public Library, Music Division
5. The Pierpont Morgan Library (James Fuld Collection)
6. Johns Hopkins University Library, Baltimore (Levy Collection)
7. Wesleyan University (Dietrich America Foundation)
8. White House (BMI copy)
9. University of Michigan, Clements Library
10. Moravian Music Foundation, Winston-Salem, NC (Lowens Collection)
11. The present copy

Discovery in a Young Woman’s Music Album

The name of Miss Mary Barnitz, written in the bound album of old sheet music, links this great rarity to the Barnitz and Spangler families, two of the foremost early families of York County, Pa. Family members fought in the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812. Mary Barnitz (1793-1886) was a young girl when the “Star-Spangled Banner” was published in Baltimore. It and the other sheet music in the album were probably bound up about 1820, and it is likely to have been used in impromptu musical gatherings of this very musical family. Its subsequent ownership is unknown. Years later the tattered album was purchased by the present owner in a small Pennsylvania auction. He was surprised and gratified to discover in it the rare first edition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

It was not until 1931 that the song was officially recognized as the national anthem, although it was often used as such before that date.

For more information about this auction,visit the Christie’s Web site.


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