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This Cantata was made by me at the Duke of Bedford’s desire. The Poesie was made by one of his servants, an Italian, and performed by Corelli, and other musicians before his grace and many of the Roman nobility …
This is the longest of Clerk’s cantatas and was composed in 1698 for the departure of the eighteen-year-old Wriothesley Russell, Duke of Bedford, and Baron Howland from Frascati for Naples, almost certainly to consummate his dynastic marriage to Elizabeth Howland which had taken place when he was fifteen and she thirteen. This likelihood is underlined by the number symbolism in the piece. The numerical value of the name ‘Bedford’ is fifty-two; that of ‘Howland’ seventy-two. The opening Sinfonia adds up to fifty-two bars, announcing the hero’s name, and reflecting two basic moods, sad leave-taking and anticipation of nuptial joy. The main section of the final aria adds up to seventy-two bars, the voice entering after twenty bars and therefore leaving fifty-two bars. In this section Clerk, after twenty bars of instrumental foreplay has literally embedded Bedford in Howland, at which entry point the lady sings.
The opening soprano recitative expresses the sorrows of Nature and of man, and the following plaintive aria explains the cause—the departure of the young English hero. The next recitative and aria are more cheerful. Exhorted by the recitative, the aria banishes sorrows claiming, in its central section, that a feeble heart is no good in such a case. Here is the turning point, for the restraint the young couple presumably underwent for three years must now be thrown off. The active bass line encourages and the outer sections of the aria make lovely play with the words ‘lontananza d’amor’ in which distant love becomes seductively yielding.
There follows a magnificent section sending the young hero forth to meet his beloved in virgin white in the battle of love prepared by Cupid. The aria is full of excitement and echoes of military fervour, but never steps outside the gentility proper to the occasion. The vocal line is brilliant but not excessive, and the writing for the two violins is marvellously active, amorous fanfares answering each other, but always coherent.
The ensuing recitative sustains the mood but, with the battle of love joined at close quarters, the aria is more gentle and little cupids frolic around the couple, delicately expressed by the violins and the vocal line. The cantata ends with lingering and deliberate sensuality, underlined by the arcane number symbolism. The violins intertwine amorously and the gentle but determined rise and fall of the voice is its own explanation.
from notes by John Purser © 1998