The Nymphs of the wells
is a royal ode dating from 1697. It was written not for the court of William III but for that of Princess Anne and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, a much more modest establishment. Accordingly its scoring is suitably economical: just two violins, five voices and continuo. It was commissioned for the eighth birthday celebrations of their son, William, Duke of Gloucester, the only one of their children to survive beyond infancy, and second in line to the throne after his mother (the king being childless and widowed). Its anonymous text seeks to associate the lad with the British oak: a grotesquely inappropriate conceit, for he was a deformed and sickly child who was to die at the age of eleven, thereby dashing any hopes of a Stuart succession. Blow’s setting, in contrast, strikes exactly the right note: avoiding any hint of pomp, it is graceful and lyrical, only becoming a little more serious in tone for the bass solo during which that unsuitable image is conjured up. The solo is sung by a Druid, in response to duetting Nymphs who appear earlier; such dramatic characterization—here obviously playful—is unknown in other court odes. The young duke is not known to have been musical (somewhat pathetically in the circumstances, his main interests were military), but if he had been, he would surely have taken pleasure in the well judged and beautifully crafted music of this birthday offering.
from notes by Bruce Wood © 2017