In the court calendar the celebration of New Year’s Day was one of the two main events of the year, the other being the King’s birthday. An ode text, commenting on recent events, was commissioned for the occasion from a court poet, and set to music by a court composer: not so much high art, in principle, as a kind of musico-poetic political cartoon, though the magnificent efforts of some of the composers have secured belated immortality for many odes. Those for New Year were always set by Blow, who shared responsibility for birthday odes with his colleagues. A third series, marking the court’s autumn return to London from its ‘remove’ to more salubrious Windsor, was introduced in 1680, with twenty-year-old Purcell placed in charge. The Chapel Royal, for once at full strength (its Gentlemen normally served on a rota), and the royal string orchestra, the celebrated Twenty-Four Violins, performed the new work—in most cases its only hearing, until an inquiring posterity recently began to explore this treasure trove. The ode was an offspring of the symphony anthem, featuring an instrumental prelude or symphony, with instrumental interludes interposed between sections of text set variously as solos, vocal ensembles and choruses. Dread Sir, the Prince of Light
, composed for the 1678 celebrations, is a typical example. Its symphony opens with a dignified statement in common time prefacing a fleet-footed triple-time fugato; there follows a brisk succession of simple and mostly light-hearted numbers—some of them distinctly catchy in the ‘step tripla’, the dance-like triple metre favoured by the king—though a weightier declamatory bass solo, ‘This happy omen’, anticipates a type of movement that soon became a staple ingredient of the court ode. The opening lines of the unremarkable anonymous text, hailing the returning sun and associating it with the monarch, remind us that Louis XIV was not the only self-styled Sun King in Europe!
from notes by Bruce Wood © 2017