June 2005

Eternal source of light divine

Palestrina Exsultate Deo; Tu es Petrus
Monteverdi Beatus vir
Buxtehude Magnificat
Handel Ode on the birthday of Queen Anne

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-94) took his name from the town near Rome where he was born.  He spent much of his career as maestro of the Capella Giulia, the choir of St Peter’s basilica; his numerous publications, including seven books of masses and about 375 motets, brought him international fame in his lifetime.  In his later years he was held much in awe by musicians, both theorists and composers: as early as 1575 it was written of him that he was ‘now considered the very first musician in the world’.  Exsultate Deo, a setting of the opening verses of Psalm 81, has long been a favourite motet, with its joyous tunefulness and vivid word-painting of musical instruments, especially the ‘tubae’ of ‘Blow up the trumpet in the new moon’.  Tu es Petrus is in fact a pair of motets, as the middle section, Quodcumque ligaveris is sometimes performed alone.  Published in 1572, the composer thought highly enough of it to use it as a base for a grand mass setting for triple choir.  The text, proper to the feast of St Peter, is from Matthew 16: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church… and I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven’.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was employed at the court of Mantua and as maestro di cappella at S. Marco in Venice.  Much of his church music was published in two large collections of compositions written over a number of years, the Vespers of 1610 and the Selva morale e spitiruale of 1641.  Beatus vir, a much-loved Latin setting of Psalm 112, ‘Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord’, appears in the latter and is believed to date from about 1630.  In this psalm, the Holy Spirit reveals where true happiness is to be found: fear is the beginning of wisdom, but also the road to true joy.  It is scored for two violins and continuo bass, and has its origin in a canzonetta, Chiome d’oro, from the composer’s Seventh Book of Madrigals of 1619.

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637–1707) is best known as a composer of organ music, of which he was one of the most important before Bach.  In 1667 he became organist and Werkmeister of the Marienkirche at Lübuck, one of the most important posts in northern Germany: he was to remain there for over forty years, only very occasionally travelling away from home.  He also left an impressive body of sacred vocal music, composed during a formative stage in the development of the Protestant church cantata.  This charming setting of the Magnificat is in fact of dubious authorship: its lilting triple-time melodies, hemiolas, simple harmony and sectional structure do not resemble any known work of his; nevertheless it has a delightful and endearing simplicity.

The custom of twice-yearly compliments to the British monarch in the form of Odes for New Year’s Day and for the monarch’s birthday became established in the late 17th century and continued until the death of George III in 1820.  The texts were usually written by the Poet Laureate and set to music by the Master of the King’s (or Queen’s) music.  George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) arrived in England in 1710 with a reputation as a composer of Italian opera but anxious to demonstrate his skill for choral composition.  He never held a formal court appointment and it is thought that he might have taken advantage of a laxity of the arrangements in the early years of the 18th century, when the queen’s poor health restricted her formal appearance at court.  The Ode is thought to commemorate not only the queen’s 48th birthday on 6 February 1713 but also the Peace of Utrecht (which ended the War of Spanish Succession) which occurred at about the same time. The piece opens with an elegiac alto solo and echoing solo trumpet, ‘Eternal source of light divine’, welcoming the dawning of a new day.  All verses conclude with choral settings of the refrain ‘The day that gave great Anna birth/Who fix’d a lasting peace on Earth’.  Jubilant choral writing is interspersed with florid vocal solos; in the final section, ‘United nations shall combine/To distant climes the sound convey/that Anna’s actions are divine’ Handel divides the voices into two choirs, one a responding echo-chorus, before concluding with a return of the first setting of the refrain.