‘Love’s Goddess Sure was Blind’ the ode for Queen Mary’s Birthday, 1692 is Purcell’s fourth birthday Ode for Queen Mary II. It’s perhaps the most tender and intimate of the six birthday Odes and is scored strings and paired recorders. It starts with one of Purcell’s finest symphonies which is in two sections and characterised by very rich scoring. The first part is dominated by a six-note falling scale and a melody (which we hear only once in the violins, but three times in the viola and combines typically Purcellian wistfulness with glorious harmonies. The triple-time second section appears lighter in character at first but as we listen we become aware of an underlying melancholic mood which becomes more marked as the music progresses. The symphony gives way to the Ode’s text with the first lyrics of Charles Sedley‘s opening words being sung by the countertenor whose solo leads to one of Purcell’s typically elegant string ritornelli.
The subsequent bass solo (‘Those eyes, that form, that lofty mien’) has an off-beat accompaniment that adds a sense of urgency to the music. In marked contrast the duet that follows (‘Sweetness of Nature’) rises and falls gently with the alto and high tenor’s voices being paired with two pastoral recorders. This is followed by the soprano soloist singing a delightful minuet (‘Long may she reign’), which is repeated by the entire ensemble. The Ode’s next section (‘May her blest example chase’) takes its melody from a Scots ballad ‘Cold and Raw’ which Queen Mary was known to enjoy hearing sung. The ballad’s tune is used by Purcell as the bass line which must have been a bit of pest for him as it’s not particularly easy (or good!) harmonically. The advantage to being a genius however is that you can accomplish things that mere ordinary mortals cannot. Purcell persevered and forcibly grafted a melody onto it, and in fact it must be said he succeeded rather well – the ritornello is charming in a seventeenth century ‘rustic’ sort of way. I rather suspect that Purcell heaved a sigh of relief once he’d got that lot out of the way and turned his attention to the duet ‘Many such days’, in a career marked by one compositional tour-de-force after another this duet nevertheless stands out.
‘Many such days’ is set over a two-bar ground bass but instead of having the voices enter at the start of a repeat Purcell has them enter across the ground. It took a compositional genius to manage the contrasts and modulations that ensue within the movement without interrupting the bass’ progress but Purcell managed it leaving it until the string ritornello for the ground to traverse the string parts switching in turn through all the lines.
The final chorus ‘May she to Heaven late return’ is a masterpiece of counterpoint in which Purcell gives his imagination free rein in his handling of the subject and counter-subject while the quartet that follows (‘As much as we below’ ), is heavily laden with the discords that Purcell uses to such telling effect when he wants to evoke a mood of pathos and wistfulness. The chromaticism of the final word of the second-last line (‘As much as we below shall mourn‘ is particularly telling and leads to the Ode’s reflective and gentle last line.
It’s performed below by the The Symphony of Harmony and Invention and The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers. Enjoy :-).
Love’s goddess sure was blind this day (Sir Charles Sedley ±1639-1701)
Ode for Queen Mary’s Birthday, 1692 Henry Purcell (1659-1695):
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(The Symphony of Harmony and Invention)
2. Love’s goddess sure was blind this day
Love’s goddess sure was blind this day
Thus to adorn her greatest foe,
And Love’s artillery betray
To one that would her realm o’erthrow.
3. Those eyes, that form, that lofty mien
Those eyes, that form, that lofty mien,
Who could for virtue’s camp design?
Defensive arms should there be seen,
No sharp, no pointed weapons shine.
4. Sweetness of Nature and true wit
Sweetness of Nature and true wit,
High pow’r with equal goodness join’d,
In this fair paradise are met,
The joy and wonder of mankind.
5. Long may she reign over this Isle
Long may she reign over this Isle,
Lov’d and ador’d in foreign parts;
But gentle Pallas shield awhile
From her bright charms our single hearts.
6. May her blest example chase
May her blest example chase
Vice in troops out of the land,
Flying from her awful face,
Like trembling ghosts when day’s at hand.
May her hero bring us peace,
Won with honour in the field,
And our home-bred factions cease,
He still our sword and she our shield.
7. Many such days may she behold
Many such days may she behold,
Like the glad sun without decay,
May Time, that tears where he lays hold,
Only salute her in his way.
8. May she to Heaven late return
May she to Heaven late return
And choirs of angels there rejoice.
As much as we below shall mourn
Our short, but their eternal choice.