A precarious new dawn

Posted on: 20 January 2021, by :

Handel’s metaphysical sunrise, ‘Eternal source of light divine’, with its shimmering, breathtaking beauty, is my best choice of music for today, 20 January 2021, when the USA wakes to the new dawn of the beginning of the new presidential term. People of goodwill throughout the world are welcoming the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as a bright sunrise of hope, its rays breaking through darkness, despair and disunity, promising an end to the nightmare of the Trump years. It is an important moment for celebration and the restoration of trust, made all the more poignant for its precarious fragility: for no US president in modern times has inherited as much virulent domestic opposition or as many immediate crises and longstanding problems as the Biden administration now faces.

In the glad welcoming of such a pair — both an eminently worthy president and an exceptional, ground-breaking choice for vice-president — there is ‘double warmth’ in the lustre of hope that shines over the ceremonies today. That same duality is in this music, through its complementary vocal and trumpet parts.

Eternal source of light divine!
With double warmth thy beams display
And with distinguish'd glory shine
To add a lustre to this day.

The new dawn that this music was composed to celebrate was also a precarious one, with a deeply uncertain future. It is the opening section of the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, written in 1713 and revised the year later, presumably performed in 1714 on or close to 6 February, the Queen’s birthday, although no record of any performance survives. While it was customary in Britain for the monarch’s birthday to be honoured at court with a special ode (typically composed by the Poet Laureate and set to music by the Master of the Queen’s Musick), this one is exceptional in several respects, not least because the poem heaps praise on ‘great Anna’ for achieving nothing short of world peace even though she was by then a weak and ailing monarch, virtually powerless in the political instability of her nation. Each of the seven stanzas of the ode, written by Ambrose Philips, ends with
    The day that gave great Anna birth
    Who fix’d a lasting peace on Earth.
The peace was the various treaties of Utrecht, negotiated in 1711-12 and signed in 1713, which had extricated Britain from one of the first pan-European wars, the War of Spanish Succession.

Although one enemy (France and her allies) was thus neutralized for a while, other national threats remained, notably the likelihood of rebellions by the Jacobites (the adherents of the Catholic successors of Anne’s late father, James II, deposed in 1689). It was also a time of awkward, less-than-friendly transition, anticipating the moment when Princess Sophia, dowager duchess of Hanover and since 1701 the Protestant heir, would inherit the throne. Even the fact that Handel was commissioned for the music of both the Birthday Ode and the special settings of the Te Deum and Jubilate that celebrated the Peace of Utrecht smacks of political shenanigans and even an undermining of Anne’s court, for those jobs by tradition would never be given to a foreigner. Handel was officially the Kapellmeister to Sophia’s son George, Elector of Hanover, and it must have seemed politically expedient to promote his standing as a concession to the incoming royal family. Following this new dawn, there was not long to wait for the inevitable: later in 1714 George succeeded to the throne as George I following the deaths in quick succession of both his mother, Sophia of Hanover, aged 83, and Queen Anne herself.

Alex Potter (countertenor), Sebastian Philpott (trumpet), the European Union Baroque Orchestra and the choir of Clare College Cambridge, directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, in a concert that includes the whole Ode given in Utrecht on 31 August 2013 (for the full concert click here).

Iestyn Davies (countertenor) and Alison Balsom (trumpet) with the The English Concert directed by Trevor Pinnock, in a recording session in 2012. The whole album is available on Spotify.

Handel composed the vocal part for the countertenor Richard Elford, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and one of the most accomplished singers in London, who also died later in 1714. Elford’s name appears in Handel’s hand on the first page of his manuscript, which may be seen here. Today this fine piece is often sung an octave higher by a soprano, which can make the beams of ‘light divine’ seem even brighter. In the recording below, it is sung by Grace Davidson, one of today’s most accomplished singers, with the saxophonist Christian Forshaw.