Music blog

22 November 2016

Treasures of the BL: Handel's Birthday Ode for Queen Anne

The final episode in the Sky Arts series ‘Treasures of the British Library' features the renowned trumpet soloist Alison Balsom. Following the format of the other episodes in the series, Alison visited the British Library to view and explore six items from the collection relating to her interests and professional life, and she was especially keen to see manuscripts of works that form part of her musical repertory.  Of particular interest was George Frideric Handel’s Birthday Ode for Queen Anne (HWV 74), scored for choir, orchestra, vocal soloists, and featuring an important obbligato role for the trumpet. The work is also known from the title provided by the first line of text, ‘Eternal source of light divine’. The manuscript is one of 96 volumes of Handel’s manuscripts now held by the British Library as part of the Royal Music Library collection (shelfmark R.M.20.g.2.).


Handel settled in London in the autumn of 1712 and this ‘Birthday Ode’ represents one of the first works he wrote in England, completing an initial version in early 1713 before revising it a year later. The words were by the English poet and politician Ambrose Philips (1674-1749) and celebrated not only the Queen’s birthday but also the Treaty of Utrecht, which had been negotiated in 1712 to end the War of Spanish Succession. The text thus includes the refrain ‘The day that gave great Anna birth / Who fix'd a lasting peace on earth’.


Queen Anne’s birthday fell on 6 February and it seems likely that the work was performed in her presence in 1714, either at St. James’s Palace or Windsor Castle, although no record of this performance is known. Handel does, however, write the names of the solo singers at the beginning of this manuscript, including the countertenor Mr [Richard] Elford, though not – alas! – the name of the trumpet soloist.


In accordance with our understanding of contemporary musical practice, trumpeters typically embellish the expansive melodic line in the first movement of the Ode with trills mirroring the vocal line (for an example, see Alison Balsom’s recording). It’s instructive to note, however, that the only trill that Handel himself marked in the manuscript is in the trumpet line at this climactic point at the end of the movement:


As an occasional piece, the Ode inevitably had a limited shelf-life, allowing Handel to reuse much of the material in later compositions. This manuscript therefore represented a source to be plundered for recycling. On his death, Handel bequeathed it with all the other manuscripts in his possession to his assistant John Christopher Smith. Smith’s son subsequently presented the collection to King George III who placed it in what became knwon as the Royal Music Library at Buckingham Palace.  A digital copy of the entire manuscript is available to view via the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website