Program Notes

Ode to the Virginian Voyage

Ode to the Virginian Voyage

Showman Billy Rose claimed to have written the first singing commercial in the late 1920’s: A tender ditty titled Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?. He lacked a commission from Wrigley, but his claim is also rubbish because music has been used as propaganda for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Witness this Ode, penned by an English flack, Michael Drayton, in 1606, at the behest of the London Company, to sell a cruise to “Earth’s only paradise”, Virginia! And Drayton’s commercial was obviously a success, for three small ships, the Godspeed, Discovery, and Sarah Constant, departed on New Year’s Day, 1607– and more than a hundred passengers sang Drayton’s Ode during their four-and-a-half month voyage!

The impetus to colonize Virginia began with Sir Walter Raleigh, who visited the area in 1585, and conferred the name. An unlikely contributor was Rev. Richard Hakluyt, an Oxford-educated geographer who popularized the `age of discovery’ through a book, The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation, which first appeared in 1589, the year after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Hakluyt served as a technical adviser to the East India Company, and worked for some years on the staff of the English Embassy in France, but there is no evidence that he ever crossed the Atlantic. His publications and promotions, however, captured the fancy of the Elizabethan public, and one verse of Drayton’s Ode is a paean to his supposed expertise.

The original music to the Ode has been long lost, but the Virginia 350th Anniversary Commission invited the distinguished American composer, Randall Thompson, to set Drayton’s poem in the spirit of its time. Thompson, then 57 and teaching at Harvard, had taught at the University of Virginia from 1941 to 1946. Working in Gstaad, Switzerland, during the summer of 1956, he chose musical forms which were popular at the time of the voyage: Sarabande and hornpipe music for the Sinfonia; a glee in the first chorus; a ballad extolling the glories of Virginia; a chorale prelude based on the hymn tune St. Anne, suggesting the voyagers’ prayers of thanks at their arrival; and a madrigal dreaming of the future. The finale, praising Hakluyt, begins with a fugue, which was in 1600 an emergent musical form, growing out of the canon and ricercare through the work of organ and vocal composers such as Palestrina, Lassus, and the Gabrielis. Thompson’s setting of the Ode was first performed in Williamsburg, Virginia on April 1, 1957, just over 40 years ago.

So the singing commercial is provably at least 390 years old; now if we only knew what the Israelites sang on their way out of Egypt…

J. R. Fancher