What is an ode? And how has it developed through history?
Jeremy Pound traces the history and uses of the ode, a key musical form found originally in Greek poetry, and later used to serenade kings and queens
Past Coronations have featured them, and the Coronation of King Charles and his Queen Consort Camilla may include one or more examples. So what exactly is an ode, and how did the form develop?
- Browse our dozens of guides to key musical terms
What is an ode?
Odes were originally a type of Ancient Greek poetry. Using declamatory language, they largely praised a person or event and would often be either sung or recited with a musical accompaniment. Famous examples from the ancient world are those of the Greek poet Pindar (c520-c440 BC) and, in Latin, Horace (65-8 BC).
How did the ode develop in music?
Towards the second half of the 17th-century, musical odes were commissioned and composed to celebrate important events or people – these could be related to the royalty or nobility, but could also mark academic occasions or notable feast days, for instance. One of the duties of the Master of the King’s/Queen’s Music was to write odes for major ceremonial occasions.
What are some famous odes from the late 17th century?
Purcell wrote 24 royal odes from 1680 onwards. Of these, four celebrate St Cecilia, patron saint of music. Among the others, six welcome royalty; three celebrate James II’s birthday; six mark the birthday of Mary II; and the remaining five are in honour of other state occasions.
The most famous Purcell ode is Hail, Bright Cecilia, a 13-movement work for vocal soloists and instrumental ensemble that was first performed in on 22 September 1692. When Purcell died in 1695, he himself was commemorated by his fellow composer John Blow’s An Ode on the death of Mr Henry Purcell, which sets words by Dryden.
Which 18th-century composers wrote odes?
Probably the best-known ode of the 1700s is Handel’s 12-movement Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, first performed on 22 November 1739.
A quarter of a century before that, he also composed Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, complete with the natty chorus of ‘The day that gave great Anna birth, Who fix’d a lasting peace on Earth.’ Its charms were, however, probably lost on its subject, who had little time for music.
Which modern composers have written odes?
Though the ode started to die out as a means of musical celebration from the beginning of the 19th century, in 1902 Elgar composed a six-movement Coronation Ode for the crowning of Edward II and Queen Alexandra.
Moving further into the 20th century, Holst’s 1919 Ode to Death mourns friends killed in World War I by setting words written by Walt Whitman on the death of Abraham Lincoln.
And Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon of 1942 sets words by Byron to make a sardonic statement against Nazi tyranny, turning the original laudatory purpose of the form itself firmly on its head.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.