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This article is taken from PN Review 223, Volume 41 Number 5, May - June 2015.

Vestiges 14: Cyril B. Rootham Adam Crothers
Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

John Milton’s ‘Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ is a challenging gift to somebody wishing to set verse to music. It invites specific musical colours: ‘harping’, ‘the silver chime’ of ‘crystal spheres’, ‘the bass of heaven’s deep organ’, ‘ninefold harmony’. Not necessarily easy to pull off, these provide the composer with guidelines to follow, or to ignore inventively. Yet, as the music described is an ‘angelic symphony’ of a standard not heard since the Creation, the bar is set high. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill ninefold harmony.                     

Further, Milton is keen to remind his readers that human art is worth little as compared to the celestial, declaring (on line 240 of 244): ‘Time is our tedious song should here have ending’. What is dutiful self-deprecation in the poem might shade into outright bathos towards the end of a sung version, ‘tedious’ or otherwise. Cyril B. Rootham, a significant figure in the musical life of St John’s College, the University of Cambridge and beyond, rose to the challenge in a 1928 setting of the work; while he retains the reference to tedium, he concludes the piece with a chorus of Revelation’s ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth!’, undercutting Milton’s artful modesty with climactic boldness.

Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge, with thanks to Dan Rootham

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