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Flutes 1 & 2 Flute 3 (piccolo) Oboes 1 & 2 Oboe 3 (Cor Anglais) Clarinets 1 &2 in B flat Clarinet 3 (Bass-Clarinet) Bassoons 1 & 2 Bassoon 3 (Contra-Bassoon) 4 Horns in F 3 Trumpets in B flat 3 Trombones Tuba Timpani (3) 4 Percussion: (BD, Tam-tam, Cymbals, Suspended Cymbal, Triangle, Tom-toms, Glockenspiel) 2 Harps Celeste Strings (optimum 16,14,12,10,8)
In 1994 composer Howard Blake was invited to compose an orchestral work to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of English Heritage, an organization concerned with the protection of historical monuments, buildings and spaces in the United Kingdom. The premiere was scheduled for performance at the outdoor Kenwood Lakeside concert venue on Hampstead Heath and the composer recalled that poet John Keats had lived nearby. On research he discovered that Keats had written his famous poem exactly 175 years previously on that very spot and it seemed splendidly appropriate to take the poem as inspiration for an orchestral tone-poem. Keats was at the very centre of the ‘Gothic revival’ movement, which revived an enthusiasm for a much-romanticized view of ‘The Middle Ages’, seen as a glamorous time of knights in armour, dashing white steeds and damsels in distress. Much has been written about the poem. Some see it as a premonition of Keats’ own tragically early death (at 26); others are convinced that ‘La Belle Dame’ represents his poetic muse, whilst mythographer Robert Graves considered it the finest realisation in poetry of the age-old myth of the White Goddess who discards the god of the Old Year for the god of the New. In 1819 Keats first sketched ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ in a letter to his brother George. He was only 24 and had given up medical training to devote himself to poetry, whilst falling obsessively in love with Miss Fanny Brawne, a fashionable Hampstead resident of good family, whom he longed to marry. However he found that he was not in a position to propose marriage because his devotion to poetry meant that he no longer had any sound financial prospects. Her frivolity and calculated flirting with others increased his frustration. He also had a pretty good idea that he was dying, having recently nursed his brother Tom in the last stages of consumption. (The ‘lily on the brow’, the ‘cheek a fading rose’ and the ‘fever dew of the knight-at-arms’ are thought to be references to consumptive fever.) So he must have felt that he could not now honourably ask Fanny, his inspiration, to marry him. Less than two years later he was dead.
La Belle Dame was clearly written under the shadow of death, if not Keats’ own, then that of his brother, Tom. It can be taken on at least three other levels. The faery’s child with her siren song bewitches with her beauty, feeds the knight with manna and nectar, food of the gods, but leads him, if not to Hell at least to a vision of Hell. The poem depicts the illusion of love shattered by cruel deceit. This is a universal theme, but must reflect the angst of a young man constrained by his circumstances from consummating his passion for a woman who he felt was toying with him. Perhaps ‘La Belle Dame’ herself also represents the poet’s muse in abstract form, the driving force of the creative mind. In myth the White or Moon Goddess is portrayed as bringer of death, but also poetic immortality. Men, often princes or even enchanters like Merlin, are besotted and charmed and are either immured or sacrificed or sent on the road to Hell. She is like the spider whose embrace is death. Howard Blake’s music reflects the varying moods of the poem, with the siren’s song represented by the flute and the knight’s leit-motif on the cellos leading to a terrifying portrayal of the nightmare visions on full orchestra - from which he eventually awakens.