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At the opening she sadly mourns in ‘lovesick melancholy’, the melody plangently harmonized. Her first mad episode takes us to the kingdom of the fairies, halted just as rapidly at the gentle triple metre of ‘In yonder cowslip’ (which still maintains parallels with Shakespeare, now switched from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Ariel’s song in The Tempest). The lilting metre is briefly interrupted by a return to semi-recitative (‘For since my love is dead’) but is soon restored at Bess’s self-pitying ‘Poor Bess for his sake’: her desolate ‘groan’ leads to the marvellously lugubrious ‘I’ll lay me down and die’, with its list of nocturnal animals, so unsuited to ‘warble forth my elegy’. Pure madness dashes by in the gabble of ‘Did you not see my love’, as rapidly replaced by the triple time of ‘Ladies, beware ye’ and the mythological imagery of Charon and the Furies. A moment of relative sanity returns in the lilting ordinariness of ‘Poor Bess will return’, but the embittered chromaticism of ‘Cold and hungry am I grown’ leads into another brief flight of fantasy: she will feed upon the food of the gods. The final stanzas are more profound; those who are content do ‘all sorrow prevent’ and Bess is, so long as she is ‘free from the law’, in her thoughts ‘as great as a King’.
from notes by Robert King © 2003