Stanford’s La belle dame sans merci
is a setting of Keats’ famous 1819 ballad of the unnamed knight fatally bewitched by the mysterious ‘faery’s child’—a favourite subject for composers and pre-Raphaelite painters alike. Stanford composed this celebrated song early in 1877 (making it an exact contemporary of Sullivan’s The Lost Chord
), drawing on sketches he had made over a decade earlier. As in many of Loewe’s ballads (Stanford’s probable model), the successive verses vary the plain, bardic melody, with the piano-as-orchestra adding atmosphere and illustrative detail. A seductive, remote modulation lures the knight to his ruin (‘She took me to her elfin grot’). In the penultimate verse he awakens to eerie chromatic harmonies, before text and music return to the chill reality of the opening.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2011