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La belle dame sans merci

First line:
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms?
1914; SSATB; composed for the Bristol Madrigal Society
author of text

Stanford’s setting of Milton’s On Time, Op 142, and Parry’s setting of Keats’s ballad La belle dame sans merci were both composed in 1914 for the Bristol Madrigal Society, as commemorative pieces for the Jubilee of the Society’s conductor, Daniel Wilberforce Rootham. Sung by the Society in a ‘Ladies’ Night’ programme given on 14 January 1915 in the Victoria Rooms, Bristol, under Rootham’s direction, both works made considerable demands on the Society’s singers. As Parry (who was present along with Stanford) wrote, in a letter to the Society: ‘I dare say it is difficult, but I thought it might give a choir such as yours something to tackle.’

Although Parry assigned the title of ‘madrigal’ to La belle dame sans merci, its style and technique belong unquestionably to the part-song. But in contrast to the miniature conception of part-song design, Parry’s work looks to a more developed process of variation to illustrate the narrative form of Keats’s twelve verses. Indeed, it is compelling to observe the composer’s expansion of the opening material in verses 2 and 3; likewise, the forward-motion of the narrative necessitates subtle changes in verses 5, 6 and 7 which are all grounded in the relative major. As a contrast to the tonal stability of verses 1–3 (F minor) and 4–7 (A flat major), the ghastly phantasm of the ‘pale kings and princes’, with ‘their starved lips in the gloam’, is couched in passages of tonal dissolution which is only solemnly resolved by a recapitulation of the opening material. This time, however, the reiteration of the words and music has a more sinister and frightening connotation.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2016


English Romantic Madrigals
Studio Master: CDA68140Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 16 on CDA68140 [8'08]

Track-specific metadata for CDA68140 track 16

Recording date
25 April 2015
Recording venue
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Adrian Peacock
Recording engineer
David Hinitt
Hyperion usage
  1. English Romantic Madrigals (CDA68140)
    Disc 1 Track 16
    Release date: June 2016
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