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Inspired by John Keats

Dorothy Howell's Lamia
Dorothy Howell's Lamia

INSPIRED BY JOHN KEATS: Works by Edward Elgar, Dorothy Howell, and Edward MacDowell

Poets figure greatly in the world of classical music, of course, and John Keats touches all the music on this week's show.

EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934): Froissart Overture (1890). London Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin
DOROTHY HOWELL (1898-1982): Lamia (1918). Karelia Philharmonic Orchestra, Marius Stravinsky
EDWARD MACDOWELL (1860-1908): Lamia (1888). London Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Klein

Edward Elgar wrote on the score to his Froissart Overture this line: "When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high," which is from the Keats poem "To ****," which is about a secret admiration for a lady, which has nothing to do with Froissart, who was a medieval French historian, who traveled all over England, who wrote about its glorious history, thereby causing patriotic Englishmen such as Walter Scott, who mentions him in Old Mortality, and our previously mentioned Elgar, to hold him (Froissart) in the highest regard as a metonymy for all that is great about England.

That's clear, yes?

Froissart was Elgar's first orchestral work to gain him wide recognition (it premiered at the famous Three Choirs Festival), and although he allowed that it could be a bit stronger, he still was fond of it late in life. Dorothy Howell's Lamia, likewise, was her entree to larger musical society - at the age of 20 she was a hit. Having entered the Royal Academy of Music at 15, Howell was no Johnny-come-lately, but Lamia astonished listeners by its sure form, imaginitive orchestration, and liquid melodies - all produced by one so young.

Howell bases the music on the Keats version of the Greek myth, where a young woman, cursed, is changed into a snake. Her pleas to Hermes are answered, she is changed back into a woman and falls in love, but at the wedding celebration is recognized and denounced, whereupon she vanishes and her groom dies. The story is ripe for the romantic symphonic treatment, and it's interesting to juxtapose hers and the one by the American Edward MacDowell, who composed his Lamia 30 years earlier.

He was only 28 at the time he wrote it, but it wasn't published until long after, and never was performed during his lifetime, the premiere taking place months after his death in 1908. A debilitating illness and a traffic accident (he was run over by a horse-drawn carriage) sadly ended his composing and teaching. But his widespread influence in American music can be inferred from some of the names of the people who supported him in his remaining years: Victor Herbert, George Chadwick, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Grover Cleveland.

Sir Edward's fame is set, MacDowell's has waned and waxed, and Howell is hardly known, but it is our hope at Discoveries that they will not, like Lamia, vanish completely. May their poetry live on.