Wine, women, fighting and song

Two glimpses of John Keats, described by his friends:

‘He was called by his fellow students ‘little Keats,’ being at his full growth no more than five feet high. . . In a room, he was always at the window, peering into space.’

‘Keats was in childhood not attached to books. His penchant was for fighting. He would fight any one–morning, noon, and night, his brother among the rest. It was meat and drink to him.’

My new concerto for bassoon with strings is a character portrait of this man. Yes, it’s an eccentric plan. Keats didn’t play the bassoon, but there’s an account of him imitating one at a drunken party when he and his friends decided to make an impromptu ‘orchestra’, each acting out a chosen instrument at the top of their voices, all at the same time. John Cage would surely have loved it.

There are so many fascinating sides to Keats; my piece explores different strands of his character in seven (mostly brief) movements. He was wonderful company: ebullient, charming, lively, good-looking; he could be the life and soul of the party, as we hear in the first movement. Following this, A living orrery imagines him in his schooldays, gradually learning to discover meaning and beauty and exhilaration in almost everything, from science to politics to literature. His school was an inspiringly enlightened and imaginative place, and the music borrows its plan from a monthly lesson where the boys were taken out into the garden to enact for themselves the orbits of the planets around the sun. The third movement evokes Keats’ romantic yearnings for the love of his short life, Fanny Brawne (who may be familiar from the film ‘Bright Star’).

Keats spent several years training as a surgeon – after qualifying, he gave it up for poetry – and in the fourth movement we glimpse him assisting at the operating table. Then follows the zany and drunken ‘concert’ mentioned above. Keats also suffered from bouts of deep melancholy – in today’s language, depression, perhaps – which takes grip in the sixth movement. Poetry was an urgent calling for Keats – throughout his life he refused to let distractions and disasters keep him from his work because he knew he had something unique, inspiring and important to say. So the seventh and final movement ends the portrait on a visionary note.  Blithe Wine is dedicated to Robert McFall and Peter Whelan, who will be giving the piece its premiere at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, before taking it on tour.

Keats’ nightmare

The nightmare in question seems to have haunted Keats not so much at night as during his waking hours, invading and derailing his daily thoughts and moods in a truly obsessive fashion. It’s a sudden vision, in brilliant and unwanted clarity, of the remorselessly savage cycles of the natural world – what Robert Browning later called ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’. I chanced across Keats’ ruminations on these haunting and melancholic thoughts in a verse letter he wrote to his friend J.H Reynolds, and soon found myself wanting to set them to music.

Some time later came a request for a new piece for tenor, horn and piano, a combination firmly stamped with the hallmark of Benjamin Britten, and for that reason initially somewhat intimidating to write for. But once I had found the first musical idea, I was able to forget about this and plunge back into Keats’ nightmare. The piece is called Unbidden Visions, and was written in August 2008.

Music by Jeremy Thurlow