Op. 24 – Ode on a Grecian Urn

Soprano, Clarinet and Piano

  1. Thou Still Unravished Bride (3:58)
  2. Heard Melodies (4:12)
  3. Coming to the Sacrifice (4:35)
  4. O Attic Shape (6:09)

John Keats was inspired to write the Ode on a Grecian Urn when he walked into the British Museum one day to see the Elgin Marbles and was taken by this one earthen vessel on display decorated with all sorts of scenes of Greek life. He returned to the museum on a regular basis just to admire this object, and eventually immortalized it in this meditation on the nature of beauty and truth. The poem’s very existence testifies to the power of art to affect people’s lives.

I have set four of the poem’s five stanzas. The outer stanzas contemplate the object from the spectator’s point of view. On cue, Keat’s urn comes to life in his imagination, everyone springing into action at once. I think orgiastic describes the scene as Keats sees it, with its mad pursuit, struggles to escape, pipes and timbrels, etc.

In the middle stanzas he tries to literally put himself in their place. He speaks of the people in the world of the urn not as representations of reality, but as reality itself. Thus the aulos player on the urn can only play silent melodies because he’s only a painting on an urn. The bold lover is frozen in place on the urn, and thus can never complete the amorous act he’s initiated, but he can console himself with the knowledge that since the woman of his desire is also frozen in place, she will always be there for him, always as pretty and desirable as ever. Likewise, the village the worshippers at the religious ceremony came from is fated to remain ever vacant, since its residents are frozen in space at the site of the sacrifice ceremony. The extended instrumental section that concludes this third song is supposed to represent the ceremony itself. The idea of a sacrifice made me think of Bach’s Musical Sacrifice, or Musical Offering, so I included a fugue.

So everyone on the urn is frozen in one place forever, but that gives them immortality. Keats knows that they will continue to live when he and his contemporaries have passed on.

Some say the final summation Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know is too simple-minded. Is that all there is to truth? Don’t we need to know anything else? I think Keats meant only for the words beauty is truth, truth beauty to come from the urn. The remaining lines are addressed not to us, but to the urn. Its beauty is justification enough for its existence. It doesn’t need to solve world hunger, for instance, or put an end to warfare. All it needs is to be beautiful.