Blakean Music

While the appearances of Blake in cinema are relatively rare (see previous Zoamorphosis posts on William Blake and Film and Cannibalising Blake), the subject of William Blake and music is an extremely rich one.

From the early twentieth century onwards Blake has been an incredible inspiration to a vast number of composers and groups. Plenty of these will be returned to in future posts, but this represents a Top 10 – in no particular order – of some of the figures who have engaged most fruitfully with Blake.

  • Hubert Parry: While there had been some musical interest in Blake’s verse prior to Parry, it was his setting of the lines from Milton to music in “Jerusalem” that established Blake’s poetry in the minds of many. Parry himself encouraged its adoption as the anthem of the Women’s Suffrage League, although it was Elgar’s arrangement in 1922 that made it a work of nationalist jingoism.
  • Benjamin Britten: Britten worked with Blake’s poetry several times, such as in Serenade, A Charm of Lullabies, and, most significantly, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. The final version is usually reckoned one of his most sombre pieces.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams: Williams was commissioned to compose music for the 1958 film, The Vision of William Blake and, after his death, recordings were released as Ten Blake Songs, demonstrating Williams’s harmony stripped to its essential features.
  • Virgil Thompson: Just before Williams began work on his film score, Virgil Thompson created a marvellous series of arrangements based on Blake’s poetry called Five Songs from William Blake, using several of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience as the basis of his collection.
  • William Bolcom: Blakes Songs, this time all of them, were also the source of inspiration for Bolcom, who completed his setting of them to music in 1984, and a 2005 recording won three Grammy Awards, including Best Classical Album.
  • Dmitri Smirnov: Smirnov, born in Minsk, has been resident in Britain since 1991, apparently because it allows him to feel closer to Blake, the source for many of his compositions, including an opera, Tiriel, a ballet, Blake’s Pictures, and the beautiful The Lamentations of Thel.
  • Mike Westbrook: Crossing over from classical to other musical forms, Mike Westbrook has engaged several times with Blake’s works, most notably in his score for Adrian Mitchell’s 1971 play, Tyger. A letter collection, Glad Day, has been performed several times since.
  • Jah Wobble: Wobble may have made his name with post-punk bands such as P.I.L., but he was also always willing to entertain the divine visions of another Londoner, most notably on the album The Inspiration of William Blake, which includes selections of Auguries of Innocence and Tyger, Tyger, mixed in with Wobble’s own original compositions.
  • Ulver: Last but by no means least, the Norwegian progressive/metal band Ulver (whose name means “Wolves”) produced one of the most original albums ever to have been influenced by Blake in the form of Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It stumped their fans at the time, but has been a stalwart favourite of many Blakeans ever since.
  • The William Blakes: The most recent ones here, the William Blakes are a Danish pop and rock band, whose music doesn’t especially reference Blake (for example on the album “Wayne Coyne”), but whose name is testimony to the impact of the Romantic artist and poet as still remaining some cachet for any young bands who want to indicate a certain rebellious vision.

This list barely scratches the surface of Blake’s reception in music, and I have not myself even fully begun to explore the range of composers – classical and popular – who occasionally dip in and out of Blake’s verse. However, this list above provides a good starting point for anyone seeking for some of the more substantial fruits of his inspiration.

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