Blake Set to Music: John Sykes

The music critic Andrew Porter said of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, that “there can be few English-speaking composers who … have not contemplated setting all forty-six of the poems”. Though, as Donald Fitch points out, few have actually realised any substantial part of that dream. Only the American composer William Bolcom has succeeded in setting all 46 poems as a single sustained composition. Many others have set substantial numbers of the poems, though not often as a connected set. A relatively unknown composer, John Sykes, came close. A provisional list of Sykes’s songs, compiled by Stephen Banfield, shows settings of all but nine of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Sykes eschewed commercial dissemination of his work to the extent that he published none of his songs and gained no professional performances of them in his lifetime.  There may well have been others like him, personally modest, content to write for themselves alone or for a few intimate friends; in Sykes’s case these included the pianists Mary and Geraldine Peppin and the latter’s husband Randall Swingler. A Blake-inspired poet active in the British Communist Party and a flautist of professional standard, Swingler wrote (with Auden) the libretto for Britten’s Ballad of Heroes, and supplied Sykes with some of his song lyrics. It is unclear if Sykes himself was a Party member.

John Austen Sykes was born in India in 1909. In 1928 he went up to Oxford as organ scholar at Balliol, where he was a contemporary of Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis. One contemporary considered him to have been the most distinguished music undergraduate of his time. After Oxford, he went to London, to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition under Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob. In 1936 he was appointed to the staff of Kingswood School, the Methodist boarding school in Bath, founded by John Wesley in 1748, and there he stayed, except for war service in the Pioneer Corps (he was a conscientious objector), until he died of cancer in the school Sanatorium in the summer term of 1962.

His only two published works were a Christmas anthem, The Child of the World (O.U.P., 1958)—a setting of words by Randall Swingler, and “Disposer Supreme”, a hymn tune published in the supplement to the old Methodist Hymn Book.

Most of his music was written either for the school or for a small group of friends. Over the years, he wrote something like twenty anthems for the chapel choir. A former pupil recalls

From the experience of my own lessons with him, where I learnt from him, rather than was taught by him, I have to say that Sykes was not all that brilliant a teacher: but he was far more—he was an inspiration. Without ever forcing it on us, he filled the school with music so that it was a natural and exciting part of our lives—and I don’t just mean those of us who eventually were to become professional musicians: it was for everybody.

Readers of E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (1963) must have been puzzled by his digression into an irrelevant denunciation of Kingswood School. The puzzlement increases when it is realised not just that Thompson was a pupil at that school (omission of such data is typically Thompsonian mauvaise foi) but that his discovery of Blake must owe much to a charismatic, left-wing, Blake enthusiast on the staff—John Sykes.

As Stephen Banfield has pointed out, Sykes’s Blake songs (two sequences of 16 and 20 songs, the one from Innocence and the other from Experience) are uneven; the simpler (though later composed) Songs of Innocence in particular, often relying too much on unmemorable ostinati and strophic repetition. The best perhaps show the influence of Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) and his admired Elizabethans. Banfield continues

One wishes [Sykes] had allowed himself more broad unfolding canvases, as in ‘Hear the voice of the bard!’. But when, as in ‘The little black boy’ or ‘Nurse’s song’, an extremely graceful melody is supplemented with unobtrusive harmonic colouring, the outcome is exquisite. ‘London’ is an isolated essay in dissonant modernity; but what concerns us here is his distancing himself backwards, like Warlock, to the renaissance. Although some of his later songs, notably the Homage to John Dowland, whose texts are even more of a referential tribute than the music, he consolidated his neo-Elizabethan manner, the one wholly outstanding example of it comes rather unexpectedly in the last of the Songs of Innocence, ‘On another’s sorrow’. It is perhaps unnecessary to comment at all on such a perfect song … except to say that with its wonderfully crafted melody and plastic metre, its sensibility of both romantic refinement and archaic artifice, and its transfixing marriage of an 18th-century text with a 16th-century manner, it seems the perfect encapsulation in English song of one era’s transmutation of another.

Blake settings by John Sykes

“Ah! Sunflower” (song for high voice and piano). Apparently an early work. A later setting is Songs of Experience, IV. [Fitch 1216]

“I love the Jocund Dance” (choral setting for SATB unacc.)

“Jerusalem” (unison song with piano, January 1939)—presumably an arrangement of Parry’s tune.

Songs of Experience (song cycle for voice and piano, ca 1931). [Fitch 1217]

I. “Introduction: Hear the Voice of the Bard”.—II. “Earth’s Answer”.—III. “My Pretty Rose Tree”.—IV. “Ah! Sunflower”.—V. “The Lilly”.—VI. “The Poison Tree”.—VII. “The Sick Rose”.—VIII. “The Fly”.—IX. “Holy Thursday”.—X. “The Tyger”.

Banfield and Fitch list further settings of “The angel”, “The garden of love”, “The little vagabond”, “London”, “The human abstract”, “Infant sorrow”, “To Tirzah”, “The schoolboy”, “The clod and the pebble”, and “The voice of the ancient bard”; these do not appear to form part of the Sykes Archive at Kingswood.

Songs of Innocence (song cycle for voice and piano, June 1935—March 1936). [Fitch 1218]

1. “Piping Down the Valleys Wild”.—2. “The Blossom”.—3. “The Shepherd”.—4. “The Ecchoing Green”.—5. “The Lamb”.—6. “The Little Black Boy”.—7. “The Little Boy Lost & Found”.—8. “Laughing Song”.—9. “A Cradle Song”.—10. “The Divine Image”.—11. “Holy Thursday”.—12. “Spring”.—13. “Nurse’s Song”.—14. “Infant Joy”.—15. “A Dream”.—16. “On Another’s Sorrow”.

“The Tyger” (duet, TB + piano). An arrangement of Songs of Experience, X, with lower voice part added. [Fitch 1219]

“To The Muses” (for SATB unacc.)

Further Reading

Donald Fitch, Blake Set to Music: A Bibliography of Musical Settings of the Poems and Prose of William Blake. Catalogs and bibliographies; 5 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)

Stephen Banfield, Sensibility and English Song (Cambridge: The University Press, 1985)


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