Blake Set to Music: Cornelius Cardew

Nearly 30 years after his death in 1981, there seems to be a revival of interest in the English composer and political activist, Cornelius Cardew. On Friday 20 August 2010, the BBC Proms will feature a work by Cardew for the first time since the disastrous performance of part of The Great Learning at the Albert Hall in 1972. A late-night (10.00 pm start) mixed programme of English and American experimental traditions will include Cardew’s Bun No. 2 for Orchestra performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Ilan Volkov conducting.

Cornelius Cardew was born 7 May 1936, in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, the second of three sons of the potter Michael Cardew and his wife Mariel. Cardew’s career trajectory took him from the traditional schooling of a cathedral choirboy to an involvement in the most advanced musical thinking of his day, later rejecting the avant-garde to create music expressly to serve political occasions.

A setting of Blake’s “On Another’s Sorrow” dates from his teenage years. From 1953-57, Cardew studied piano, cello, and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Having won a scholarship to study at the Studio für Elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks in Cologne, Cardew served as an assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen from 1958 to 1960.

Most of Cardew’s compositions from this period make use of the serialist approach pioneered by Boulez and Stockhausen, including his two mature Blake settings. His biographer John Tilbury suggests that the choice of poet is significant, only partially explained by an artistic compatibility: “composer and poet shared concerns across a range of wider issues, both artistic and moral—in particular the dichotomy of impulse and spontaneity on the one hand and intellectual control and restraint on the other, and their perception of the reasoning faulty as potentially detractive of imagination”.

After 1960 Cardew began to develop the indeterminate and experimental scores for which he is best known, particularly his monumental Treatise (1963-67), a 193-page graphic score which allows for considerable freedom of interpretation, and The Great Learning, a 9-hour work in seven “Paragraphs”, based on the translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound. The Great Learning was to instigate the formation of the Scratch Orchestra.

My memories of Cardew the performer date from the late 1960s and early 70s—particularly of him as cellist and pianist with the free improvisation group AMM. Joining AMM was a crucial turning point in Cardew’s musical career and those performances remain vivid forty years later. They brought something new to one’s listening experience. Eddie Prévost, percussionist, was a co-founder of AMM, and remains its only constant member. He comments on its ethos:

The only way we have any purchase on the world is by our own actions. And just the thought of the usual strategies for political and cultural response—applying the democratic process—in the face of the overwhelming odds of tradition and existing economic and political power is immobilising. Our activities must be closer to home, closer to our being. To borrow from William Blake: it is in the development of the “minute particulars” that we have real power. As musicians our power is in how we decide to create sound. How we place a sound next to another. How we chime with or divert a musical course in dialogue with others—while at the same time developing the structure, the nature and the dynamic of dialogue itself. As an audience too we must decide how we discern and positively support these practical efforts in music-making, and insist upon such aesthetic priorities. If these considerations begin to command our musical lives and even become the basis for musical appreciation and cultural critique, then the power of those who wish to do things to others is challenged by the determination of those who choose to do things with others.

Cardew became a member of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) in the 1970s, publishing a tract, Stockhausen serves Imperialism (1974), which denounced, in Maoist self-critical style, his own involvement with the Western avant-garde. By 1979, now repudiating his former Maoist tendencies in favour of those of Enver Hoxha, he was a member of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). His creative output from the demise of the Scratch Orchestra until his death reflected this political commitment. Eddie Prévost comments

The irony for those who stood apart from this particular activism was that the music itself turned out to be so conservative. For example, the tune for his song We Sing for the Future is excruciatingly reminiscent of The Eton Boating Song … Music for Cardew had by that time ceased to be important in itself, and was only of use in the overall process of political propaganda.

Cardew’s significance is not just for musicians or for those interested in the fringes of left-wing politics, for Cardew being a good musician meant being a ‘real human being’. Like Blake, Cardew’s view of morality was based on integrity, of being true to oneself—a morality that was not imposed from without by a religion or a political party, but which came from within. John Tilbury’s massive biography, Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981): a Life Unfinished, over 1,000 pages long and 20 years in the making, appeared in 2008. He writes

Both Blake and Cardew praised inexplicitness in art, and their own was criticised for it. Blake for his failure to achieve sufficient control over his reader’s response, and Cardew for the failure of his notations to secure an accountable response from his performers. Both men regarded these ‘failures’ as virtues: ‘The wisest of the ancients considered what is not too Explicit as the fittest for instruction, because it rouses the faculties to act’. Blake’s belief in the inseparability of art and morality would also be echoed in the humanism embodied in Cardew’s notational experiments of the sixties … and the idea that participation is essential to finding value in life, even when it is destructive, is fundamental to the meaning of both Thel and to that of Cardew’s own life.

Perhaps the persistent Blakean pattern that Tilbury finds in Cardew’s life owes something to the continuing influence of his father’s William Morris-like approach as a craftsman. Michael Cardew had been a pupil of Bernard Leach. Readers of Suzuki and Clark’s Reception of Blake in the Orient (2006) will be interested to learn that Michael Cardew contributed to Leach’s A potter’s book (1940) alongside Yanagi Soetsu, arts and crafts thinker and pioneering Japanese Blake scholar. The teenage Cornelius may well have met Yanagi at the time of the International Conference of Craftsmen in Pottery & Textiles held at Dartington Hall in July 1952 which Yanagi Soetsu attended with Hamada Shoji, Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, and others.

Cardew died on 13 December 1981, the victim of a hit-and-run car accident near his London home in Leytonstone. The driver was never found.

Blake settings by Cornelius Cardew

[1] Chorale: “On Another’s Sorrow”, [from Songs of Innocence]. Written c. 1948, according to his brother Seth Cardew, but Tilbury suggests it may be a little later. Not seen.

[2] Voice from Thel’s Grave (“Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?”) for high voice and piano, [words from The Book of Thel]. Written in 1957. Unpublished.

First performed at the Aldeburgh Festival on 21 June 1957, with Josephine Nendick, soprano, and Cardew as pianist. Sound and Music (http://www.soundandmusic.org/resources/thecollection) holds a recording made by Josephine Nendick and Michael Finnissy (BMIC shelf number: 363). Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1991 in Music in our time; performers: Nicola Walker-Smith (soprano), Michael Finnissy (piano). British Library Sound Archive B8292/08.

A rigorously serial work, Voice from Thel’s Grave has an expressive vocal line using the kind of melismatic writing that Boulez had elaborated in Le Marteau sans Maître. As one might expect from a composer who was himself an exceptional pianist, the piano writing is demanding—using the whole range of the keyboard to create a variety of textures. Tilbury notes

The dramatic opening of the poem is well served; the piano creates an appropriate atmosphere in the opening bars: music shrouded in dark colours, and at the climax, ‘Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror and affright?’ the piercing qualities of high percussive tones are effectively exploited.

[3] Ah Thel (“Ah Thel like a rainbow a rift in cloud”) for choir, SATB, with optional piano accompaniment, [words based on a part of The Book of Thel]. Written 1962. Published by Novello, 1963. [Fitch 231]

Sound and Music holds a recording directed by John Tilbury (BMIC shelf number: 2017). Date recorded: 28.11.1990.

Composed during the summer of 1962, Ah Thel appeared as a supplement in the Musical Times in July 1963. Unlike Voice from Thel’s Grave the word-setting is strictly syllabic. The tempo is “slow and erratic, ruminative throughout”. Tilbury calls it as “a miniature masterpiece”:

The music is reflective, sensual, and eminently singable, with the occasional spoken phrase cleverly integrated into the texture … In the final phrase the voices sing just two or three notes, independently of one another, as the music regains its equilibrium, the melodic semitones of the inner parts providing a poignant accompaniment to the more consonant outer parts.

It is all over in two minutes or so.

Further Reading

Cornelius Cardew, Cornelius Cardew: a reader; edited by Edwin Prévost (Matching Tye: Copula, 2006).

Edwin Prévost, Minute particulars: meanings in music-making in the wake of hierarchical realignments and other essays (Matching Tye: Copula, 2004).

John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981): a life unfinished (Matching Tye: Copula, 2008).