Dmitri Smirnov: 1948-2020

Along with a number of people, I have been extremely saddened to hear the recent news of the death of Dmitri Smirnov, the Russian-born composer whose love for Blake was such that he became a committed Anglophile and spent most of his career creating stunning and innovative compositions that set a multitude of Blake’s works to music.

Having contracted COVID-19, he passed away on Thursday, 9 April, leaving behind his wife – herself a great composer of note – and their children, Alissa and Philip. I had been in correspondence a few times with him because of our shared love for Blake, and there follows a piece I wrote on him as part of a wider essay dealing with the musical reception of Blake in Europe:

When Fitch was compiling his original catalogue in the late eighties, however, he noted that Soviet-bloc nations had yet to discover Blake, with two startling exceptions (1989, xxiv). Elena Firsovas (b. 1950) Proritzanye (Augury) is an impressive large-scale symphony composed in 1987-88, but it is the work of her husband, Dmitrii Smirnov (b. 1948), which demonstrates one of the deepest and most impressive engagements with Blake among the works of any composer. Born in 1948 in Minsk, Smirnov studied with Nikolai Sidelnikov, Edison Denisov and Yury Kholopov at the Moscow Conservatoire, as well as being influenced by Philip Herschkowitz, who introduced him to the serialism of Anton Webern, which Smirnov would combine with Franco-Russian sensualism (Smirnov no date). One of the most important Russian modernist composers, and one of the founders of the Association for Contemporary Music in Moscow in 1990, he and his wife moved to England in 1991.

The influence of Blake on Smirnov cannot be understated, beginning with his piece for soprano, flute, viola and harp, The Seasons, based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches,  first performed in Moscow in 1980 and then arranged as a symphony, performed by the Latvian Symphony Orchestra in 1981 (F1148, F1144). Thus began a decade during which Smirnov returned to Blake again and again, demonstrating a deep knowledge of Blakes works (which he often translated into Russian),4 whether occasional pieces such as To the Muses (included in the 1982 Ballada for Saxophone and Piano) or much more extensive pieces like the operas, Tiriel (1983-85, F1154), which premiered in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1989, and Lamentations of Thel (1985-86, F1146), performed in the same year at the Almeida Festival in London.

The 1980s represented a particularly intense period for Smirnov’s engagement with Blake (although by no means encompassing all his compositions at that time, which also drew upon writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Pushkin and Pasternak), and after his move to England he continued to draw inspiration from Blake, increasingly drawing upon the paintings which were now more readily available to him, as in his series of four Blake Pictures (The Moonlight Story, Jacob’s Ladder, Abel, and The River of Life), composed between 1988 and 1992. His performances in England were enthusiastically received, with Stephen Pettitt praising the premiere of JacobLadder for The Times in 1991. Although Blakes influence has been less prevalent on Smirnovs work in the twenty-first century, he continues to be an important source, for example in the Blake Sonata No. 6, performed in London and Cambridge in 2015.  A number of Smirnovs works were also included in the 2011 programme held to celebrate Blakes birthday at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, as part of the William Blake and British Visionary Art exhibition.

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.