Music reviews: Tender Symmetry, Ghost Gamelan, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil

2018 and early 2019 have seen a number of interesting musical settings of Blake’s poetry or compositions influenced by him, three of which are reviewed in this music round up.

The first album is Tender Symmetry by Michael Price is the follow up to his 2015 debut, Entanglement, and its 2017 successor, Diary. Having begun his career as a music editor for film and television (for which he won an EMMY award in 2014), Price had achieved considerable success before releasing his own compositions, and for his third album he has decided to base the various tracks on work by William Blake. The various tracks were recorded at a number of National Trust locations, including the ruins of Fountain Abbey and Quarry Bank in Cheshire; the reason for these on-location recordings is that the album as a whole is also intended as a meditation on the sense of location. In some cases, this is – to be honest – redundant: I wouldn’t have known where the recordings were taken place without the luxurious sleeve notes, but in one case at least, “Willow Road”, the echoing effect on the singer’s voice is electrifying.

Tender Symmetry is a work which frequently alludes to Blake rather than necessarily setting lyrics from the poems to music, although this does happen on some of the tracks on the album, such as “Speke” (“The Garden of Love”) and “Willow Road” (“Ah! Sun-flower”).The album as a whole moves away from Price’s electronic-themed work to focus on orchestral settings, the effect of which can be extremely beautiful – “Speke” is an exceptional example of this, with the delightful soprano Grace Davidson and the Shards choir. Throughout, however, the entire album is delightful, whether the simple cello and strings of “Willow Road” or the more fulsome orchestrations of “Quarry Bank” and “Shade of Dreams”. The majority of the tracks on the album are relatively minimalist (think a step up from Michael Nyman), while a few bring more depth to their arrangements.

The use of Blake is indicated via reprints of his various poems, including “Holy Thursday”, “The Lily” and “A Cradle Song” as well as those mentioned above, in the beautiful booklet that accompanies the album. Without the liner notes, in some cases it would be fairly obscure as to why Price incorporates these lyrics alongside his beautiful music: with the various settings, it strikes me that the overall effect is to use Blake as a particular example of English music, by which I mean an especial sense of place rather than anything remotely approaching nationalism. Blake functions as a genius locii for the songs, offering a pastoral vision for these classical settings. The whole creates a beautiful, if slightly esoteric, adaptation of Blake’s words.

The second track reviewed here is from the 2018 album, Ghost Gamelan by Susheela Raman. Raman, who was born to South Indian parents in London and raised in Australia, offers a fantastic combination of classical Indian influences with some of the more alternative of European and western traditions. Whereas many performers dealing in a fusion of east and west tend to focus on pop or rock traditions, Raman is as likely to name check the industrial band Throbbing Gristle, or the work of her long term collaborator, Sam Mills, who was a founding member of 23 Skidoo. Having been nominated the Mercury Prize for her 2001 debut album, Salt Rain, which brought her blend of British-Asian music to a wider audience, she has often used Indian style dance rhythms, as in the wonderful “Chordhiya” from the 2005 album Music for Crocodiles, or the hypnotic “Half Shiva Half Shakti” on 2003’s Love Trap.

The allusion to Indian classical styles – which does not, by any means, indicate the full extent of Raman’s style – is important because of the refracted influence it has on the song from Ghost Gamelan which is reviewed here: “Rose”, the final track on the album, is a setting of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to music, and is unlike just about any version of that poem that you have heard before. If there is an echo – which I am fairly sure is unconscious – it is with the song “Love’s Secret Domain” by Coil, pertinent here because they were one of the spin-offs from Throbbing Gristle which Raman says have played a role in her musical style. Unlike Genesis P. Orridge’s original outfit, with its discordant, intense industrial noise, Coil were increasingly willing to experiment with eastern instruments and sounds on later music, merging these into aslant renditions of techno performances that were intended to transform the listener’s perceptions (hence their own fascination with Blake). This is not at all to say that “Rose” is directly influenced by Coil’s music, rather that the gamelans used for this track – the Indonesian hand drums and metallophones (a kind of xylophone) – create a haunting, slightly dissonant effect that does indeed change the listener’s understanding of Blake’s song. “The Sick Rose” becomes a strangely beautiful, strangely sickly echo of itself, making this one of the most memorable versions of that poem yet.

The final album is, in many ways, the most oblique: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil is the third in a series of collaborations between Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch, and is described by the pair as an exploration of “the theology of William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg” via the occult work of “Helena Blavatsky”. Of that comment, I’ll shall be much more scathing below, but it is worth noting two things: first of all, that Jarmusch’s interest in Blake extends back at least to his wonderful 1995 film Dead Man, and that with van Wissem (who describes himself as an “experimental lute player”) the duo have not been concerned in the slightest to play around on their various releases.

On first listening, I was tempted to agree with Grayson Currin’s remark that it would be harder to “conjure a more esoteric scenario for an album” than this one, and initially the album is heavy going. This is perhaps most true on the most overtly Blakean track – “When the Sun Rises Do You Not See a Round Disc of Fire” – which concludes the record, taken from a statement made by Blake that appears in Gilchrist:

When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.

This comment by Blake is clearly intended as a key to unlock the instrumental gnosis of the album: for Blake, all perception is shaped by imagination so that, unlike the miser who sees a gold coin, Blake sees angels rising into heaven. The joyful nature of this statement is transformed into an extended drone of guitars that conclude with a voice reading from Godfrey Higgins’ Anacalypsis. This work, with its subtitle – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis or an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions – is the kind of thing Blake would have read during his lifetime (HIggins published it fifty years after Blake’s death), and I have a suspicion that the combination of Blake and Higgins is due to Coleridge’s joke on Blake being an “ana-calyptic” rather than apocalyptic poet (the pun being that Blake does not reveal – the original meaning of apocalypse – so much as obscure).

This, if true, is… clever. Too clever, for me. On a very personal note, the summation of my own feelings towards Blavatsky are best summed up by Peter Washington’s excellent book, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, and too serious an attempt for me to combine Blake and Swedenborg should always bear the following quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in mind:

A man carried a monkey about for a shew, & because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conciev’d himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the folly of churches & exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious. & himself the single (E42-3)

As some kind of theosophical treaty, then, I am unconvinced by An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, and for a more coherent experiment with Blake’s skewed theology I would still recommend Ulver’s 1998 album, Themes from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, though even that is a little serious for me these days. Yet in the end, these comments also are too serious: Swedenborg and Blavatsky are fringe figures, one at least of whom Blake was able to mock, and very few listeners to this album will have actually read either of them. As such, they create a mood rather than a serious structure for esoteric enlightenment – which draws us to the music itself. While obscure to begin with, some tracks – such as “The Unclouded Day” – quickly become more lucid, with van Wissem’s beautiful playing, and the elongated, heavy mood of tracks such as “Dark Matter” throb away in such a fashion that they provide a melancholy contrast that is hypnotic. If one is willing to draw aside the veil with a lightness of touch, this is certainly one of the most interesting albums to be inspired by Blake in recent times, though I for one cannot take it too seriously.

Michael Price – Tender Symmetry, Erased Tapes, 2018, £20.
Susheela Raman – Ghost Gamelan, Naive, 2018. RRP £11.99.
Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, Sacred Bones Records, 2019. $7-$19 at Bandcamp.

Review: Astralingua – Safe Passage

Ten years may be a long time to wait between debut and follow up, but the launch of the album Safe Passage earlier this month as the second release by space-folk duo, Astralingua, is a collection of thoughtfully crafted songs. Comprising vocalist Anne Rose Thompson and composer/vocalist Joseph Andrew Thompson, their first EP, Contact, came out in 2008; one reason it has taken them so long to release Safe Passage is because parts of it have been recorded in the Mojave Desert, others in a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The duo, based in Denver, Colorado, are joined on this album by various musicians to provide string, woodwind and mandolin accompaniment and the overall effect is entrancing. Joseph Thompson has described their style as “spacey” – in the colloquial sense, but also referring to both the sensation of open space that they hope to inspire with their tracks, as well as the musical sense of slower tempos and long echoes. This creates a series of frequently haunting, always beautiful songs, which first came to my attention because of the their first single from the album, an adaptation of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”.

The first track on the album, “Plunge”, is the most upbeat of the songs included here, a beautiful start to the album with Joseph and Anne accompanied by a string octet with sections that echo The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It is a particularly rousing start to Safe Passage and is intended as a more stirring introduction to the tracks that follow. The tone changes immediately with the following track, “Visitor”, a more minimalist and much slower piece that begins with solo guitar and delicate vocal harmonies before other instruments slowly join in. The lyrics, including the haunting opening line, “Come with me my weary child, cold and all alone”, draw on various poetic references such as W. B. Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” and Geothe’s “Erlkönig”; the whole song is ambiguous as to whether the child has ascended into heaven or has died, and this melancholy theme continues throughout the rest of the album.

“Sweet Dreams” continues the pensive reflections introduced by “Visitor”, with the subtle Travis-style guitar accompanied by mournful guitar and, as with every track on Safe Passage, the harmony of Joseph and Anne Thompson’s voice is frequently breathtaking. “The Nimble Men”, the shortest piece on the album, is presented as a chaos of sound that breaks the softer themes of “Sweet Dreams” and “Space Blues”, one of my particular favourites: while dealing with the experience of travelling through physical and interior space, it demonstrates the ambition of Astralingua’s music, seeking to offer a musical meditation on awareness and experience. “Phantoms”, while also following the slow tempo of the majority of the album, strikes a very different, more forceful tone as the confident, minimalist piano solo is interrupted by mournful cello and then disturbed, cackling voices; with “NSA” – a reference to “No Strings Attached” – these three pieces can be seen as representing the pivot of the album, a meditation on loneliness that lead us to the single that was the initial inspiration for this review.

“A Poison Tree”, which was released at the end of 2018, is a superb interpretation of Blake’s Song of Experience. The simplicity of the guitar, mandolin and violin accompaniment create a sound that has – fittingly for this space folk duo – been described as celestial. It is an extremely original interpretation, with Joseph Thompson having said in interviews that he has wished to bring out the playfulness of Blake’s poetry. I would remark that this would seem a very unusual interpretation for such a poem that is usually seen as a darker meditation on themes of revenge, but – in a very different style – it can be seen also as a motivating factor in one other adaptation, the Britpop bounce of Blur’s Magpie, which was the B-side to Blur’s 1994 single, “Girls and Boys”. For me, when listening to the song it demonstrates more a sense of wistfulness, perhaps, that anger should lead to destruction: certainly it ranks as one of the very best popular interpretations of Blake’s poem.

The adaptation of Blake is followed by three very different tracks that are, however, linked by a slower tempo. “The Fallen” is, like “NSA” and “Space Blues”, one of the longer and more ambitious tracks on the album. It also includes a number of literary and folk references, such as to “The Unfortunate Rake” and “The Cowboy’s Lament” (which later influenced the Scottish song, “Willie McBride”) as well as echoes of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in the final word, “Nevermore”. “Passage to Albion”, which follows, is one of the most beautiful pieces on an album that brims with a range of sweet harmonies, while the final track on Safe Passage, “The Troubled Road”, is a much longer and somewhat darker piece: a narrative song, it follows the singer as he travels along the road that leads to the Styx, this lost Orpheus apparently unaware that he has died and is now entering Hades.

The space folk sound that Astralingua evoke on Safe Passage is entirely their own, but has echoes for me of other artists who sometimes fall into this category, particularly those who explore the more melancholy aspects of the genre, such as Fever Ray in “If I Had a Heart”, Grimm Grimm’s “Hazy Eyes Maybe” and the superb “Dead Queen” by Espers. You can listen to the album via streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, or order the album from Astralingua’s Bandcamp page. It is delicate, melancholy and, with its tribute to Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, a completely original setting of one of the Romantic artist’s most famous poems.

Safe Passage, released March 8, 2019, and available as CD and digital download from astralingua.bandcamp.com.

 

Blakespotting: News about William Blake in February 2019

February was a busy month for Blake-inspired music. Reviews began to appear for the most significant launch of the new year, Fearful Symmetry: The Songs of William Mac Davis, which was released by Centaur Music. Performed by Lynda Poston-Smith (soprano) and Robert Carl Smith (piano), the album comprises a series of eight songs drawn from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, as well as additional pieces that take their lyrical inspiration from Christopher Smart and various other poets and lyricists. World Magazine described it as a series of melodies that “command immediate attention”, particularly as sung by Poston-Smith.

Other releases were somewhat more allusive rather than being direct settings of Blake to music. Thus the new single from These New Puritans, “Anti-Gravity”, was inspired by Blake’s quote that “the imagination is not a state, it is human existence itself” according to reviews such as those in DIY Magazine. Likewise, Hearbreak (for now) by Roman Lewis includes a track, “Rose”, that references Blake’s “My Pretty Rose Tree” and can be heard at Clash. Somewhat more substantial is An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil by Jim Jarmusch and Josef van Wissem. Jarmusch is famous for his Blakean movie, Dead Man, and this new collaboration with van Wissem, according to an interview with Pitchfork, draws upon Helena Blavatsky as well as William Blake to perform an occult meditation on apocalyptic visions.

February also saw a number of live performances, such as the Martha Redbone Roots Project, which played in New Jersey at the Lackland Performing Arts Center, and Mike Westbrook who performed some of his Blakean pieces as well as others at Ronnie Scott’s in London.

In contrast to new musical releases, February was quiet in terms of the literary and visual arts, but previews appeared for a major video game release due in March that makes considerable use of Blake’s words. Plenty of commentators noted that the protagonist of Devil May Cry 5, V, cites Blake throughout the game, The Independent observing that the game is probably the best in series so far, and Videogamer announcing more simply that it is “bloody brilliant”. Theories began to appear on Reddit that the game draws upon The Book of Urizen, but my favourite comment is that, apparently, V has “a dedicated button to recite William Blake poetry during combat“. Less impressive was the new movie Burning Men, a virtual straight-to-streaming release in which the lead for the band Burning Men, Ray, also quotes Blake regularly. According to Cath Clarke in The Guardian, however, the whole experience is rather dreary and depressing.

Finally, Blake made a couple of other, interesting appearances during February. The first was as inspiration for the poet and model Wilson Oryema who, in a poem written for The Guardian‘s fashion section, said that his inspiration was William Blake and Nayyirah Waheed. Blake was also the source for a debut collectino, SS19, from the fashion brand maharishi, which drew on quotations from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to demonstrate “a balanced interaction of opposing forces” in its new range.

Review: Johanna Glaza – Albion

Superlatives are the bane of reviews. In recent months, however, I have found myself throwing superlatives around with abandon when describing a number of artists – usually women – who have demonstrated a profound relationship to the words and art of William Blake, whether it is Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead, Harriet Stubbs’ astonishing performance on Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception or, now, Johanna Glaza’s EP, Albion. The four pieces included on this release, available via streaming or as a cassette, demonstrate a remarkable talent which refuses to be easily described and which has made me listen to Blake’s words as though I have heard them for the first time.

Glaza, born in Lithuania and resident now in London, is an independent artist who records music that she describes as “baroque folk songs with an avant-garde twist“. Her previous releases, available at Bandcamp, include Wind Sculptures (2017), Paper Widow (2014) and Silence is Kind (2013), all of which have attracted considerable praise with comparisons to Kate Bush and Tori Amos but, as more percipient critics have observed, her experimental music only bears at most a passing resemblance to those artists. On this new EP, the track “Isabella” is perhaps the one that would work best as a single for wider consumption, offering as it does something approaching a more conventional lyrical verse-chorus-verse structure and musical signatures that generally balance each other – although even then the shift in tone in the middle is nothing short of astonishing. Indeed, even this, the nearest you will find to normality on Albion, reminded me at times of early Genesis when Peter Gabriel flirted on the edges of acceptable easy listening.

By contrast, the preceding “The Future Was Not the Animal I Saw” is much closer to a Steve Reich composition or the post-tonal serialism of Henri Pousseur. The fact that I am searching for analogies in classical rather than popular music demonstrates just how idiosyncratic this wonderful piece is, while the final track, “Broken Ray”, is a heart-wrenching lamentation in which the ambient keyboards perfectly suit the intensely beautiful lyrics:

Like a broken ray of sun
Upon my chest, upon my chest
Lies your path
You walk away

The wound in the sky
Never heals, never heals

And where your heart used to be
Lies a stone
Lies a stone
Upon the hill

Beautiful as the entire EP is, however, the reason for reviewing it here is because of the titular track: drawing upon lines from Blake’s Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, it has correctly been described as “the work of genius” by Paul Scott-Bates: when first listening to this, many will disagree, but each time I hear this track I can only agree with Scott Bates. Of course, I am an unusually pertinent target listener for such a track, but I am increasingly astonished by the dynamic range and dramatic qualities of Glaza’s voice. In addition, the deceptively simple piano accompaniment, frequently pivoting around a series of notes and percussive accompaniment, is perfect for the metrical complexity of Blake’s words, the first lines of which are reproduced below from plate 43 of Jerusalem:

We heard the voice of slumberous Albion, and thus he spake,

Idolatrous to his own Shadow words of eternity uttering:

O I am nothing when I enter into judgment with thee!
If thou withhold thine hand; I perish like a fallen leaf:

O I am nothing: and to nothing must return again:
If thou withdraw thy breath. Behold I am oblivion.

I can barely begin to explain just how electrifying these and the following lines are when sung by Glaza, maintaining a beautiful, angelic modulation for lines that could easily become atonal. It is simply stunning, a full embodiment of the human voice divine that sounds utterly unfamiliar, even alien at the same time. While remaining entirely original, it also reminds me of a similar experiment by Marc Almond and John Harle, The Tyburn Tree (Dark London) from 2014 which also took lines from Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion to create a disturbing, haunting composition. I have long been a fan of Almond, but I’m afraid in this particular instance even that bold work has been surpassed by Glaza who has produced an astonishing piece of work: Jerusalem does indeed have a voice, and her name is Johanna Glaza.

Albion (2018) by Johanna Glaza is self-released and is available from johannaglaza.bandcamp.com.

“A Blakean Year”: 2018 in Review

2018 began in spectacular fashion with the opening of an exhibition at Petworth House in Sussex on January 13. Entitled William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, the exhibition concentrated on Blake’s experiences and art from 1800-1803 when he lived at nearby Felpham, as well as other works subsequently created by him for the Earl and Countess of Egremont who lived at Petworth. It was for Elizabeth Ilive that Blake produced one of his most ambitious works, A Vision of the Last Judgement, which rightly formed the centrepiece of this display of some of his most exceptional paintings and prints.

Other exhibitions from the beginning of the year included Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries at Carnegie Mellon University, where Wilding formerly taught, and demonstrating her multiple influences, including Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf and, of course, William Blake. Also on show from February to April was “Tales of the Unseen”, work by Siggi Ámundason, whose large-scale pen drawings reference William Blake as well as eighties anime, Goya and Francis Bacon.

Musically, the big news at the beginning of 2018 was the announcement of U2’s £xperience + Innocence tour to accompany their 2017 album, Songs of Experience. More affecting to me personally was the death of Mark E. Smith, frontman of post-punk band The Fall, in January, whose life was probably best summed up by the headline “Mark E. Smith Was a Complicated Bastard“. He was also something of a fan of William Blake, demonstrated not least by his cover of “Jerusalem” for the album I Am Kurious Oranj. Other releases in winter and spring included two albums that referenced Blake songs – Shawn Colvin’s The Starlighter, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Englabörn & Variations, including the tracks “Cradle Song” and “Holy Thursday” respectively. There was also, in March, a new version of “Jerusalem” released as Team England’s official anthem for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, as well as the premiere of Daniel Kidane’s Songs of Illumination in April.

Blake-influenced publications in early 2018 included the quite astonishing comic, Her Infernal Descent, which was released in five parts throughout the year. A reinterpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a middle-aged woman is led through hell by Blake as her spirit guide, offering satire and commentary on life in the twenty-first century as well as a rather profound portrayal of loss. This was joined in April by the publication of Polaris Ghost by Eric G. Wilson, a collection of short stories that reference Blake throughout, as well as Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a new collection of prose poems that offered her response to the election of Donald Trump among other things. Julia Fine’s wonderful debut novel, What Should Be Wild, offered Blakean elements of horror and fantasy in the style of an Angela Carter fairy tale.

2018 was, as ever, a busy one for The William Blake Archive, which saw a number of new publications, including new copies of JerusalemUrizen, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, as well as entirely new additions in the form of Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue and his Notebook. The major addition, however, was Vala, or The Four Zoas, which now makes widely available the fragile manuscript of Blake’s most ambitious epic poem.

The middle of the year saw a number of Blakean citations in film and television, not least the Criterion Collection of reissue of Dead Man for blu-ray, which prompted a number of retrospective reviews, such as this at Glide Magazine. Much more controversial was the release of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, a bloody serial killer movie that notes Blake’s “The Tyger” as a model and which, frankly, did not receive great reviews. By contrast, more people were impressed by the fact that season two of Westworld offered multiple quotations from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence as a running theme for its depiction of mankind’s inhumanity to robot. Will Franken’s Red, White & Blake sought to rescue the Romantic poet from bland, liberal academics such as myself, offering a heartfelt plea to return Blake to his position as national writer and artist.

Significant news was Tate Britain’s announcement of a huge forthcoming Blake exhibition, and there was a truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art by Jack Handscombe, a student at Edinburgh College of Art, who produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”. Elsewhere in the arts, a new piece of choreography and music inspired by Blake, entitled Apolión and directed by Jerónimo Búffalo, was performed at the Art Centro de Arte UNLP in Buenos Aires. In London, a new show in London was announced, Wirework (originally written by Daleen Kruger in Afrikaans in 2009 but translated into English this year) at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas, Wirework explores how they created an extraordinary museum, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake.

The biggest event of the summer, however, was the unveiling of a new gravestone, 191 years after his death on the spot where William Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields. At an event promoted by the Blake Society as an apocalypse (or revelation of Blake’s final resting place), crowds far larger than those expected by the organisers gathered to hear Blake enthusiasts offer a celebration of his life and work and to pay their respects to the memory of one of London’s most famous sons.

Celebration of Blake’s life and work was also a reminder of some of the other figures, as well as Mark E. Smith, who had been influenced by Blake in some way and died in 2018. These included Alice Provensen – who lived to the glorious age of 99. For some forty years she had worked with her husband, Martin, on illustrations until his death in 1987, before continuing a solo career into her nineties. Her books included the wonderful A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard.  She was followed shortly afterwards by Bob Dorough who helped Ginsberg set Blake to music and was more famous as the composer of Conjunction Junction. Likewise, the artist and writer Æthelred Eldridge passed away at the age of 88. Æthelred, born James Edward Leonard Eldridge, had served as associate professor of painting at Ohio University from 1957 to 2014, and was directly influenced by Blake. Eldridge, who ran the site Albion Awake, referred to Blake constantly in his art and was even the founder of a Church of William Blake (which, as Roger Whitson tells in his article on Zoamorphosis, burned down in 2001).

As the year turned to autumn, mid September saw a return of the three-day celebration of Blakean arts, Blakefest, which took place on 14th-16th in Bognor Regis. Blakefest has become a fairly regular cultural and artistic festival, with Lene Lovich and a tribute to George Harrison headlining at this year’s event. Other art shows included an exhibition at the Levy Gorky gallery in New York, featuring a selection of works by Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecu and Jaspar Johns. Entitled “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey”, the full show included work by 27 artists and unfolded over three floors in a pattern that was inspired by Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

The autumn also saw publication of one of my personal favourites, the translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Taking its title from one of Blake’s proverbs of hell, the novel was originally written in 2009. Described by Sarah Perry at The Guardian as “an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature”, it is one of the most profoundly Blakean novels ever to have been written.

The year ended with a series of Blake-inspired music: the exemplary pianist, Harriet Stubbs, released her debut album, Heaven and Hell: The Doors of Perception,  which opens with an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”. Composed by John Adams in 1977-8, this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks due to the narration by Marianne Faithful which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This was followed in December with a new musical adaptation of “A Poison Tree” by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. The track is also to be included on their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019. And, just squeezing in before the near year, was Johanna Glaza’s wonderful Albion EP, a setting of parts of Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion to music, which we’ll be reviewing later in 2019.

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Review: Harriet Stubbs – Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception

Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception is the debut album by classical pianist, Harriet Stubbs, who first began to display her prodigious talent when she was awarded a scholarship at the age of five to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. During her time there, this apparently led James Gibb to make an exception to his rule of never teaching children to train her. That the talent of this Yamaha artist is prodigious becomes clearly evident after only a few moments of listening to this album, which aims to bring together a range of modern and more traditional classical music. As well as demonstrating the virtuoso skills of Stubbs, it will also introduce a new audience to compositions that they may not otherwise encounter. The Blakean connection comes, according to the booklet accompanying the album, through her work with Russ Titelman to transform the doors of listeners’ perceptions, “a Blakean philosophy” of progression from innocence to experience and then to higher innocence.

The Blakean connection is also clear in the opening track of the album, an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”, composed by John Adams in 1977-8: this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks included here because Stubbs has added a narration by Marianne Faithful, one which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The effect is strangely hypnotic and extremely compelling, with Faithful’s raking, rasping tones serving very well as the voice of the devil. In an interview with the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, she indicated that Patti Smith and Meryl Streep were also potential narrators, but that Faithful had been the most enthusiastic.

The selection of Adams as a vehicle for Blake’s philosophy is almost certainly not accidental: after all, it was Adams who began composing his piece for orchestra, Fearful Symmetries, in 1988 after the success of Nixon in China. His minimalist style, indebted to John Cage and with some similarities to composers such as Philip Glass or John Cage, is extremely evident in Fearful Symmetries, with its strong parallelisms and repetitions, although the arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates” tempers this considerably. Adams himself described the original as a “modulating square wave” that circled through the fifths, but the addition of Faithful’s voice breaks up the linearity of the music, an incarnation of Orc in opposition to the potentially Urizenic qualities of minimalism that transforms the listener’s perception of the track entirely.

After such a strong start – in Blakean terms – the rest of the album appears to move in a different direction that does invoke the Romantic artist so directly. This is by no means a comment on the qualities of Stubbs’s performances, which are always superb, from Mozart’s “Rondo in A Minor” onwards. Described by Hermann Abert as one of the “most important keyboard Rondos ever composed”, Mozart’s composition provides an excellent opportunity for Stubbs to display her virtuosity via its multiple embellishments and chromaticism. The lightness of her performance here does not bring with it the intimations of despair that some commentators have observed: instead, the doors of perception are being opened in very different ways, a world of sensual delight through which the listener can experience something of eternity.

There follow five pieces from Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, Op 34 rather than the later (and longer) Op. 87, Preludes and Fugues. Like that later series of compositions, this version also circles through the major and minor keys, of which Stubbs includes No. 10 in C-Sharp Minor, No. 9 in E Major, No. 4 in E Minor, No. 20 in C Minor and, my favourite of the Preludes here, No. 14 in E-Flat Minor. The simplicity and passion of her performance here was the one that moved me most personally, although throughout all her own dedication and talent constantly shines through.

Of the remaining pieces, only one seems to invoke Blake again, however obliquely: Sergei Prokofiev’s “Suggestion diabolique”, number 4 of his 4 Pieces for Piano, and the one where the composer sought to challenge the strict roles of tonality, could be interpreted as another intrusion of the voice of the devil, although to be honest the relations to Blake are tangential at best. This is not to detract, however, from her virtuosity on all tracks. The most profoundly affecting for me, and my favourite from the entire album, is Ferruccio Busoni’s “Chaconne in D Minor”, adapted from Bach’s “Partita No. 2”. Busoni arranged this for piano in 1888 (writing it down in 1892) and it is a stunning piece of music: he was drawn to it because, among other things, it demonstrated how Bach made Beethoven possible, and its impressive range once more allows Stubbs to shine. This is also the moment, according to the liner notes, when experience enters the listener’s perceptions, and certainly there is a shift in the tone of the album with Busoni’s piece. Like other pieces, such as Alexander Scriabin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-Sharp Minor”, the technical demands are ones that Stubbs rises to with technical proficiency combined with passion, conveying fully the romantic and impressionistic sensations of such music superbly.

The album concludes with Gorgy Ligeti’s “Études, Book 1: No. 5, Arc-en-ciel”, a haunting track on which to end. A traditional form of étude (in contrast to those of, say, Cage), this shows a general theme of Heaven and Hell that contrasts with a number of contemporary composers such as Dmitri Smirnov or, more recently, Daniel Kidane: with the exception of Adams’s Phrygian Gates, the whole album has stronger links to traditional and romantic forms. The comparison is slightly unfair: Stubbs is a superb performer and arranger rather than composer, and many of the pieces included here offer wonderful opportunities for her to demonstrate her abilities.

Then why Blake? While the album identifies itself as “Piano Music Modern and Less Modern”, with the exception of Adams’s “Phrygian Gates” this is not a collection that often challenges the listener in the style of “difficult” modern classical music. Rather, its intention seems to be to open up a range of piano compositions to a new audience and thus to transform perceptions. In her interview with Trinity Laban, she observes that the aim of her album is to “cleanse its [classical music’s] listeners’ doors of perception, to encourage them to re-evaluate what classical music should be”. Unlike G. A. Edwards (who wrote an excellent review on his blog), I have a strong interest in how Blakean themes emerge in such music: strictly, they are motivated most strongly and obviously through her arrangement of Adams, but elsewhere Harriet Stubbs seems also to be infused with a sense of romanticism and energy that was the eternal delight of William Blake.

 

Harriet Stubbs, Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception, Suite 28 Records. RRP (audio CD) £14.54, (download) £7.49.

 

Astralingua: A Poison Tree

Friday 6 December saw the release of a new musical adaptation of William Blake’s song of experience, “A Poison Tree”, by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. Based in Denver, Colorado, their music features mandolins, cello and ghostly harmonies in a mixture of classical, folk and psychedelic sounds. The track, which you can hear below (and see the accompanying video), is from their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019.

Here they tell Zoamorphosis some of the ways in which Blake has influenced them and their music.

Joseph:

I’ve been interested in Blake’s work since I was about 16 years old. A friend lent me a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience and it amazed me. At first glance, it reminded me of the illustrated rhyme and story books I’d read as a child, which endeared it to me. It then became quickly apparent how rich it was in poetry, metaphor, craft, and vision. I bought a pocket copy by Penguin books and carried it around with me for quite some time. I would also go to the local bookstore and pore through whatever Blake collections they had, trying to find the best prints of his artwork.

His artwork was strange, anachronistic, and singular. I saw so many different genres of modern-day art reflected in his works from 200 years earlier – fantasy paintings, storybook illustrations, comic books, and animation. Blake exaggerated proportions, movement, and faces to create effects that I saw in all sorts of pop culture’s artwork. Figures sometimes seemed detached from their surroundings (Nebuchadnezzar), or as if leaping from the canvas. In many, there were layers upon layers of images, blended together like psychedelic paintings. Those were just my first impressions – the exciting things that grabbed my adolescent attention. As time went on, and I came to better understand and appreciate the fine arts, I realized what a master painter Blake was, how capable and detailed, and began to admire him even more.

They say Blake was considered “mad” in his time. I must be “mad” too, as I speak his language and he speaks mine. I imagine I like Blake for the same reason that a lot of artists do. His works weren’t popular in his age but it did not deter him. He didn’t change his style to suit the day. He painted and wrote his truth and vision. Because of that, there’s such pureness and honesty in his creations. His paintings and prints are filled with excitement, passion, and exuberance, and one senses in them the desire to communicate. When looking at his illustrations or reading his poems, you feel Blake’s earnestness. And when you take all this together, you get a sense of his likely isolation and loneliness, his reaching out for someone with whom to connect. In the end, you take his work personally, even though he’s communicating Universal Truths. Plus, his poetry makes you smile.

Rhymed and metered poetry takes work. You have to be more selective with what you say. No word or line can be wasted and you have fewer words from which to choose. A lot of poets have great command of rhyme, but their poetry is lacking. Other poets have beautiful ways of describing unique insights, but all without rhyme. Blake was a master of both. He was so joyfully playful. In his craft, more than just rhyming, he uses alliteration, plays with syntax, mixes and matches lines and schemes. There is such wealth offered to the reader.

Anne:

One thing that stands out to me about Blake, especially in his artwork, is how pure and defined his subjects are, both in emotion and physique. Looking at anyone he depicts, you see beauty, grace, grief, horror, shame, pity, strength, longing, and weakness all expressed – whatever characteristic it is, it is abundantly clear and undeniable.It makes his works so striking and evocative, and I think that’s often missing in modern art, music and media. Our culture now seems to embrace a nebulous, almost non-committal attitude, and characters are often aloof, vague, and undefined. Much the same with our emotions, where there is a prevalence of numbness, disaffection, and distraction. We’re overstimulated to the point of boredom. Maybe that’s why people fall for Blake the way they do when they discover him finally – they see the human experience expressed with such richness and in such volume, much louder and stronger than we are encouraged to experience it. Everything is full of passion and energy. He reminds us of our human capacity for real feeling.

 

“A Poison Tree” is available on Bandcamp, with Safe Passage also available for pre-order.

You can also see Astralingua’s video using Blake’s art on YouTube.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, June 2018

The big news during June was Tate Britain’s announcement that it will recreate William Blake’s failed 1809 exhibition in 2019. Speaking to Robert Dex at the London Evening Standard, Alex Farquharson said that the main purpose of the exhibition is to shift the perception of Blake as primarily a poet to a visual artist. The show will open next September and will be one of the biggest displays of Blake’s work since the 2000 exhibition that also took place there.

Although it was actually released at the end of May, Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a prose poem written in response to the Trump Administration’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, became available in the UK in early June. As well as her gnomic, Blake-inspired text, it includes a series of images produced by Smith in recent years. Smith gave a talk at the Festival of Voice in Cardiff and we’ll be carrying a review of the book soon. Other publications in June included Julia Fine’s debut novel, What Should be Wild, with nods to Blake in the form of the characters the Blakeleys and a setting of Urizon, while Hiroshi Unno’s The Art of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Steampunk demonstrates the influence of Blake among other artists on modern fantasy artworks.

A truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art came via the Edinburgh College of Art’s end of year degree show. Jack Handscombe, a student at the ECA, produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, crouched above a keyboard as a palm tree sprouts from its back. Entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”, as Duncan Macmillan, reviewing the show for The Scotsman, observed, the piece is a witty parody of the Paolozzi statue that stands in front of the British Library, suggesting that “digital is all very well, but nature will break out”.

Neko Case released a new album, Hell-On, was released on June 1. At least one reviewer (Ludovic Hunter-Tilney at the Financial Times) noted the Blakean connection to the track “Last Lion of Albion”, as in the chorus:

Last lion of Albion
They’ll use you for centuries to come
Your wound’s the main road into London
You’ll feel extinction
When you see your face on their money

Another musical performance announced during June is Eve Beglarian’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell at, which will be performed at the New York Bang on a Can summer music festival.

Also in the arts, a new show in London was announced, Wirework. Written by Daleen Kruger, the play itself was actually written in Afrikaans in 2009 but has recently been translated, telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas. The pair created an extraordinary environment in the middle of the Karoo in the Easter Cape, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake to fill the museum with wonderful statues. The play will perform at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London from July 3-7. Another performance that carried the spirit of William Blake came from Keith Hennessy’s Sink at The Lab in San Francisco. According to the Bay Area Reporter, Hennessy’s dance and chant invokes both Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Also in theatre, Lynne Kaufman’s one act play, William Blake in Hollywood, will show in Cedar City in Utah. Exhibitions during June included William Blake in Colour at the William Blake Gallery, and the owner of the gallery, John Windle, gave a talk on the artist and poet during Melbourne Rare Books Week.

Finally, during June we were also reminded of the Blakean references in Westworld (“Auguries of Innocence”), as a signifier of English identity according to the BBC’s poll (“Jerusalem”), that the Libertines nearly took a more Blakean name, the Albions, and you could have heard a group of Blake scholars – Michael Phillips, Linda Freedman, Susan Matthews and me – discuss the Life and Works of William Blake on the BBC World Service’s programme The Forum.

Review: Daniel Kidane – Songs of Illumination

Each year, the Leeds Lieder Festival brings together a number of composers and performers to celebrate a variety of songs and poetry in many languages. This year’s festival ran from 19-22 April and on Sunday 22 I had the opportunity to hear the world premiere of Songs of Illumination, three of Blake’s poems set to music by Daniel Kidane.

Kidane, who describes himself as a British composer of mixed heritage (his mother is Russian, his father Eritrean), has attracted considerable attention as one of four young composers who was selected last year to represent the UK in Portugal as part of the Year of British Music. Having previously studied at the Royal College of Music, London, and the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, as well as studying violin and composition privately in Saint Petersburg, he is currently reading for a doctoral degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He has indicated a strong interest in developing multicultural aspects within British classical composition (including, for example, bringing elements of grime and jungle into his music), and his previous engagements have involved working with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (for Sirens, in April 2018) and Dream Song, performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall this year.

For the Leeds Lieder Festival, his premiere was one of a three-part series performed by Ian Tindale on piano and the wonderful tenor, Nick Pritchard, who I’ve previously seen perform at Southwell Minster. As well as Kidane’s Songs of Illumination, Tindale and Pritchard offered a collection of songs by Robert Schumann, Liederkreis, and Benjamin Britten’s Winter Words, settings by Britten of Thomas Hardy’s final collection of poetry.

As Schumann was the first selection to be performed, this did lead my expectations in a slightly different direction, as I began to wonder whether Kidane was included in this selection as someone deciding to dabble with Romanticism in musical styles as well as choice of lyrics. The main piece of music I’d heard before by Kidane – Sirens, which takes its inspiration from Shakespeare’s Sonnets – was not necessarily a clear guide in this respect, mixing contemporary dance rhythms with more obvious contemporary classical inspiration. In the end, it was Schumann who was the odd person out in this concert, with Britten’s powerful dissonances offering a closer guide to the Kidane’s three pieces.

Although there was no indication in the programme, it seemed more than possible to me that Kidane was invoking at some level Britten’s 1965 Songs & Proverbs of William Blake. Another collection of pieces for piano and voice (admittedly baritone rather than tenor), the deep, rumbling tensions of Britten’s opening proverb found its echo in the first of Kidane’s songs, Blake’s “A Dream”. Likewise, in “The Little Black Boy” (a song rarely set to music by classical – as opposed to popular – composers), Pritchard thrillingly expressed Kidane’s rhythms in a fashion that brought to mind songs such as Britten’s setting of “The Tyger”, creating an underlying anxiety and sombre tone that seems to be (from reviews I’ve read of Dream Song) a theme elsewhere in his work at the moment.

The biggest surprise for me was “The Land of Dreams”. Taken from the Pickering Manuscript, this is not a poem that is widely anthologised, although Donald Fitch’s Blake Set to Music indicates that it has been used by more than half a dozen composers, including Nigel Butterley and Alec Rowley. What was particularly exceptional for me in this choice was that it demonstrated a deeper appreciation of Blake’s work than I had expected: while “The Land of Dreams” is not unknown to British composers in particular, it is hardly a common source of inspiration.

In contrast to Dream Song, which draws upon fragments of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” accompanied by an orchestra and choir, Songs of Illumination demonstrates Kidane’s use of more intimate musical forms and settings. The three songs performed at Leeds were thoughtful, intellectual pieces that reflect the potential for a much more thorough engagement with Blake, should Kidane wish to explore more of the poet’s works (and I for one hope that he does). Without emphasising too much his Russian heritage and experiences in Saint Petersburg, his work was reminiscent in part of Dmitri Smirnov, who has dedicated a great deal of his output to exploring Blake’s music since the 1970s and 1980s. Like Smirnov (and Britten before him), Kidane challenges us to listen to Blake as the intellectual precursor of Modernism rather than a simpler voice of Romanticism.

Blake set to music – Adrian Leverkühn

Thomas Mann’s novel, Doktor Faustus, is a re-shaping of the Faust legend through the life of a composer, Adrian Leverkühn, supposedly narrated by his childhood friend Serenus Zeitblom, and set in the context of the first half of the twentieth century and the turmoil of Germany in that period. The novel was written between 1943 and 1947 while Mann was living in exile in America. German culture precedes the existence of the nation, which lends cultural life in Germany an extraordinarily definitive significance. Leverkühn is caught in the vortex of an entire culture’s self-destruction as Germany rushes towards the catastrophe of World War II.

In preparation for the work, Mann read widely in musicology and in biographies of composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Franz Schreker and Alban Berg. The fatal illnesses of Frederick Delius and Hugo Wolf are also relevant here, and in the death of the child Nepomuk there is perhaps an acknowledgment of the death of Gustav Mahler’s daughter, Maria, after he had (in Alma Mahler’s opinion) tempted fate by setting the Kindertotenlieder. Mann also communicated with living composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Hanns Eisler. The most important and direct contribution came from the philosopher and music critic Theodor W. Adorno, who acted as Mann’s adviser and encouraged him to rewrite large sections of the book. Mann was heavily indebted to Adorno’s analysis of Schoenberg’s music (later published in Philosophie der neuen Musik, 1949) for his depiction of Leverkühn’s aesthetic education and experiments in composition. Adorno analyses aesthetic form as a carrier of ideological implications; his readings of musical form are consequently also critiques of broader socio-cultural discourses.

Leverkühn strikes a Faustian bargain for creative genius: the would-be composer is led to a brothel and falls under the spell of a prostitute, contracting syphilis, the venereal disease that will later deepen his artistic inspiration through madness. At the exact centre of Mann’s novel, Leverkühn is visited by the Devil. Shivering in the cold, the fictional composer finds himself face to face with a figure who says, in effect, “That you can only see me because you are mad, does not mean that I do not really exist”. Adrian Leverkühn makes a pact with the Devil for twenty-four years of creative ability. Leverkühn’s own moods and ideology mimic the change from humanism to irrational nihilism found in Germany’s intellectual life in the 1920s as he becomes increasingly corrupt of body and of mind, ridden by syphilis and insanity. The parallel between the opinions of proto-Nazi intellectuals, whom Leverkühn had encountered earlier in the novel, and his own aesthetic experiments can now be clearly situated in the mythic domain of the demonic.

Early in 1790, William Blake himself spoke with a Devil. Their conversation is recorded in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In 1935 W.H. Auden presented Mann (his father-in-law) with Geoffrey Keynes’s one-volume edition of The Poetry and Prose of William Blake. The book carries Auden’s dedication on the fly-leaf (“an Thomas Mann / im freundlichsten Andenken / von / Wystan Auden / Oct 1935”), and is now in the Thomas Mann-Archiv in Zürich. Appended to Auden’s dedication is a specific reference to Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Auden directs Mann to “p. 190-198”). In the margins there are numerous pencil marks of the kind Mann frequently made when reading books that particularly interested him. Two sections of The Marriage have a large number of marginal pencil marks, the “Proverbs of Hell” and “The Voice of the Devil”. In the latter – to single out only one example – the following passage is marked: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age”. The voice of Blake’s Devil would certainly have been appropriate Stärkungslektüre (not the easiest of words to translate; literally “strengthening reading matter”) for Mann when planning Leverkühn’s dialogue with Mephistopheles, and the words quoted seem to echo the tragedy of the German composer, whose soul and artistic achievements are inextricably bound up with – and indeed destroyed by – the physical disease brought about by his contact with a “harlot coy”. Blake weds heaven and hell; but Mann’s Devil works havoc with beauty, and what he does to the individual is writ large in what he does to the culture and the nation.

Blake features in the novel as a poet of great significance to Leverkühn. During the summer of 1944 Mann worked on his Chapter XX, which describes the first compositions Adrian completed after making his pact with the Devil. Among them were settings of Blake [Fitch 751] – and the choice of Blakean texts is significant; it is not the sublime and childlike Songs of Innocence which appeal to him, but two of the deeply pessimistic Songs of Experience (“The Sick Rose,” “A Poison Tree”) and two other poems not published during Blake’s lifetime: “I saw a chapel all of gold” (which poem almost definitively evokes Leverkühn’s own growing terror, his horror of pollution, and his eventual renunciation of humanity) and “Silent, Silent Night” (with its harlot reference). In the case of the last two poems, Mann’s annotations include translations of various words and phrases. In “I saw a chapel…,” alongside “hinges” and “slimy” Mann writes Türangel and schleimig. And in “Silent, Silent Night” Mann translates inter alia the words “harlot” and “coy” as Dirne, and blode, scheu, sprode. Zeitblom notes that Leverkühn chose to set the “darkly shocking” verses of Blake’s “Silent, Silent Night”:

But an honest joy
Does itself destroy
For a harlot coy

to “very simple harmonies, which in relation to the tone-language of the whole had a ‘falser’, more heart-rent, uncanny effect than the most daring harmonic tensions, and made one actually experience the common chord growing monstrous”.

Zeitblom describes the Blake settings in some detail:

As for Blake’s extraordinary poesy, he set to music the stanzas about the rose, whose life was destroyed by the dark secret love of the worm which found its way into her crimson bed. Then the uncanny sixteen lines of “A Poison Tree,” where the poet waters his wrath with his tears, suns it with smiles and soft deceitful wiles, so that an alluring apple ripens, with which the thievish friend poisons himself: to the hater’s joy he lies dead in the morning beneath the tree. The evil simplicity of the verse was completely reproduced in the music. But I was even more profoundly impressed at the first hearing by a song to words by Blake, a dream of a chapel all of gold before which stand people weeping, mourning, worshipping, not daring to enter in. There rises the figure of a serpent who knows how by force and force and force to make an entry into the shrine; the slimy length of its body it drags along the costly floor and gains the altar, where it vomits its poison out on the bread and on the wine. “So,” ends the poet, with desperate logic, therefore and thereupon, “I turn’d into a sty / And laid me down among the swine.” The dream anguish of the vision, the growing terror, the horror of pollution, finally the wild renunciation of a humanity dishonoured by the sight – all this was reproduced with astonishing power in Adrian’s setting.

Leverkühn’s decision to set Blake (and Keats and Shakespeare) in their original language is a break with the prevalent practice of German composers. Of course, Haydn and Beethoven set English words in their folksong arrangements, and the woman composer Nina d’Aubigny von Engelbrunner set French, Italian, and English texts, including poems by John Fletcher and Robert Bloomfield. But Nina d’Aubigny’s contemporary, Schubert, set Ossian in German translation, as Schumann did Thomas Moore (“Das Paradies und die Peri”).  Among early twentieth-century composers, Arnold Schoenberg set Albert Giraud’s French poems in German translation for Pierrot Lunaire; Alexander Zemlinsky used a German translation of Rabindranath Tagore for his Lyric Symphony; Alban Berg added a stave for soprano voice to the last movement of his Lyric Suite, setting Baudelaire’s “De profundis clamavi” but in Stefan George’s translation. Only in exile did German composers begin setting English texts: Schoenberg with Byron in his Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op. 41, and Paul Hindemith [Fitch 589, 590], Ernst Krenek [722], Ernst Toch [1264] setting Blake.

In 1977, the BBC commissioned the poet and novelist Robert Nye to write The Devil’s Jig, not a dramatisation of Doktor Faustus, which would have been more or less impossible, but a radio feature exploring its principal ideas, in the form of a narration interspersed with quotations from Leverkühn’s biographer in the novel, the egregious Serenus Zeitblom, from the Devil, and from Leverkühn himself. Humphrey Searle was commissioned to “realise” the works attributed to Leverkühn, following Mann’s indications as far as possible. The two Blake songs included were “Silent, Silent Night” and “The Sick Rose”, for voice and piano [Fitch 1101]. Searle finished the music in November 1977, but it was some time before the BBC was able to arrange for it to be recorded for broadcast. Finally recorded two days after the end of the Promenade season in 1979, it was transmitted on BBC Radio 3, on 9 March 1980; repeated on 26 June 1983.

Another realisation of Leverkühn’s Blake is by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Jeney. A setting of Blake’s “In a Mirtle Shade” [Fitch 651] is included in his 12 Songs: for female voice, violin and piano, to poems by e. e. cummings, Tandori Dezso, William Blake, Weores Sandor and Friedrich Holderlin (Budapest: Editio Musica, 1985). It carries the ascription “Adrian Leverkühn’s song”.

There is one final point to be made in connection with Leverkühn’s music. In a letter to Benjamin Britten dated 14 September 1970 (mainly concerned with the Mann family’s positive response to Britten’s desire to compose Death in Venice) Thomas Mann’s son Golo wrote, “My father … used to say, that if it ever came to some musical illustration of his novel Doktor Faustus, you would be the composer to do it”.

As Adrian begins to plan his second oratorio The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus in 1928, his sister’s child Nepomuk, who calls himself “Echo”, is sent to live with him. Echo is an enchanting small boy, half-Hermes (like Tadzio in Der Tod in Venedig), half-Christ, a vision of “adorable loveliness which was yet a prey to time, destined to mature and partake of the earthly lot”, such as Britten would surely have warmed to as readily as Leverkühn. But part of Leverkühn’s covenant with the Devil is that he is not permitted to warm to anyone; and because he does, Echo dies, horribly, of cerebro-spinal meningitis. Echo is one of those young sacrificial victims, agents of salvation, that people Britten’s scores – Lucretia, Billy, Isaac, Miles, there are so many – all Angels from Heaven, but, as Vere says, “the Angel must hang”. Tadzio is a destroyer, bringing Aschenbach to ruin and death in abject humiliation. But so in their way are Billy and Miles – and Echo. Billy kills Claggart, dies, and condemns Vere to a lifetime of self-laceration; Miles dies, after (we imagine) driving the Governess insane and irremediably corrupting Flora. Echo dies – but his death causes Leverkühn to commit his ultimate act of creative negation, the “taking-back” or “un-writing” of the Ninth Symphony, in the form of his last work, The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus. The score of the Lamentation is completed in 1930, Adrian summons his friends and guests, and instead of playing the music he relates the story of his infernal contract, and descends into the madness which is to last until his death ten years later. Zeitblom visits him occasionally, and survives to witness the collapse of Germany’s “dissolute triumphs” as he tells the story of his friend.

It is remarkable that these two creative artists, Mann and Britten, who never met nor worked together, should turn to the same poetic texts at virtually the same time: Britten included “The Sick Rose” in his Serenade, op. 31, written in 1943 just when Mann started to write Doktor Faustus. Furthermore, another Blake poem which Mann has Leverkühn set – ”A Poison Tree” – was also set by Britten, both earlier in 1935 [Fitch 181] and much later in the 1965 Songs & Proverbs of William Blake, op. 74 [Fitch 182]. Mann’s comments on Leverkühn’s treatment can also be applied to Britten’s: “The evil simplicity of the verse was completely reproduced in the music”.

Further reading.

Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik (Tu?bingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1949).
Translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster: Philosophy of Modern Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1973).

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; edited with an introduction & commentary by Michael Phillips (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011).
Includes a complete facsimile of the copy in the Bodleian Library, a transcription, and partial facsimiles of other copies.

William Blake, The Poetry and Prose of William Blake; edited by Geoffrey Keynes. Centenary edition (London: Nonesuch Press, 1927).
When citing Blake I have here followed the Keynes text.

Benjamin Britten, Letters from a Life: the Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976. Vol. 3: 1946-1951; edited by Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed, and Mervyn Cooke (London: Faber, 2004).
Another version of the Golo Mann anecdote.

Patrick Carnegy, Faust as Musician: a Study of Thomas Mann’s Novel Doctor Faustus (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973).

Evelyn Cobley, “Decentred Totalities in Doctor Faustus: Thomas Mann and Theodor W. Adorno”, Modernist Cultures, vol. 1, no 2 (October 2005), 181-91.

John F. Fetzer, Music, Love, Death, and Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Studies in German literature, linguistics, and culture; 45 (Columbia SC: Camden House, 1990).

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

Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus: das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn erzählt von einem Freunde (Stockholm: Bermann Fischer, 1947).
Translated by Helen Lowe-Porter: Doctor Faustus: the Life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), and more recently by John E. Woods (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Woods’ translation is in a more modern vein than the Lowe-Porter, and does not attempt to mirror the original’s use of dialect and archaic German.

Thomas Mann, Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus: Roman eines Romans (Amsterdam: Bermann-Fischer, 1949).
An autobiography of Mann’s later years which was originally planned as an account of how he came to write Doktor Faustus. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston: The Genesis of a Novel (London: Secker & Warburg, 1961).

Christopher Palmer, “Towards a genealogy of Death in Venice”, in Philip Reed, ed., On Mahler and Britten: Essays in Honour of Donald Mitchell on his Seventieth Birthday (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995).
The source of my final paragraphs.

Anthony W. Riley, “Notes on Thomas Mann and English and American Literature”, Comparative Literature, vol. 17, no. 1 (Winter, 1965), 57-72.
My source for details of the collected Blake that Auden gave to Mann.