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.

Blake set to music—Benjamin Britten

William Blake was a poet of crucial importance to Britten. Other poets, notably W. H. Auden, were set more often, but as the enthusiasm of, at the most, a decade. Only Blake, it seems, provided inspiration throughout Britten’s life. The earliest of Britten’s Blake settings is The Nurse’s Song, written when he was sixteen. Some individual Blake settings followed in the 1930s, including a first version of A Poison Tree. The 1940s produced the haunting miniature ‘The sick rose’ in Serenade, and ‘Cradle Song’ in A Charm of Lullabies. A setting of ‘Sound the Flute!’ forms part of Spring Symphony, and his children’s opera, The Little Sweep is indebted to Blake’s chimney-sweeper poems. Then in 1965, thirty years after his first setting of ‘A Poison Tree’, Britten returned to Blake for the large-scale cycle, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.

In an essay included in Blake, Nation, and Empire (2006), James Chandler bizarrely alleges: ‘Blake has … been repeatedly appropriated for the propagation of national sentiment. Benjamin Britten’s settings would be one example’. Can Chandler really be referring to the Songs and Proverbs? I find it puzzling how he can attribute ‘national sentiment’ to a work that was not only written for a German singer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and dedicated to him, but was in a real sense written on the voice of Fischer-Dieskau. Britten was not a parochial composer. Not for him the deadly English pastoralism, ‘cowpat music’ in Elisabeth Lutyens’s coinage, with ‘folky-wolky modal melodies on the cor anglais’. Literary critics (not just Chandler, there is some prize obtuseness in the pages of Scrutiny) have not always recognised the acuity of Britten’s poetic imagination and his unique aptitude for catching the rhythm of consonants and the pitch of vowels.

Francis Poulenc once said that words and music should form a love-match, not a marriage of convenience. This is true of Britten’s settings of poetry (some propagandistic works of the nineteen-thirties excepted), and particularly of his Blake songs. I can’t think of any other composer who was as ambitious, as subtle, and as various in his choice of poems, and the ability to set them memorably, as Britten. The languages set include French, Russian, German, and Italian poets. His sensitivity encompasses Soutar and Hardy, Michelangelo and Donne, prompting the thought that Britten was one of poetry’s most eloquent advocates.

To indicate the number and range of the Blake settings, I have set out below, in order of composition, all Britten’s Blake-related works. The list of recordings is based on my own collection and is necessarily incomplete.

July 1930

THE NURSE’S SONG. WRITTEN BY BLAKE; SET TO MUSIC FOR SOPRANO & CONTRALTO & PIANOFORTE BY E. BENJAMIN BRITTEN.—Unpublished manuscript.—Inscribed ‘Holt, Norfolk, July 25th 1930’.—First line ‘When the voices of children are heard on the green’.—Fitch 180.

March 1935

A POISON TREE. SONG FOR MEDIUM VOICE AND PIANO.—Completed London, 2 March 1935.—Duration 3 mins.—First line ‘I was angry with my friend’.—Fitch 181.

Recording (1995) Ian Bostridge tenor, Julius Drake piano, Hyperion CDA 66823.

First published in THE RED COCKATOO & OTHER SONGS. FOR HIGH OR MEDIUM VOICE AND PIANO.—London: Faber Music, 1994.—Music presentation: separate high- and medium-voice editions.—Preface by Rosamund Strode.—Contents: A Poison tree (Blake)—When you’re feeling like expressing your affection (Auden)—Not even summer yet (Burra)—Red cockatoo! (Po Chü-i, tr. Waley)—Wild with passion (Beddoes)—If thou wilt ease thine heart (Beddoes)—Cradle song for Eleanor (MacNeice)—Birthday song for Erwin (Duncan)—Um Mitternacht (Goethe).—The Blake setting was originally composed for baritone, the others for high voice.—Composition dates 1935-60.

Britten recorded in his diary, ‘Write a song (A Poison Tree of W. Blake) in morning—but it’s not much good—more an exercise than anything. This occupies me all the morning—a short walk before lunch’. This stark setting of Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ was written thirty years before the very different version included in Songs and Proverbs. It remained unpublished and unperformed in Britten’s lifetime.

November 1935

NEGROES. TEXT BY W. H. AUDEN.—Score and parts (solo singers, chorus, and instrumental ensemble) prepared for a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, 21 June 2001.—Composed September-November 1935.—Duration 13 mins.—Incorporates the fourth stanza of ‘The Little Black Boy’ from Songs of Innocence set for soprano solo.—First line of Blake extract ‘And we are put on earth a little space’.—Fitch 178.

Recording (2007) Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Martin Brabbins conductor, NMC D112.

In the autumn of 1935 Auden, Britten and the painter William Coldstream conceived an ambitious film for the GPO Film Unit, provisionally entitled Negroes, which concerned the slave trade and its abolition, and the subsequent development of the Caribbean, and the region’s economic reliance on commodities such as sugar and cocoa. Auden’s and Britten’s original concept for the film soundtrack replaced conventional commentary with sung recitative. The film as Auden and Britten conceived it in 1935 was abandoned, but finally emerged in 1938 as God’s Chillun. Part of the text appears in The English Auden (1977), pp. 292-3.

September 1937

THE COMPANY OF HEAVEN. CANTATA FOR SPEAKER(S), SOPRANO SOLO, TENOR SOLO, CHORUS (SATB), TIMPANI, ORGAN AND STRINGS; WORDS SELECTED BY R. ELLIS ROBERTS.—London: Faber Music, 1990; revised edition 1992.—Music presentation: full score & vocal score (Olivia Kilmartin, Colin Matthews).—Composition dates 8 August-22 September 1937.—Duration 45 mins.—Preface by Donald Mitchell.—First line of Blake extract ‘When wolves and tygers howl for prey’.—Movements: Part I, Angels before the Creation: 1, Chaos, 2, The Morning Stars (St Joseph the Hymnographer).—Part II, Angels in Scripture: 3a, Jacob, 3b, Elisha, 3c, Hail, Mary! 4, Christ, the fair glory (Hrabanus Maurus, tr. Athelstan Riley), 5, War in Heaven (Revelation).—Part III, Angels in Common Life and at our Death: 6, Heaven is here (unidentified), 7, A thousand, thousand gleaming fires (Emily Brontë), 8, Funeral March for a Boy, 9, Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the most High (Psalm 91), 10, There came out also at this time (John Bunyan), 11, Ye watchers and ye holy ones (Athelstan Riley).

Recording (1990) London Philharmonic Choir, English Chamber Orchestra, Philip Brunelle conductor, Virgin 5 62104 2

The original radio feature, broadcast on the feast day of St Michael and All Angels, linked the musical numbers with spoken texts, including lines from Blake’s ‘Night’ (Songs of Innocence) between sections 8 and 9, which may be omitted in concert performances.

March 1938

A CRADLE SONG: SLEEP, BEAUTY BRIGHT. FOR SOPRANO, CONTRALTO & PIANO; WORDS BY WILLIAM BLAKE.—London: Faber Music, 1994.—Completed on 8 March 1938—Duration 3 mins.—Preface by Rosamund Strode.—Edited by Colin Matthews.—First line ‘Sleep, sleep, beauty bright’.

Written for Mary Ross McDougall and Anne Wood but probably never sent to them. Britten later set the same text (but omitting the third stanza) for solo voice in A Charm of Lullabies.

April 1943

SERENADE, OP. 31. FOR TENOR SOLO, HORN AND STRINGS.—London: Boosey & Hawkes, c1944.—Music presentation: miniature score (Hawkes pocket scores; 71) & vocal score (Erwin Stein)—Composition dates March-April 1943.—Duration 24 mins.—‘This work was written for Peter Pears and Dennis Brain, by whom it was first performed … October 15th, 1943’—titlepage verso.—Dedication: ‘To E. S.-W.’. It may be that the reason for the reticence of the original dedication was that Edward Sackville-West, who had helped with the selection of the texts, was an active music critic.—First line of Blake poem ‘O Rose thou art sick’.—Movements: Prologue—Pastoral (Cotton)—Nocturne (Tennyson)—Elegy (Blake)—Dirge (anonymous 15th century)—Hymn (Ben Jonson)—Sonnet (Keats)—Epilogue.—The cover illustration is ‘Harvest Moon’ by Samuel Palmer.—Fitch 176.

Also published in WORKS FOR VOICE AND CHAMBER ORCHESTRA.—London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1999.—Boosey & Hawkes masterworks library.

Recordings (1944) Peter Pears tenor, Dennis Brain horn, Boyd Neel Orchestra, Benjamin Britten conductor, reissued (1995) on Pearl GEMM CD 9177.—(1953) Peter Pears tenor, Dennis Brain horn, New Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Goossens conductor, reissued (2006) on Decca 476 847-0.—(1963) Peter Pears tenor, Barry Tuckwell horn, London Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Britten conductor, reissued (2006) on CD 7 of a 7-CD set: Britten conducts Britten, Decca 475 6051.—(1996) Ian Bostridge tenor, Marie Luise Neunecker horn, Bamberger Symphoniker, Ingo Metzmacher conductor, EMI CDC 5 56183 2—(1998) Adrian Thompson tenor, Michael Thompson horn, Bournemouth Sinfonietta, David Lloyd-Jones conductor, Naxos 8.553834—(2005) Toby Spence tenor, Martin Owen horn, Scottish Ensemble, Clio Gould director, Linn CKD 226.

DANCES OF ALBION: DARK NIGHT, GLAD DAY.—Ballet choreographed by Glen Tetley to Serenade, op. 31, and Sinfonia da Requiem, op. 20.—Created for the Royal Ballet in 1980.—Fitch 175.

The Serenade, with its two virtuoso soloists, one vocal, one instrumental, is subtle, beautiful, and haunting, a magical exercise in nocturnal imagery and matching sonorities executed with a challenging technical sophistication. Britten seems to have started work on the concept and content of the Serenade by taking his copy of the Quiller-Couch Oxford Book of English Verse, awarded him as a school prize in 1930, and listing on the rear fly-leaf those poems in the anthology that caught his attention, no fewer than sixteen in all, of which four would be used in the completed work. Not included in this first selection were the Cotton and Blake poems; neither is to be found in the Quiller-Couch anthology. The role that Edward Sackville-West played in helping Britten with his selection is unclear, though he may have suggested Cotton’s ‘Pastoral’ and the crucial choice of Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’. The work was almost immediately recognized as the masterpiece it is. Typically, in a letter written even before the première, Britten described it as ‘not important stuff, but quite pleasant, I think’. Sackville-West’s description of the Serenade in a 1944 article on Britten’s music in Horizon is probably close to Britten’s own concept of the work:

The subject is Night and its prestigia: the lengthening shadow, the distant bugle at sunset, the Baroque panoply of the starry sky, the heavy angels of sleep; but also the cloak of evil—the worm in the heart of the rose, the sense of sin in the heart of man. The whole sequence forms an Elegy or Nocturnal (as Donne would have called it), resuming the thoughts and images suitable to evening.

That ‘sense of sin’ makes its presence chillingly felt in the third song, ‘Elegy’, setting Blake’s poem from Songs of Experience. The mood could be a lament for lost innocence. Nowhere before had Britten conveyed the ‘sense of sin’ so graphically. Both the fully chromatic melody and striking image of cankerous corruption in the ‘Elegy’ look directly ahead to the Songs and Proverbs.

December 1947

A CHARM OF LULLABIES, OP. 41. FOR MEZZO-SOPRANO AND PIANO.—London: Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Limited, 1949.—Dedication—‘For Nancy Evans’.—Composition dates November-before 17 December 1947.—Duration 11 mins.—Cover design is a reproduction of a plate from William Blake’s Urizen.—First line of Blake poem ‘Sleep! sleep! beauty bright’.—Contents A cradle song (William Blake)—The Highland balou (Robert Burns)—Sephestia’s lullaby (Robert Greene)—A charm (Thomas Randolph)—The nurse’s song (John Philip).—Fitch 174.

Recording (1987) Carolyn Watkinson contralto, Tan Crone piano, Etcetera KTC 1046.—(2004) Magdalena Kožená mezzo-soprano, Malcolm Martineau piano, Deutsche Grammophon 471 581-2.

The first song in the cycle is the second setting of a text previously used by Britten for a duet. This version omits the third stanza. All five verses are included in the duet setting of 1938.

Britten found the texts for the cycle in an anthology edited by F. E. Budd, A Book of Lullabies 1300-1900.

A CHARM OF LULLABIES BRITTEN/MATTHEWS.—London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1990 is a version with the accompaniment arranged for orchestra by Colin Matthews.

May 1949

THE LITTLE SWEEP, OP. 45. THE OPERA FROM ‘LET’S MAKE AN OPERA!’: AN ENTERTAINMENT FOR YOUNG PEOPLE. LIBRETTO BY ERIC CROZIER—London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1949.—Music presentation: audience songs (1949); piano duet vocal score (Arthur Oldham, 1950); study score (Hawkes Pocket Scores; 776, 1965); piano solo vocal score (Martin Penny, 1967).—Completed April-May 1949.—Duration 45 mins (130 mins with Let’s make an Opera).—‘Affectionately dedicated to the real Gay, Juliet, Sophie, Tina, Hughie, Jonny and Sammy—the Gathorne-Hardys of Great Glemham, Suffolk.’—Cover from a ceramic entitled ‘The Little Sweep’ by Ralph Wood.—‘Inspired by a reading of the two Blake poems on the chimney sweep’—foreword to libretto.—Fitch 179.

Recording (1978) soloists, Finchley Children’s Music Group, Cambridge King’s College Choristers, Medici Quartet, Philip Ledger conductor, EMI CDM 5 65111 2.

Planning of The Little Sweep began in August 1948, when, as Eric Crozier explained, the idea of an opera for children and audience to perform seemed highly original. This ‘entertainment for young people’ included four audience songs, and to fill out the evening, he resolved to preface The Little Sweep with a play showing children and grown-ups getting ready to perform the opera that they had supposedly written—which would have the added advantage of allowing time for the conductor to rehearse the audience in their songs. This preliminary play served its purpose well at the time, but it does not wear so well as the opera. The opera that formed the second half of the event was The Little Sweep, a scaled-down version of Britten’s ubiquitous oppression theme in which the middle-class audience can identify with the stage children, who help poor mistreated working-class Sam, the chimney-sweep, to freedom. Philip Brett notes that this constituted genuine release and fulfilment for Britten whatever its psychological impulse. Revised versions of the play were prepared in 1955 and 1965, and an alternative sequence of music and readings, The Climbing Boy, was compiled by Paul Johnson in 1971. The composer’s note in the study score states ‘It will be easily seen that professionals or very gifted amateurs are needed to play the grown-up parts and also the part of Juliet (provided, of course, that she can look convincingly youthful). It is essential that real children should play the children’s parts—the boys with unbroken voices who shouldn’t be scared of using their chest voices’.

There have been versions in Bulgarian, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish.

June 1949

SPRING SYMPHONY, OP. 44. FOR SOPRANO, ALTO AND TENOR SOLI, MIXED CHORUS, BOYS’ CHOIR AND ORCHESTRA.—London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1949.—Music presentation: miniature score (Hawkes Pocket Scores; no 66, 1951) & vocal score (Arthur Oldham, 1949).—Composition dates October 1948-June 1949.—Duration 45 mins.—Dedication ‘For Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’.—Cover design from a painting by John Constable.—Contents: Part I. Introduction: Shine out (anon 16th cent)—The Merry Cuckoo (Spenser)—Spring the sweet spring (Nashe)—The Driving Boy (Peele, Clare)—The Morning star (Milton). Part II. Welcome maids of honour (Herrick)—Waters above (Vaughan)—Out on the lawn I lie in bed (Auden). Part III. When will my May come (Barnfield)—Fair and Fair (Peele)—Sound the flute (Blake). Part IV. Finale: London, to thee I do present (Beaumont, Fletcher).—Fitch 183.

Recording (1979) Sheila Armstrong soprano, Janet Baker contralto, Robert Tear tenor, London Symphony Chorus, St Clement Dane School Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn conductor, reissued (1986) EMI CDM 7 64736 2.

The composition draft is dated ‘March 15th 1949’ although one movement was not yet written; Britten had begun thinking about the work as early as 1946, and initially intended using (and selected) a series of medieval Latin texts. The final movement quotes the leading melody and text of the thirteenth-century round Sumer is icumen in. The Spring Symphony belongs to a symphonic tradition created largely by Mahler, by whom Britten was much influenced, which incorporates vocal forms. Britten never made use of ‘symphony’ as a title without a qualifying or descriptive addition, and explained the Spring Symphony as ‘not only dealing with the Spring itself but with the progress of Winter to Spring and the reawakening of the earth and of life’, and its form as ‘in the traditional four-movement shape of a symphony, but with the movements divided into shorter sections bound together by a similar mood or point of view’.

April 1965

SONGS & PROVERBS OF WILLIAM BLAKE, OP. 74. FOR BARITONE AND PIANO.—London: Faber and Faber, 1965; new edition 1977.—Completed 6 April 1965—Duration 22 mins.—Dedication ‘For Dieter—the past & the future’.—Words selected by Peter Pears from the Songs of Experience, the Auguries of Innocence, and the Proverbs of Hell.—Cover design by Berthold Wolpe; the Blake engraving reproduced by courtesy of Sir Geoffrey Keynes.—Contents Proverb I—London—Proverb II—The Chimney-Sweeper—Proverb III—A Poison Tree—Proverb IV—The Tyger—Proverb V—The Fly—Proverb VI—Ah, Sun-flower! —Proverb VII—Every Night and every Morn.—Fitch 182.

Recorded (1969) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, Benjamin Britten, piano, reissued (1989) in digitally-remastered form as filler with the CDs of Billy Budd on Decca 417 428-2, and (2006) on CD 6 of a 7-CD set: Britten conducts Britten, Decca 475 6051.—(1987) Benjamin Luxon baritone, David Willison piano, Chandos ABTD 1224 (cassette).—(1989) Kevin McMillan baritone, John Greer piano, Marquis Records ERAD 127.—(2010) Gerald Finley baritone, Julius Drake piano, Hyperion CDA 67778.

ETERNITY IN AN HOUR, A TRIBUTE TO BLAKE: THE VISUAL IMAGE. Choreographed by Norman Walker to the Songs and Proverbs, op. 74. Performed by student dancers, 8 May 1977, at the Olmstead Theater, Adelphi University.—Fitch 177.

In 1957, the Blake Bi-Centenary Committee commissioned Ralph Vaughan Williams to compose Blake settings for its film The Vision of William Blake, which were later published as Ten Blake Songs—for high voice and oboe. The choice of composer probably originated with Geoffrey Keynes who had already been instrumental in commissioning Vaughan Williams to compose Job: a Masque for Dancing (1930). This commission had unexpected consequences. Benjamin Britten could reasonably have expected the commission—his was the reputation for setting English verse, and Blake one of his poets. Though the majority of Britten’s vocal works were written for Peter Pears to perform, Vaughan Williams had now made it impossible for him to set Blake for the tenor voice. Britten delayed creating a full Blake cycle until 1965, when he wrote with the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in mind, and Pears’s involvement was in selecting and arranging the texts. Pears crafted a sequence emphasising the darker side of Blake’s poetry and suited to Fischer-Dieskau’s sombre baritone. In his memoirs Fischer-Dieskau says that the cycle was written for him after the death during childbirth of his first wife, the cellist Irmgard Poppen, in December 1963, and this too may have affected its mood. Britten’s dedication of the Blake cycle—’To Dieter—the past and the future’—may well be a coded reference to this tragedy.

This astonishing song cycle contains some of the bleakest music Britten ever wrote for voice, a work full of sorrow and irony, each proverb a stern admonishment, and each song a brilliantly characterised miniature. Peter Pears, who made the selection of the poems and proverbs, had the brilliant idea of using some of the latter as a prelude to each song. These proverbs reflect on the poems that follow. The cycle contains six of the Songs of Experience, seven of the Proverbs which, though not stated in the vocal score, are to be found in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the beginning and closing verses of Auguries of Innocence. The cycle is sung as a continuous piece, interleaving a ritornello-like setting of the seven proverbs with the seven songs. Pears planned the sequence to move from wrath, in the first four songs, to tenderness and compassion, and finally to innocence once more.

‘A Poison Tree’ is the claustrophobic core of the cycle—a powerful setting of Blake’s insight into the processing of anger. Britten, who must surely have known the truth of Blake’s words while, says Philip Brett, spectacularly failing to act on them, makes highly original use of simple major and minor triads within a context of chromatic saturation. The all-too-knowing subject is revealed in full frailty—a portrait all the more remarkable for its unblinking honesty and bleak integrity.

Britten, a composer often connected merely with ‘innocence’, caught fire from Blake’s burning anger, and most subtly and powerfully reproduced it in his song cycle. There are not more than a dozen forte markings throughout the score and the harsh undercurrent of dissonance is all the more compelling for so constantly being muted. The texture of the music is spare and strong with much two-part writing for the piano. The stark proverbs are clearly distinguished from the more expansive settings of the songs they punctuate by their disconcerting lack of metrical synchronization between voice and piano.

After he had heard it performed by Fischer-Dieskau and Britten at Aldeburgh in June 1965 William Mann guessed that Songs and Proverbs of William Blake would be judged ‘Britten’s deepest and most subtle song-cycle’, while in the Daily Telegraph John Warrack wrote that Britten ‘has, I feel, here come most fully to terms with the darkness and sense of cruelty that has always stalked his art’. Britten’s own comment on the cycle was: ‘when I think of the wonderful words I feel rather inadequate’.

July 1965

VOICES FOR TODAY, OP. 75. ANTHEM FOR CHORUS (MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN) WITH AD LIBITUM ACCOMPANIMENT FOR ORGAN.—London: Faber Music, 1965; new edition 1995.—Completed July 1965—Duration 10 mins.—Preface by the composer.—Blake quotation ‘Everything that lives is holy’.—Fitch 184.

A didactic work celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations—it was performed in New York, Paris and London on that very day, 24 October 1965—Voices for Today is a work for large mixed chorus, with a smaller children’s choir that operates independently from the main and in its own tempo structure. The composer’s ‘Notes on Performance’ indicate that the children’s chorus should be ‘placed separately (if possible in a gallery) and with its own conductor’, and the organ part ‘should be used primarily when the resonance of the building is inadequate’. Britten was invited to compose the work by the UN Secretary-General, U Thant, in May 1964. Initially the composer had thought of using Latin texts only, but in conversation with E.M. Forster the idea of using a selection of ‘sentences or verses from the great peace lovers of history’ emerged, combining to create what Britten referred to as a ‘small anthology of peace’. Unfortunately a stroke prevented Forster from collaborating further. It begins sententiously though quietly with an anthology of positive thoughts from the world’s great thinkers and poets before opening out into a setting of Virgil’s fourth Eclogue. Shorn of its pagan specifics this becomes an address to a Christ-like boy figure, the harbinger of a new pastoral life of plenty and peace. The piece appeared only four years after Britten’s other major pacifist outpouring, the War Requiem; Philip Brett has suggested that ‘so much high-mindedness somehow dampened the musical response’.

Further Reading

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.

Boris Ford, ed., Benjamin Britten’s poets: the poetry he set to music.—Manchester: Carcanet, 1994.


The Britten-Pears Foundation:

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 ( 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).

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)


The new Blakes at the Tate: prequel

Here are notes I put together in 2007, when the “new Blakes” (then still in private hands) were first displayed at Tate Britain.  I hope these notes may prove useful or at least encourage discussion when the “new Blakes” go back on display in July 2010. [Notes newly corrected 12 July 2010.]

The latest [November 2007] Tate Britain display in their Blake room is entitled:  “William Blake: ‘I still go on till the heavens & earth are gone’”.  A group of newly-discovered prints, apparently once bound up as a book, like a Small Book of Designs now in the British Museum, is displayed alongside a print from the Tate collection which possibly formed part of the same set.

The eight new prints contain just the illustration part of a few pages from three of Blake’s illuminated books—without the accompanying text that is present in the usual full version of the illuminated book.  Instead they have just a brief inscription handwritten beneath the image, yielding a total of thirteen lines of text that have been unknown until now.

Tate Britain provides no fuller discussion of the new images.  There is just a brief mention on the gallery website: “a highlight is the private loans of recently discovered works which have never before been exhibited”.  I list the prints in the sequence in which they are displayed on the walls of Tate Britain, left to right.

The First Book of Urizen, plate 2.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed by Blake below the framing lines: “Teach these Souls to Fly.”
NUMBERING Paper has been cropped to a roughly square format removing any numbering.
COLLECTION Tate (N 03696)

The Book of Thel, plate 7.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1780/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Doth God take Care of These”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 5 (or 3?)
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23184)*
* This is a running “Accession Number” given to all works loaned to the Tate.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 16.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1790/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Who shall set”/“The Prisoners free”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 4
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23185)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 7.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “I sought Pleasure & found Pain”. / “Unutterable”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 9
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23171)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 11.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Everything is an attempt” / “To be Human”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 6
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 20172)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 12.
Full-page image surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Written in an unknown hand and within the outer framing lines: The floods overwhelmed me
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 10
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23173)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 17.
Full-page image surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Vegetating in fibres of Blood”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 8
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23181)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 19.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Is the Female death” / “Become new Life”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 1
COLLECTION Private Collection (X23182)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 23.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Fearless tho in pain” / “I travel on”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 7.
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23183)

The Small Book of Designs is a sequence of 23 quarto pages formerly bound into a book.  Each page is numbered—which may represent Blake’s original sequence.  It is now in the British Museum (disbound and the pages separately mounted).  The designs derive from Blake’s works in Illuminated Printing but the texts associated with the designs have been blanked out in printing.

Linked to the BM set (“Copy A”) are a number of single prints which may be pages from a second copy of a Small Book of Designs.  This is sometimes referred to as Copy B.  Some of these “Copy B” prints carry inscriptions—cryptic, allusive—which suggest that Blake intended to create an emblem book on the lines of his intaglio-engraved The Gates of Paradise, but in rich colour.  The newly-discovered designs are on apparently untrimmed numbered quarto pages with stitch marks indicating they were once bound together.  This confirmation of a set sequence of images with inscriptions further supports the idea that the pages were intended as an emblem book.

As the table below makes clear, there appear to be just two printings of each image.  The newly-discovered prints nicely fill the gaps in the sequence of known pages from Copy B.  The two exceptions are pages which are not represented in Copy A.  Could indeed the supposed Copy B prints from Urizen plates 9, 12, 13 once have formed part of the Copy A sequence?  The problem with that suggestion is that none of the Copy A prints carry inscriptions whereas Urizen 9, 12, 13 are inscribed in ink, some possibly in Blake’s hand.  Further checking for stitch-holes, and measurement of the gaps between holes, might clarify what belongs in what sequence.

The images in the Small Book of Designs, copy A, are colour-printed—that is printed from coloured inks painted on to the copper plates—with little additional work after printing.  My knowledge of the BM prints derives mostly from reproductions, but it seems to me that the new prints are not so heavily printed; the images have been substantially reworked and strengthened in watercolour and with pen and ink work.  This suggests that the new set consists of second pulls from the same inking as the BM set.

Source Copy A (No) Copy B (No) New Set (No)
Urizen plate 1 British Museum (1) No inscription Keynes “Which is the Way” | “The Right or the Left”  
Marriage plate 11 British Museum (2) No inscription Princeton “Death & Hell” | “Teem with Life”  
Urizen plate 17 British Museum (3) No inscription   Private Colln (8) “Vegetating in fibres of Blood”
Marriage plate 16 British Museum (4) No inscription   Private Colln (4) “Who shall set” | “The Prisoners free”
Marriage plate 14 British Museum (5) No inscription Rosenwald (9) “A Flaming Sword” | “Revolving every way”  
Marriage plate 20 British Museum (6) No inscription Anonymous Colln “O revolving serpent” | “O the Ocean of Time & Space”  
Urizen plate 23 British Museum (7) No inscription   Private Colln (7) “Fearless tho in pain” | “I travel on”
Urizen plate 24 British Museum (8) No inscription    
Urizen plate 3 British Museum (9) No inscription KeynesOh! Flames of Furious Desires  
Thel plate 2. British Museum (10) No inscription    
Urizen plate 27 British Museum (11) No inscription    
Urizen plate 2 British Museum (12) No inscription Tate “Teach these Souls to Fly.”  
Urizen plate 8 British Museum (13) No inscription    
Urizen plate 19 British Museum (14) No inscription   Private Colln (1) “Is the Female death” | “Become new Life” 
Urizen plate 10 British Museum (15) No inscription Yale (20) “Does the Soul labour thus” | “In Caverns of The Grave”  
Thel plate 6 British Museum (16) No inscription    
Visions plate 3 British Museum (17) No inscription Keynes (22) “Wait Sisters” | “Tho all is Lost”  
Urizen plate 7 British Museum (18) No inscription   Private Colln (9) “I sought Pleasure & found Pain”. | “Unutterable”
Urizen plate 11 British Museum (19) No inscription   Private Colln (6) “Everything is an attempt” | “To be Human”
Visions plate 10 British Museum (20) No inscription    
Urizen plate 5 British Museum (21) No inscription Yale (19) “The Book of my Remembrance”  
Thel plate 7 British Museum (22) No inscription   Private Colln (5) “Doth God take Care of These”
Thel plate 4 British Museum (23) No inscription    
Urizen plate 9   Princeton (13) “Eternally I labour on”  
Urizen plate 12   Pierpont Morgan I labour upwards into |  futurity | Blake Private Colln (10) The floods overwhelmed me
Urizen plate 13   Joseph Holland “Frozen doors to mock” | “The World: while they within torments uplock.”