The William Blake Blog

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: