Britten’s ‘Songs and Proverbs of William Blake’

Last month, the University of Manchester’s Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama celebrated its tenth birthday. One of the celebratory events was a lunchtime concert by baritone Marcus Farnsworth (an alumnus of the University) and pianist James Baillieu. Benjamin Britten, whose centenary is being celebrated this year, featured prominently in the programme, and the draw for me was ‘Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.’

It’s said that Blake sang his own songs, but we have no way of recovering his tunes. There are thousands of settings of Blake’s poetry, and this was not one I was familiar with.

The cycle was written in 1965 for the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a friend of Britten’s. It includes six songs from Songs of Experience, proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and end with verses from Auguries of Innocence, arranged in a single movement lasting about twenty minutes. The texts were selected by Britten’s collaborator Peter Pears.

The performance was perfectly executed, but I was disappointed by the piece. Although I generally like Britten, I didn’t take to his setting of Blake.

I’ve struggled to articulate what it is that didn’t work for me, and since attending the concert, I have listened to a recording to try to put my finger on what it was; it wasn’t that I was unimpressed by the music itself  (if I ignore the words I actually quite like it), but to put it very simply, I didn’t feel that the mood of the piece matched the verse it was setting. One’s feeling of a poem (and a piece of music) is of course somewhat subjective, and perhaps there are people for whom Britten captures the sense of Blake’s verse.

Hyperion Records’ introduction to its recording states that  the piece is marked by moments of “dark intensity.” The same can be said of the Songs of Experience which it uses, but for me, it wasn’t the same kind of dark intensity as the Songs. I felt that Britten’s piece was almost eerie and ominous, whereas the Songs are marked by anger and polemic (the first song in Britten’s piece, “London” is a good example — and I am aware of the irony of my criticising Britten on this point when my own take on “London” hardly does justice to Blake). Where there is a sense of anger in Britten’s setting, I didn’t feel it was in the right places.

Other things that didn’t work for me were The Tyger, which is almost playful, and wound be one of the few places I think some of the eerie stuff might work well.

Finally, the final section, using verses from Auguries of Innocence seemed to me to be sorrowful and dark, whereas the words are some of Blake’s most resoundingly positive verses (and some of my favourites, making this section the crowning sin on Britten’s part as far as I am concerned):

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

If Britten helps you to do this, then great, but Songs and Proverbs of William Blake is not for me.

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