One of the treats of Christmas in Canterbury is the service of lessons and carols in the Cathedral on Christmas Eve.
Marking the death of John Taverner this November, one of the choral pieces was the late composer’s setting of Blake’s ‘The Lamb,‘ a piece also featured in the most famous Christmas Eve service, King’s College Cambridge’s Nine Lessons and Carols this year. In fact, Blake was doubly honoured at King’s, with their new commission for this year’s service being a setting of ‘Hear the voice of the Bard‘ by Thea Musgrave. (Incidentally, King’s is home to Copy W of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, from which both poems come; this copy is generally considered to be one of the finest printed by Blake and is among the most widely reproduced and therefore familiar.)
‘The Lamb’ is a somewhat fitting, if unusual, piece for Christmas, in that it can be read as a reflection on Christ as the Lamb who, as stated in the poem “became a little child.’
‘Hear the voice of the Bard’ is a less well known poem and was apparently one of a long list of suggestions made by the director of music at King’s, Stephen Cleobury. On her website, Musgrave writes that ‘Hear the Voice of the Bard’ “jumped right off the page” when she read the list; she states that she was “drawn to this poem because it reaches out for the larger beauty and mystery of our existence on earth independent of specific religious affiliation…Blake finds our ‘lapsed’ human souls in need of the refreshment and constancy of nature’s magical cycles — and also of the artist’s role in the musical ‘voice of the Bard.'”
It is not the most obvious Blakean poem for Christmas, but it can be read in Incarnational terms, speaking of ‘The Holy Word’ and of the Earth’s renewal. Its place in the service, between the first (God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head – Genesis 3) and second (God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed – Genesis 22) lessons reflected the prophetic nature of Blake’s bardic voice (although Blake of course thought that the advent of Christ was not received as it should have been and that the world had slumbered for eighteen-hundred years until he came along).
As for the settings themselves, Taverner’s was familiar, Musgrave’s of course was new. I found both perfectly nice pieces of music but there is an inherent strangeness in Blake’s words being sung in such an establishment styles and settings as by the choirs of Canterbury and King’s (notwithstanding Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’), so that they end up not feeling very Blakean.
There was, however, a truly (proto-)Blakean treat at Canterbury – a marvellous setting of Robert Southwell’s ‘The Burning Babe‘ by Jonathan Wikeley. I’m not the first to notice that Southwell’s poem could almost be a description of Blake’s painting The Nativity, although it seems unlikely that Blake might have known it, but they could be drawing on shared older sources. Anyway, the poem was a new discovery for me and the setting was full of the drama and energy in Southwell’s words. This doesn’t seem to have yet made it to the realm of the internet, but I will be keeping my eyes and ears out for a recording.