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.
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.