More Musical Blake

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.

Happy Christmastide!

Grayson Perry at the Manchester Art Gallery

Manchester Art Gallery is currently showing Perry’s tapestries The Vanity of Small Differences, created as part of a series of three programmes for Channel 4, In the Best Possible Taste, which explored notions of class and taste in England.

The tapestries are a modern take on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, a series of paintings and engravings which tell the story of Tom Rakewell who inherits a fortune at the death of his father, squanders it on wine, women and song, is thrown into debtor’s prison, and ends up insane the Bethlehem Hospital. Perry’s narrative charts the story of Tim Rakewell from his birth on a council estate in Sunderland, to becoming a middle-class businessman in Tunbridge Wells, a millionaire in the Cotswolds, and his death in a gutter.

The tapestries are as densely packed with symbolism as the Gallery’s famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings (Ford Maddox Brown’s Work and Holman Hunt’s Shadow of Death are particular highlights) – layers of references to Old Master paintings (explicit in the titles of five out of six of the works), cameo appearances by public figures and people Perry met when making the Channel 4 series.

Perry expertly combines craft, social commentary and humour in his work. He is a kind of artist-prophet – a role Blake also saw himself inhabiting but unlike Perry, who has recently expounded his thoughts on the art world from the establishment platform of the BBC’s Reith Lectures, Blake’s prophecy was not well-received in his lifetime. Blake also didn’t think much of Hogarth.

I wonder what Perry thinks of Blake and what Blake would make of Perry.

Imbibing Blake

Yesterday I went on a research trip to Manchester’s Brew Dog Bar. Actually, if I’m honest, I didn’t anticipate that this was going to be a research trip, but upon arrival, according to my usual custom, I squinted at the blackboard for a name I’ve never seen before (I always forget that I need my glasses for beer selection), and spotted “Vagabond Pilsner.”

If this name isn’t a reference to Blake, it should be; his poem “The Little Vagabond” contrasts the cold church with the “healthy & pleasant & warm” ale-house.

Brew Dog’s philosophy is quite Blakean in many respects. It is a craft brewery which has its genesis in the dissatisfaction of the founders with industrially brewed beer, echoing Blake’s rebellion against the industrial revolution and the commercialisation of the art market in his time. And just as Blake expresses his ideas with prophetic zeal, so Brew Dog professes to have a “mission…to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are” (source: Brew Dog’s website).  Also, like Blake, Brew Dog are not afraid to be controversial, although I think they risk being (unashamedly) gimmicky, which I would like to think Blake was not (though some have suggested that Blake cultivated an über-eccentric persona).

I know of another Blakean beer, Bombardier’s “Burning Gold” which takes its name from one of Blake’s most famous verses, calling itself “a tribute to all that is celebrated in English beer.” Maybe there are more Blakean brews out there — notes on a postcard please — what I would really like is to find one with a Blakean crown cork to add to my collection (which might almost trump my ongoing search for one with an “NB” monogram).