William Blake: how his poetry inspired composers
The visionary poetry and vivid illustrations of William Blake have inspired hundred of pieces from songs to symphonies. Kate Wakeling finds out why
Though I call them Mine I know they are not Mine,’ wrote William Blake of his creations. A visionary poet, painter and printmaker, Blake produced bold and mysterious works that have gone on to inspire countless musicians, from Vaughan Williams to Stockhausen to Bob Dylan.
What is William Blake's most famous poem?
And thanks to Hubert Parry’s stirring anthem Jerusalem, Blake’s poetry is woven deep into Britain’s national consciousness. In 1935, while planning a Jubilee concert at the Royal Albert Hall, King George V reportedly declared: ‘We must have Jerusalem. If we don’t, I shall go down to the platform myself and whistle it’. Even now, over 100 years since its composition, Parry’s hymn continues to resound at weddings and funerals, on sports fields and in school halls.
But Blake’s legacy in music reaches far beyond Parry’s rousing setting, and he remains as complex, relevant and challenging a figure today as during his chequered lifetime. ‘
Blake has come to represent the idea of inner vision, where the artist expresses this vision not in the service of a patron,’ explains Martin Myrone, one of the exhibition’s curators, ‘and this is why it remains important to think about him. Blake is creative freedom crystallised.’
We named Blake's poem The Tyger one of the most famous poems of all time.
When was William Blake born?
William Blake was born in London in 1757. Unlike many well-known writers of his day, he was from a family of moderate means. His father was a hosier and the head-strong young Blake only briefly attended school before continuing his studies with his mother at home. Free to roam the streets of London and surrounding countryside as a child, Blake began to experience celestial visions, purportedly seeing the face of God at a window and ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.’
Was William Blake an artist as well as poet?
After a brief stint at drawing school, he took up an apprenticeship as an engraver then enrolled for a time at the Royal Academy, before eking out a career as an engraver and illustrator. But, as Myrone explains, this occupation was very much ‘just the day job… in the evenings Blake would paint, then he might wake up in the middle of the night and write 30 lines of poetry.’
Working in the cracks of his professional life, Blake produced a radical and beautiful body of work, including the exquisitely illustrated poetry collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), which has stood as a vibrant source of inspiration for generations of composers.
In the 1980s, reference librarian Donald Fitch set about cataloguing every single musical setting of Blake’s text he could lay his hands on in a hefty bibliography. Blake Set to Music runs to over 300 pages and contains 1,412 entries, from single song settings to lengthy cantatas.
Over 250 settings of The Lamb are included (‘others seem to turn up every month’) while Fitch also notes, with a certain wry surprise, that ‘Denmark since the war has been a veritable hothouse of Blake interest’. But what has made Blake’s poetry such an enduring favourite among composers?
Myrone points out that Blake has long been held as ‘the archetype of the creative artist’. He is a compelling embodiment of imagination, integrity and radicalism, whose poetry conjures wildly vivid images and irresistibly powerful emotions. And the surface-level ‘simplicity’ of his texts belies their rich complexity. Without question, Blake is an artist of beguiling power.
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Was Blake musical?
Less well-known, however, is the fact that Blake was also a gifted musician. As he himself put it, throughout his life he pursued the three vocations of ‘Poet, Painter & Musician as the Inspiration comes’.
He was, in Myrone’s words, one of the earliest ‘trans-media’ artists. Intriguingly, Blake’s house (now demolished and replaced by a ‘very un-Blakean tower block’) was situated on Broad (now Broadwick) Street, London’s home to piano and harpsichord-makers including renowned craftsmen Frederick Beck and Christopher Ganer.
How far this musical backdrop might have shaped Blake’s work is tricky to say, but he certainly made something of a musical name for himself at certain literary salons. One attendee described how ‘I have often heard [Blake] read and sing several of his poems. He was listened to by the company with profound silence, and allowed by most of the visitors to possess original and extraordinary merit.’
Sadly, the melodies Blake composed did not survive beyond his death, but the musicality that infuses his writing is surely a component of his popularity among composers.
Which composers were inspired by Blake's poetry?
It was not until the 20th century, however, that composers really started getting excited about Blake. The publication of Alexander Gilchrist’s biography The Life of William Blake in 1863 brought the artist to wider public attention, but the turn of the century marked a new rush of enthusiasm.
As historian Keri Davies notes, ‘in 1900 the trickle of new musical settings of Blake’s poetry becomes a flood.’ The new century marked a profound transformation in British cultural values, where composers began to explore the possibility of music as an agent of societal change. In turn, the uncompromising spirit of Blake’s poetry, written amid a period of tumultuous political and economic upheaval, became a fresh source of inspiration for British composers.
Certainly the most enduring musical setting of Blake’s poetry, Parry’s Jerusalem, is a potent symbol of music’s political potential.
The origins of Britain’s ‘alternative national anthem’ are knottier than might be expected, however. In 1916, the poet laureate Robert Bridges asked Parry to compose a piece ‘that an audience could take up and join in’ at a concert in support of the ‘Fight for Right’ movement, which hoped to boost support for the First World War in the UK.
Bridges proposed a section of Blake’s epic poem Milton as the text. Parry was sceptical about such a nationalistic cause, but duly composed a song for unison voices and organ, handing it over to the conductor Henry Walford Davies with the words ‘Here’s a tune for you, old chap. Do what you like with it.’
The anthem was a resounding success, but Parry grew increasingly uneasy and eventually withdrew his support from the ‘Fight for Right’ cause. It seemed the song might be withdrawn too, until Parry was approached by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a leader of the Women’s Movement, requesting if Jerusalem might become the Women Voters’ Hymn. Parry promptly responded: ‘I wish indeed it might become the Women Voters’ Hymn as you suggest. People seem to enjoy singing it. And having the vote ought to diffuse a good deal of joy too. So they would combine happily.’
Jerusalem has since stood as an emblem of both political left and right: it has been the anthem of the Women’s Institute since 1924, was included in a leaflet titled Socialist Singers and Socialist Songs by the Labour Party in 1932 (along with an application to join the Labour Party) and is of course now firmly associated with various brands of flag-waving national pride. On this last matter, it seems Parry would not have been much pleased.
Other celebrated 20th-century settings of Blake abound. One of Vaughan Williams’s final works, Ten Blake Songs (1957), was composed for the 1958 film The Vision of William Blake and sets poems from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience and a passage from the poet’s notebook. Scored for voice and oboe, the songs move between the tender, the stern and transcendent.
Oh! Sunflower is, for example, a wonderful evocation of Blake’s mysticism in its surging, lyrical lines for the duo. Yet for all the work’s power, Vaughan Williams was himself remarkably caustic about some of Blake’s poetry, remarking on ‘that horrible little lamb – a poem that I hate.’
John Tavener’s choral setting of The Lamb, composed in 1982 ‘from seven notes in an afternoon’, is marked by the composer’s reverence for the poet, however: ‘Blake’s use of tradition, his “liquid” poetic theology, and the fact that he believed that all traditions and “sacred codes” have placed man under a divine order – this is what has most deeply inspired me about Blake… He is relevant, precisely because the world today knows nothing of these things.’
Britten was no less awed by Blake’s poetry. He composed his earliest setting, The Nurse’s Song, when just a teenager and included The Sick Rose in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943), but it was not until his Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (1965) that Britten gave his full attention to Blake, declaring ‘when I think of the wonderful words I feel rather inadequate’.
With texts selected by tenor Peter Pears, the cycle is thick with both sorrow and irony, and includes lengthy, weighty songs and snappy settings of epigrams (‘The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship’). The work was composed for baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who later recalled how the cycle was completed following the death during childbirth of his first wife, the cellist Irmgard Poppen. Britten’s dedication on the score, ‘To Dieter – the past and the future’, suggests a certain oblique reference to this loss.
As Donald Fitch’s sizeable bibliography attests, summarising the many musical settings of Blake is no easy task. But certain compositions stand out as particularly surprising or notable. America’s avant-garde frequently drew on Blake as a source of inspiration, including Henry Cowell’s Tiger (1928) for solo piano, featuring fierce, rapid-fire cluster chords, while George Antheil, the self-styled ‘bad boy of music’, composed his extensive Blake setting, Nine Songs of Experience, in 1948.
Stockhausen included a passage of Blake (‘He who kisses the joy as it flies... lives in Eternity’s sunrise’) in his magnificently strange Momente for soprano soloist, mixed choirs and ensemble, completed in 1972. A recording of American composer William Bolcom’s evocative setting of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1987) for orchestra, choirs and multiple soloists went on to win four Grammys in 2006 and ranges in style from complex chromaticism to reggae, while Eve Beglarian’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1994) sets three of Blake’s proverbs in a score rich with jazz and Latin-inspired rhythms.
Pop musicians have been no less inspired by Blake’s verse. Listen, for instance, to songs by Joni Mitchell, U2 and Bruce Dickinson (of Iron Maiden fame), while Norwegian metal band Ulver (‘Wolves’) recorded almost the complete text of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a double album in 1998.
Blake’s legacy in the world of music is extraordinarily rich, and it is perhaps fitting that his final moments were spent in a rapture of music and poetry. An account by close friend Frederick Tatham claims, ‘he began to sing Hallelujahs & songs of joy & Triumph which Mrs. Blake described as being truly sublime in music & in Verse. He sang loudly & with true ecstatic energy and seemed so happy that he had finished his course.’
William Blake's best poems
Both a literary and visual work of art, William Blake’s extraordinary Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) sits among his most celebrated works.
The collection appeared in two phases: Blake published his Songs of Innocence in 1789 as a freestanding book of 19 illuminated poems that explore the sweetness of childhood, before five years later adding a further 26 poems titled Songs of Experience.
These later poems delve into the bitterness, repression and vice that Blake felt to pervade modern society, and the combined work was hence published under the title Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.
Each poem is brief and deceptively simple, echoing the singsong rhythms and rhymes of popular 18th-century children’s verse. Yet these poems are infinitely more radical than their form suggests. They are rich in ambiguity, astonishingly imaginative and underpinned by Blake’s radical and uncompromising views on human nature and the contemporary world.
The collection condemns the repressive authority of church and state, celebrates sexual freedom and addresses the horrors of racial inequality and child labour, to remain a fearless, luminous and powerful work of art.
Kate Wakeling is a writer, musicologist, poet and BBC Music Magazine critic, predominantly focusing on contemporary music. She studied music at Cambridge University and holds a PhD in Balinese gamelan music from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and is a writer-in-residence with the Aurora Orchestra.