Rationale for these songs
When I first began setting Blake’s poetry to music, my aim was very specific: I wanted to help my English students to prepare for a closed-book examination. Music can be an excellent aid to memory, so it seemed to me that if I could compose settings for some of the poems and get the tunes lodged firmly in my students’ brains, then the words might stick there too. However, I quickly discovered that my own growing enthusiasm for the poetry was taking over from my original intention. I was writing tunes because I wanted to do so: at times, it even felt as though tunes were writing themselves, appearing whether I wanted to write them or not!
The poems which make up Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience are generally very song-like in character and structure. It is believed that he may actually have sung them himself (although, if he did, the tunes have not survived). I have composed tunes for all forty-five poems, plus one additional poem - ‘A Divine Image’ - which Blake wrote for the Songs of Experience, but did not include in any published edition. My aim was to write tunes which would be memorable in their own right, but which would enable the poems to speak for themselves. The settings are intended to enhance the poems by offering a sympathetic interpretation of their mood and implications.
I believe that the tunes and arrangements that make up this collection will help the listener to develop an appreciation and understanding of Blake’s work. At all times, the mood of the music reflects the mood of the specific poem, as I understand it. I have also set out to highlight relationships between poems by the relationships between the tunes I have composed for them. Moreover, I have tried to make sure that the melody and rhythm serve to support the natural intonation and emphasis that you would find in a good, expressive reading of the poetry. The performances themselves may therefore be helpful to students of Blake’s work.
I certainly believe that these musical settings have educational value, but I offer them first and foremost as an entertaining and thought-provoking artistic work. They are available as an audio double-CD. In concert, however, the songs take on an added dimension. Blake published his poetry in a very unusual form. The poems, together with Blake’s own illustrations, were first engraved using a process called ‘relief etching’, which Blake devised himself. They were printed in black and white, and each individual copy was then hand-painted, either by Blake or by his wife, Catherine. The concert performance is therefore a multi-media experience, incorporating visual projections of Blake’s engravings and paintings juxtaposed with additional photographic images based on ideas suggested by the poems.
Blake was not consistent in the order in which he placed the poems in different copies of the book. However, neither the CD nor the concert presentation follows any sequence used by Blake himself. I felt that the contrast between the lightness and apparent simplicity of the Songs of Innocence, followed by the darkness and complexity of the Songs of Experience, would not make for good listening: it would be more interesting and varied if the two sections were, to some extent, interspersed with each other. Moreover, this would enable me to highlight themes, parallels and contrasts between individual poems by bringing them together: for example, the sharp contrast in attitude shown in ‘Nurse’s Song’ in the Songs of Innocence and ‘NURSE’S Song’ in the Songs of Experience. Nevertheless, the first CD is actually dominated by Songs of Innocence and the second by Songs of Experience.
On this site, I have set out to include some thoughts and comments on each of the poems (which I shall extend and update as time permits!) Whilst these commentaries are no substitute for detailed scholarly analysis, I hope that they will provide some pointers to help students to develop their own interpretations. I hope that they will also be of interest to the more casual listener or reader.