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5.110083-84 - BOLCOM: Songs of Innocence and of Experience
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William Bolcom (b. 1938)
Songs of Innocence and of Experience: A Musical Illumination of the Poems of William Blake

Ever since I was seventeen, when the reading of William Blake was to make a profound difference to my life, I have wanted to set the entire Songs of Innocence and of Experience to music. Several songs were actually completed in 1956; The Sick Rose, and the opening, revised, of the Songs of Innocence, are survivors of that time, and the work remained in my mind until 1973, when I moved to Ann Arbor to teach at the University of Michigan. I felt that I could thus simplify my life enough to be able to realise the cycle I had dreamed of for so long.

Most of the work was completed in the years 1973-74 and 1979-82; the opening of the Songs of Experience was fully sketched in 1966 and several of the major songs date from the early and middle 1970s. The largest problem was the form the entire setting would take. It could not be a standard opera, and the stopping and starting that constantly bedevils the oratorio form would prove fatal for 46 poems over an evening.

The final ordering of the Songs left by Blake, as will be seen, is quite different from the one I had become used to in my earliest reading. In the 1880s William Muir, an artist greatly involved with the revival of interest in Blake’s engravings and paintings, actually printed some of the poet’s works from the original copper plates. He then (as Blake with his wife Catherine had done) handcoloured them, although, to my mind, not as interestingly or vividly as had Blake himself. In Muir’s edition of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1888) I found by chance in the appendix an ordering of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience (reproduced in what looks very much like Blake’s own hand); Blake had presumably left this for his wife should anyone have wanted a further printing of the Songs, which had been one of the few of his engraved works that had had any sale. (Evidently no one asked Catherine Blake for a copy.)

This ordering, new to me, gave me what I needed in trying to find an overall shape to the work: a series of arches, in both subject and emotion, that marked the piece off into nine clear movements, each inhabiting a certain spiritual climate and progressing ever further in Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. With slight changes I have used Blake’s last ordering in my piece. I had always wanted to end the evening with The Divine Image, which Blake had engraved and then rejected for the Experience cycle, and I revised the order of the last part to accommodate the poem.

The Blakean principle of contraries — “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) — would also dominate my approach to the work, particularly in matters of style. Current Blake research has tended to confirm what I had assumed from the first, that at every point Blake used his whole culture, past and present, highflown and vernacular, as sources for his many poetic styles. Throughout the entire Songs of Innocence and of Experience, exercises in elegant Drydenesque diction are placed cheek by jowl with ballads that could have come from one of the “songsters” of his day (small, popular books or pamphlets of words set to well-known tunes, in the manner of John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera). It is as if many people from all walks of life were speaking, each in a different way. The apparent disharmony of each clash and juxtaposition eventually produces a deeper and more universal harmony, once the whole cycle is absorbed. All I did was to use the same stylistic point of departure as Blake in my musical settings.

If any one work of mine has been the chief source and progenitor of the others, I would have to say that this is it. My fascination with the synthesis of the most unlikely stylistic elements dates from my knowledge and application of Blake’s principle of contraries, and I have spent most of my artistic life in pursuit of this higher synthesis. In this work, through my settings, I have tried my best to make everything clear; I have used music in the same way Blake used line and colour, in order to illuminate the poems.

To me, William Blake is the most urgent of poets. What he says is as immediate as ever, but particularly to us: he came from an epoch of social change as total as ours. With clear and unjudging vision Blake saw where the human race was heading; it could be argued that the Songs of Innocence and of Experience may be the most lucid explanation we have of what forces have brought us to where we are now. If there is any solution to our unending crisis, it is only through acceptance and understanding of our own nature, and if I have caused a more careful listening to Blake’s message, then my work over a span of 25 years will not have been in vain.

William Bolcom, 1984

Recollections on the Twentieth Anniversary of Songs of Innocence and of Experience

After the April 1984 United States première of this work in Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium – the world’s first performances had taken place 8th and 9th January of that year with the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies – there have been twelve performances of Songs of Innocence and of Experience: at Grant Park in Chicago with Gustav Meier, who did the first Ann Arbor performance; with the Brooklyn Philharmonic under Lukas Foss; with the Saint Louis Symphony, both there and in New York, and the BBC Symphony in London, also under Leonard Slatkin; and with the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa in Southern California under former Ann Arborite Carl St Clair. A piece of its sheer size cannot hope to be played too often, and I am still amazed, twenty years later, that it has been heard all these times, sixteen performances in all.

I was once afraid it would never be heard or even finished. Although parts of Songs date from almost fifty years ago, I certainly did not (and economically could not) work on it steadily; Songs is one of those works one does without commission. Finding time and relative peace to compose it in the sheer all-day effort to survive freelance in New York had proved impossible. When we moved to Ann Arbor, finally I was able to put the piece together; of course I did not realise that my wife Joan Morris and I would still be here thirty-something years later.

You will notice many instruments unusual to the orchestra. I love writing for the “modern” symphony orchestra, but often I am confronted with the sad fact that its disposition, the term for its total instrumentation, has hardly evolved since World War I. (Up until then the orchestra admitted instrument after instrument when players in each attained a certain level of proficiency; why the subsequent inertia has occurred is a subject best explored elsewhere, but it would seem likely that any organization as codified, as rigidly delineated as today’s orchestra is in danger of disappearing.) The University of Michigan School of Music provided a possible escape from this unevolved orchestra. A rough demographic analysis of the student population taken in the aggregate yields a potential orchestra including saxophones, expanded percussion and brass, and electric instruments; all these are represented onstage along with the varied musical styles these instruments and their players bring to our new orchestra.

More important, even though Stuttgart has had the world première, Songs of Innocence and of Experience had been primarily meant to be a work involving our whole School of Music. (A school of our size could fall too easily into watertight departmental thinking on the part of both faculty and students; what a shame not to get to know and collaborate with other kinds of musicians, or actors, or dancers, in one’s learning years!) In the chorus of a St Matthew Passion performance when a student in Seattle, I experienced a deep feeling of oneness with the whole community of musicians onstage that permeated my soul; we were singers and instrumentalists, each from different disciplines, brought spiritually together by Bach’s music. I vowed some day to write something that could afford such an experience to students after me, that would permit a true bringing of many kinds of performers together; the hope is that the greater understanding of ourselves that Blake leads us toward in this cycle will thus be experienced here communally, on and off stage. The knowledge these poems gives us is often frightening, but it makes us free and in the end gives us joy.

William Bolcom, 2004


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