Friday, 30 May 2014

Blake's apprentice—Thomas Owen

I recently purchased a print of a scene in Leeds engraved by one T. Owen.

Christ Church and Coal Staith, Leeds. | Drawn by N. Whittock. Engraved on Steel by T. Owen. | London Published by J. T. Hinton, No.4. Warwick Square March 1829.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Blake set to music—Walter Zimmerman

Walter Zimmermann was born in Schwabach, Franconia, on 15 April 1949. Alongside his career as a composer he has engaged in ethnological research, gathering folk music in Franconia but also (1975-6) from American Indian reservations. He has been Professor of Composition at the Berlin Academy of the Arts since 1993; he now lives in Berlin and Seidmar (Franconia).

Zimmermann's position is that of a resolute outsider within a culture based on common currents and continuities. And almost from the start, works with quite different instrumentation were organised into substantial Werkgruppe (“cycles” or “projects”). Thus, perhaps his best-known work, Lokale Musik (1977-81) is a collection of pieces (from solos and chamber music through to large orchestra), a project about the "manifold relationships between landscape and music", a private (autobiographical and psychological) and public (historical and social) working out of those relationships in a particular landscape, that of Zimmermann's native Franconia. Zimmermann presents us with, not just a remarkable body of music, but a model of composition as a project that connects the musical to the historical, ethnological, social and psychological, and one in which these connections are never musically trivial.

Blair's Grave—a conundrum

The place that books have in the social values of their time is expressed in the frame built to hold them, that is to say, the splendour and beauty of their external protection, their binding.

Last week, at the London International Book Fair (22-24 May 2014), Sims Reed Rare Books offered for sale an elaborately bound copy of Robert Blair's The Grave, with the William Blake illustrations engraved by Luigi Schiavonetti. This is the description in the Sims Reed fair checklist.
7. BLAKE, WILLIAM. Robert Blair. The Grave, A Poem. London. Printed by T. Bensley ... for the Proprietor, R. H. Crombie [sic] &c. 1808. Folio. (420 x 330 mm). [42 leaves; pp. xiv, 36]. Frontispiece portrait of Blake by Schiavonetti after T. Phillips, printed title with verse by Montgomery verso, leaf with Blake's poem 'To the Queen', additional etched frontispiece marked 'Proof', 3 leaves with 'List of Subscribers', leaf with Cromek's 'Advertisement', leaf with Fuseli's appreciation and text and 11 plates, all by Schiavonetti after Blake; plates printed on white laid paper with the watermark 'AUVERGNE', the text on cream wove paper with the watermark 'J WHATMAN 1801' where applicable; sheet size: 410 x 320 mm. Contemporary full red straight-grained morocco by Charles Hering with his ticket to front free endpaper verso, boards with elaborate decorative tooling in  gilt and large central Cathedral stamp, skull tools to corners, blue watered silk doublures with gilt decorative tooling, a.e.g. A magnificent copy of the large paper issue of Blake's illustrations for The Grave bound in red morocco in Cathedral style by Hering.                                                                            £18,500

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Blake-spotting—Pet Shop Boys

For most musicians today, a recording is (a) historical documentation, (b) a token of a certain status, (c) a gift-able object, and/or (d) a calling card and advertisement for live performances.—DANIEL WOLF

The latest Pet Shop Boys album, “Electric”, consists of nine tracks of which the fifth, “Inside a Dream” uses a Blake refrain
The Land of Dreams is better far,
Above the light of the Morning Star.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

A William Muir chronology I: 1817-1883

This chronology was prepared by Ted Ryan some twenty-five years ago.  His source was principally the Oban Times obituary of Muir published in 1939.

George Walker Muir (father), one of a "talented family of five" born in Kilmarnock.

4 September. Birth of Christine Penman (mother) in Glasgow.

Birth of Count Gleichen (patron).

Blackfriars Bridge

The 1881 census gave Muir’s occupation as “granite agent”.  Ross of Mull granite had been used in a number of engineering projects of the 1860s and 1870s, such as the piers of Blackfriars Bridge across the Thames, docks in New York, parts of the Thames Embankment, and bridges in Glasgow.

The first Blackfriars Bridge was designed by Robert Mylne and built in 1760-9. Constructed with nine semi-elliptical Portland stone arches, it strongly reflected the influence of Piranesi, with whom Mylne had spent much time when in Rome. This bridge, the third bridge across the Thames in London, cost £230,000 and was mainly paid for by fines that had accumulated from men refusing the City post of Sheriff. It was officially known as William Pitt Bridge but the public insisted on calling it Blackfriars. In 1780 Gordon Rioters broke down the toll gates and stole the money. It was freed from tolls in 1785. It was replaced in 1860-9 by the present structure (designed by Joseph Cubitt and H. Carr) of five wrought-iron arches, faced with cast iron, on red Ross of Mull granite piers. This may be the earliest use in London of stone from the Tormor Quarry. In later years the decorative qualities of the granite (it has a distinctive pink colour) were exploited by architects and sculptors. Ross of Mull granite was used in buildings of Glasgow University of around the same date.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014


William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” begins with the following quatrain, perhaps as perfect four lines as ever he wrote
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
The poem appears in the so-called “Pickering Manuscript”, sometimes called the “Ballads Manuscript”, a collection made for some friend or patron : ten poems written out in a clear hand on eleven leaves. Owned by Basil Montagu Pickering in 1866, the manuscript is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Blake set to music in Europe

When we look at Blake’s reception abroad, we find a curious divergence. In France, Italy, and the Spanish-speaking world the emphasis has been on translating Blake’s texts—with French versions by figures as distinguished as André Gide (1923) and Philippe Soupault (1927), Italian translations by Ungaretti (1936), and Spanish translations by Neruda (1947). Musical settings of Blake’s English words have tended rather to come from Norway (Øistein Sommerfeldt and Finn Coren), or from Belgium (Lucien Posman and Benoît Mernier).

The earliest Blake setting by a composer from continental Europe is by Jacques Blumenthal (born Hamburg, 1829). His "Songs of Innocence”, setting six Blake poems, were published between 1878 and 1883. But Blumenthal had been a London resident from 1848, and died there in 1908. Similarly, the Blake settings (1940s) by Paul Hindemith (Hanau, Hesse, 1895), Ernst Krenek (Vienna, 1900), and Ernst Toch (Vienna, 1887) were all composed in North American exile.

Blake set to music—John Sykes

First published on Zoamorphosis the Blake 2.0 Blog ( on 14 June 2010.

The music critic Andrew Porter said of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, that "there can be few English-speaking composers who ... have not contemplated setting all forty-six of the poems". But, as Donald Fitch points out, few have actually realised any substantial part of that dream. Only the American composer William Bolcom has succeeded in setting all 46 poems as a single sustained composition. Many others have set substantial numbers of the poems, though not often as a connected set, and most were for fairly limited musical resources. Among English composers there is Havergal Brian with 19, Fritz Hart with 26, Alfred Hale with 17, and Maud Valérie White with 15. Both Vincent Caillard and Ronald Stevenson have set the complete Songs of Innocence as a cycle, the first for voice and piano, the second as a choral cycle with solo voice and chamber orchestra. Another relatively unknown Englishman, John Sykes, came close; a provisional list of Sykes’s songs, compiled by Stephen Banfield, shows settings of all but nine of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Blake set to music—Adrian Leverkühn

First published on Zoamorphosis the Blake 2.0 Blog ( on 29 June 2011.

Blake set to music—Cornelius Cardew

First published on Zoamorphosis the Blake 2.0 Blog ( on 25 June 2010.

Over 30 years after his death in 1981, there nearly was a revival of interest in the English composer and political activist, Cornelius Cardew.  On Friday 20 August 2010, the BBC Proms featured a work by Cardew for the first time since the disastrous performance of part of The Great Learning at the Albert Hall in 1972.  A late-night (10.00 pm start) mixed programme of English and American experimental traditions included Cardew’s Bun No. 2 for Orchestra performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Ilan Volkov conducting. But that seems to have been that.

Blake set to music—Benjamin Britten

First published on Zoamorphosis the Blake 2.0 Blog ( on 8 August 2010.

William Blake was a poet of crucial importance to the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76). Other poets, notably W. H. Auden, were set more often, but as the enthusiasm of, at the most, a decade. Only Blake, it seems, provided inspiration throughout Britten’s life. The earliest of Britten’s Blake settings is The Nurse’s Song, written when he was sixteen. Some individual Blake settings followed in the 1930s, including a first version of A Poison Tree. The 1940s produced the haunting miniature ‘The sick rose’ in Serenade, and ‘Cradle Song’ in A Charm of Lullabies. A setting of ‘Sound the Flute!’ forms part of Spring Symphony, and his children’s opera, The Little Sweep is indebted to Blake’s chimney-sweeper poems. Then in 1965, thirty years after his first setting of ‘A Poison Tree’, Britten returned to Blake for the large-scale cycle, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.