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.

Composers had previously set poets translated into their native language (Schubert set Ossian in German translation). There were exceptions such as Haydn’s and Beethoven’s arrangements of English, Scottish and Welsh folksongs, but these were commissions from British publishers. When Thomas Mann (in Doktor Faustus, 1947) has his fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn set Blake in English, this is a deliberate break with early twentieth-century audience expectations—Alexander Zemlinsky set Tagore’s words in German for his Lyric Symphony; Arnold Schoenberg used Otto Hartleben’s German translation of Albert Giraud’s French for Pierrot Lunaire. Only much later did “real-life” composers follow Leverkühn’s lead.

William Blake is probably now the English poet most set by European composers—having overtaken Shakespeare and Burns some years ago. This is almost entirely a post-1960 phenomenon. Karlheinz Stockhausen responded to Blake in aphoristic mode in Momente (1962-69) and was followed by Henri Pousseur (La Passion selon Guignol, 1981) and others. The Fugs’ genial folk-rock settings (The Village Fugs, 1965) of Blake’s lyric verse led to a world-wide enthusiasm for Blake in folk, rock and jazz settings—much of this enthusiasm fostered by Allen Ginsberg who followed and was influenced by The Fugs. Ginsberg’s own recording of Blake songs was first issued in 1970.

Settings of Blake seem to originate mainly in Northern Europe—there is a wealth of settings by German, Austrian, Belgian, Dutch and, particularly, Scandinavian composers. One should also note the Russian composer, Dmitri Smirnov, who studied with Philipp Herscovici, a pupil of Webern, and has produced easily the largest body of work devoted to setting Blake to music. Smirnov, born in Minsk, has been resident in Britain since 1991, apparently because it allows him to feel closer to Blake, the source for many of his compositions, including a three-act opera Tiriel, first performed at Freiburg im Breisgau in 1989, a ballet, Blake’s Pictures, and the beautiful one-act The Lamentations of Thel (1986). From Southern Europe, I am only aware of a few isolated figures, such as, from Greece, Yorgos Tsakiris, with simple pop settings (2002), or, from Italy, Ornella d’Urbano’s New Age folk versions (2000).

The settings by composers and performers from continental Europe yield more than a simple statistical measure of the growth of Blake’s reputation. They can point us to sometimes neglected approaches to Blake’s poetry itself. Heavy-metal bands—the Norwegian Ulver (1998) or the Belarussian Thelema (2008)—are drawn to the transgressive Blake. Smirnov’s two operas reveal a Blakean theatre. For Karlheinz Stockhausen, the Blake quotation ("He who kisses the joy as it flies | Lives in eternity’s sun rise") embedded in his Momente (1962), became a mantra expressing the essence of his “moment form”—discontinuity as a musical experience like the discontinuities that form part of the Blakean poetic experience.

Summary list of composers

Austria & Germany

Peter Arnesen, 1947-
Christian Bänsch-Narnia, 1956-
Maximilian Beckschäfer, 1952-
Jacques Blumenthal, 1829-1908
Wolfgang Breuer, 1938-
Edgar Froese, 1944-
Karl Habenicht, 1956-
Paul Hindemith, 1895-1963
Martin Hopfmüller, 1929-
Christine Jurasek, 1955-
Peter Kiesewetter, 1945-
Ernst Krenek, 1900-1991
Adrian Leverkühn, 1885-1940 (in Thomas Mann's novel Doktor Faustus)
Hannes Loeschl
Gustav Mahler, 1860-1911 (music used for a dance piece, La Rose Malade, choreographed by Roland Petit)
Robert Müller-Hartmann, 1884-1950 (Germany/UK)
Dieter Rehfeld, 1955-
Leopold Spinner, 1906-1980 (Austria/UK)
Andreas Steltzer, 1956-
Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1928-2007
Michael Thiele, 1947-
Ernst Toch, 1887-1964
Vally Weigl, 1889-1892 (Austria/USA)
Rudolf T. Werther, 1896-1986 (Germany/Australia)
Walter Zimmermann


André Laporte, 1931-
Benoît Mernier, 1964-
Lucien Posman, 1952-
Henri Pousseur, 1929-2009

Denmark & Norway

Finn Coren, 1961-
John Frandsen, 1956-
Ole Carsten Green, 1922-
Erik Højsgaard, 1954-
Peder Holm, 1926-
Bo Holten, 1948-
Tage Nielsen, 1929-
Helmer Nørgaard. 1923-
Poul Rovsing Olsen, 1922-1982
Dagmar de Corval Rybner, 1890-1965 (Denmark/USA)
Oistein Sommerfeldt, 1919-
Leif Thybo, 1922-
Ulver (group)

Finland & Sweden

John Väinö Forsman, 1924- (Finland/Denmark)
Ilkka Taneli Kuusisto, 1933-
Lars-Erik Vilner Larsson, 1908-1986
Erkki Melartin, 1875-1937
Arto Rintamäki, 1950-
Sven-David Sandström, 1942-
Leif Selim Segerstam, 1944-
Ari Taskinen, 1959-


René Jacques Koering, 1940-
Fernand Pena


Yorgos Tsakiris


Zoltan Jeney, 1943-
Thomas Rajna, 1928- (Hungary/UK/SouthAfrica)
Antal Ribari, 1924-
Istvan Sarkozy, 1920-


Finnur Torfi Stefansson, 1947-
Atli Heimir Sveinsson, 1938-


John Buckley, 1951-
Hastings Crossley, 1846-
Jerome De Bromhead,
Edgar Martin Deale, 1902-
Denise Maria Anne Kelly, 1954-
Mary Margaret Kelly, 1957-
Philip James Martin, 1947-
Van Morrison (performer)
Havelock Nelson, 1917-
Caroline Wilhelmina Perceval, 1870- (Ireland/UK)
Joan Trimble, 1915-
Gerard Victory, 1921-
Ethel Lillian (Boole) Voynich, 1864-1960 (Ireland/USA)
James Walter Wilson, 1922-


Franco Leoni, 1864-1949 (Italy/UK)
Paolo Renosto, 1935-
Ornella Urbani


Johan Franco, 1908-
Boudewijn de Groot, 1944-
Peter Schat, 1935-
Alphone Stallaert, 1920-
Jacob Ter Veldhuis, 1951-
Joop Voorn, 1932-


Rafal Augustyn, 1951-
René Leibowitz, 1913-1972 (Poland/France)
Krzysztof Penderecki, 1933- (Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima utilised in dance work Abyss based on drawings by Blake)

Russia & Belarus

Elena Firsova, 1950-
Dmitri Smirnov, 1948-
Thelema (group)
Samuel A. Zimbalist, 1897-1956 (Russia/USA)


Karl Lienert, 1953-
Yves Massy, 1957-
Emmanuel Meuwly, 1948-
John Glenesk Mortimer, 1951- (UK/Switzerland)
Ernst Widmer, 1927- (Switzerland/Brazil)

Can one always firmly label someone as a German, Hungarian, Swiss, or Russian composer? Rajna was a refugee in England from 1956, before moving to South Africa. Mortimer, Edinburgh-born, has worked most of his life in Switzerland. Zimbalist emigrated from Russia to the United States. Both Toch and Krenek spent the latter halves of their careers in the United States, but their reputations were largely established in Germany. And as mentioned above, there are a number of significantly early (from the 1880s) Blake settings by Jacques Blumenthal.* He was born in Hamburg in 1829, moving to London in 1848, where he became pianist to Queen Victoria. Blumenthal died in London in 1908. Wikipedia thinks he's German, Oxford DNB thinks he's British. Perhaps the significant question here is if there is some continuing connection to the Continent; did Blumenthal—like Coleridge or Henry Crabb Robinson—build a cultural bridge? And was his impact in Britain or Germany? And the answer is definitely local to Britain. As Donald Fitch points out, Blumenthal was part of a circle with Irene Poldowski (Lady Paul), Sir Landon Ronald, Maud Valérie White, who all attempted Blake settings. Unlike Toch and Krenek, who are still largely considered German, Blumenthal is best regarded as a British composer. One might indeed contrast Blumenthal with his near contemporary, the English composer William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875) who provided his setting of John Clare with a German translation to broaden its potential audience.**
* Jacques Blumenthal.—Songs of Innocence : six four-part songs for soprano, alto, tenor and bass : the poetry by William Blake; the music composed by Jacques Blumenthal.—London : J.B. Cramer & Co., [1883].
** William Sterndale Bennett.—Winter's gone = Winters macht : no.2 of Six songs with English and German words, op35. ... the words written by John Clare ; German version by C. Klingemann.—London : Leader & Cock, [ca.1855].


Donald Fitch.—Blake Set to Music : a Bibliography of Musical Settings of the Poems and Prose of William Blake.—Catalogs and bibliographies; 5.—Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

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