Songs of Innocence and of Experience

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Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Christine Brewer (soprano)
Measha Brueggergosman (soprano)
Ilana Davidson (soprano)
Linda Hohenfeld (soprano)
Carmen Pelton (soprano)
Joan Morris (mezzo-soprano)
Marietta Simpson (contralto)
Thomas Young (tenor)
Nmon Ford (baritone)

Nathan Lee Graham (speaker/vocals)
Tommy Morgan (harmonica)
Peter “Madcat” Ruth (harmonica & vocals)
Jeremy Kittel (fiddle)

Michigan State University Children’s Choir
University of Michigan University Choir
University of Michigan Orpheus Singers
University Musical Society Choral Union and University of Michigan Chamber Choir

Contemporary Directions Ensemble
University Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Recorded live on 8 April 2004 at The University of Michigan School of Music, Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: June 2005
CD No: NAXOS 8.559216-18
(3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 17 minutes

William Blake wrote 46 poems to comprise “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”. William Bolcom (born 1938) has set them, as a “musical illumination”, for vast forces, an enterprise begun in 1956 and not completely realised until 1982.

Writing this work has been a formidable labour. It is a tour de force – expressing love, laughter, awe, fascination and adventure – with treasures more likely to be manifest on a second or third hearing.

Some of the poems are national monuments, their opening lineswell-known and much-loved. Do you dare set them to music? “Little lamb, who made thee?” or “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright”. Yet massed voices do sing “And did those feet” – credit then to Sir Hubert Parry for setting “Jerusalem”.

Yet, in fact, most of the “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” are little-known and rarely quoted. The language is simple throughout. Even so, the Songs’ comprehensibility varies. Some are almost absurdly naïf; others are doggedly obscure. The linguistic style varies: Bolcom points out that “elegant Drydenesque diction [is] placed cheek by jowl with ballads.”

In short, the whole work seems to be an intractable mess stylistically.

However, Bolcom resolved some of these difficulties. He discovered – in Blake’s own handwriting – a different ordering of the poems. “A series of arches … that marked the piece off into nine clear movements, each inhabiting a certain spiritual climate’ and brought one closer to “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”.

Bolcom saw two key features in Blake’s work: the principle ofcontraries (“Without Contraries is no progression”) togetherwith the notion of a higher synthesis deriving from “acceptance and understanding of our own nature”. With “clear and unjudging vision”, continues Bolcom, “Blake saw where the human race was heading.”

As Bolcom has set them, the nine arched progressions increase in intensity and depth. He composes in different styles, uses different musical combinations, a large orchestra, and expresses many emotions, using different degrees of sophistication. This jumble of disparities is ultimately, for him at any rate, a unity – one that, like Mahler’s notion of the symphony, encompasses the whole world. He speaks for himself, plainly and simply. “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.”

The settings take us everywhere. We hear sonorous anthems from the tabernacle – traditional harmonies from a large, carefully rehearsed and articulating choir, nods towards more ‘modern’ harmonies and key changes from a chamber choir. Flutes remind of the English pastoral; the fiddle puts us in touch with the prairies; a jazz-turning ensemble suggests urban sophistication and the human-condition-tormented awareness of Kurt Weill; a children’s choir pipes the voice of innocence and the full orchestra explodes with the mighty force of the split atom.

I have come to like and respect “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” the more I have allowed Bolcom’s vision to take a firm place in my mind, ousting my preconceptions. As a result, I have come to delight in the work’s unexpected, refreshing, jarring variety. I no longer groan when a simpler, less demanding setting follows something more ‘interesting’. I sense how the pieces that stir me least have their place in the general context. I have also sensed – already – how certain songs, barely registered at first, have gained impact on later hearings.

“Tyger! Tyger!” is one such. I am thrilled by Bolcom’s powerful evocation. His instrumentation presents the savage burning of the tiger’s very presence. The words tell us the ‘philosophising’, the music tells us of the ‘spirit’. There’s partnership for you!

I would suggest you begin with Part VI. “London” is stupendous,vigorous, dark and rhythmic – a very fine setting by any standard,and ably sung by Nathan Lee Graham. A deliberate clash follows. “The Schoolboy’ (sung by Linda Hohenfeld) is much more conventional – a sort of B-picture pastoral cinematic. “TheChimney Sweep” is then darker. Its clashes are almost oriental, with cymbals and brass and quite different from “London”. “The Human Abstract” is modern meditative; Britten is not far off. Thelast setting – “A Divine Image” – begins deliciously with bass andguitar. The music to this most important and portentous – andhorrifying – poem begins inconsequentially and frivolously. Later, the soloist, Nathan Lee Graham, gains a choir; the orchestra gains further instruments; the music gains drive, power and volume. Musically, we end in raucous joy and riotous acclaim. Let us dance knowing our contrariness, celebrating our humanity – a humanity that is also divine.

The more I listen to this long, sprawling work, the more fiercely itseems to approach the burning fire of Blake’s inspiration – surely and unexpectedly. Full texts are included and the three CDs are pressed to accommodate Bolcom’s musical design. Leonard Slatkin holds it all together.

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