There are a few things
that the listener needs to know about
this work before listening.
In the first place,
as the composer writes in one of two
essays that he has contributed to the
booklet, he conceived an ambition to
set these poems of Blake a very long
time ago, when he was seventeen to be
precise. A few parts of the current
work were written as long ago as 1956
though most of the music was composed
in 1973-4 and again between 1979 and
1982. These dates are significant for
it was only after taking up a teaching
post at the University of Michigan in
1973 that Bolcom had sufficient time
to devote to this composition and bring
his long-cherished project to fruition.
And the University
of Michigan connection is the second
important fact. A strong impetus behind
the way in which the piece evolved was
Bolcom’s desire to write a piece that
could involve as many members of the
University’s music department as possible.
That accounts for the huge forces required
to perform Songs of Innocence and
of Experience (some 450 performers
participated in the concert that these
CDs commemorate). To some extent this
also accounts for the variety of musical
styles on show here for Bolcom includes
jazz and rock musicians, among others,
in his line-up.
However, the stylistic
diversity of the work owes even more
to a crucial issue. As Bolcom writes
"The Blakean principle of contraries
… would also dominate my approach to
the work, particularly in matters of
style." He goes on to say that
research by Blake scholars confirmed
his suspicion that "at every point
Blake used his whole culture, past and
present, highbrow and vernacular, as
sources for his many poetic styles."
As a consequence, throughout Blake’s
collection of poems "exercises
in elegant Drydenesque diction are placed
cheek by jowl with ballads that could
have come from one of the "songsters"
of his day." Bolcom has therefore
taken it as a stylistic imperative that
he should faithfully mirror this approach
in setting the poems to music. This
last point is fundamental, I think,
to an understanding of what William
Bolcom is about here. What we have is
a highly eclectic composition but there
is a purpose to the eclecticism,
though I must admit that as a matter
of subjective taste I’m not entirely
comfortable with some of the results.
Setting the forty-seven
poems that comprise Songs of Innocence
and of Experience (which, for ease
of reference I’m going to refer to from
now on simply as Songs) is, in
itself, a huge challenge. The poems
are mainly short and in fact there are
only two settings in the whole work
that last for longer than five minutes.
When one adds in a further seven short
movements for orchestra alone and one
wordless piece for chorus and orchestra
we have no less that fifty-five separate
short movements. This in itself raises
the danger of "bittiness,"
a danger that’s magnified by Bolcom’s
conscious decision to write in a variety
of musical styles. I’m afraid that this
danger is not overcome: in my view one
of the work’s failings is that it is
I think perhaps Songs
would have been less fragmentary
and would have hung together better
had Bolcom not written in so many musical
styles. There’s much fine and interesting
music in Songs. The trouble is
that the excellent music sits cheek
by jowl with some settings that, quite
frankly, strike me as almost banal.
Perhaps the most jarring such example
comes very early on. The third poem
in Songs of Innocence (CD 1,
track 3) is ‘The Lamb’ (how nice
to hear it in a setting other than the
lovely but ubiquitous one by John Tavener!).
Bolcom’s version is a setting for solo
soprano and orchestra. The compass of
the vocal line is extremely wide-ranging
and has a Schoenbergian feel to it.
Immediately that has finished, however,
‘The Shepherd’ is introduced by a gentle
country and western-style fiddle, accompanied
by guitar and harmonica. The vocals
are provided by Peter "Madcat"
Ruth, in what, thankfully, is his only
appearance in the piece. I’m sure his
off-the-note vocal style is authentic
but it’s not for me, I’m afraid, and
though I assume that Bolcom is very
deliberately employing a naïve
style in this number I don’t feel that
the setting does justice to Blake’s
gentle pastoralism and the stylistic
juxtaposition with the preceding setting
is too great a jump.
It seems to me that
Songs of Experience Part III
(CD 3, tracks 11 to 17) illustrates
well both the strengths and the weaknesses
of the work and, indeed, of the performance.
The first poem, ‘The Clod and the Pebble’
is a short, spiky setting for solo tenor
and orchestra. This is stimulating though
the tone of the soloist, Thomas Young,
is too unvaried and rather uningratiating.
This is followed by ‘The Little Vagabond’,
in which the soloist is Bolcom’s wife,
Joan Morris. The music is in what sounds
to me like a cross between country-and-western
and cabaret. I’m sorry, but for me this
just doesn’t work at all. In fact I
feel the music diminishes Blake’s words.
But then immediately after that we hear
‘Holy Thursday’. The contrast with the
preceding number could not be greater.
Indeed, it’s almost painful. This is
dignified, eloquent music and it’s movingly
sung by soprano soloist, Carmen Pelton.
When Bolcom is in this vein he is superb.
That’s followed by
‘A Poison Tree’, which is recited by
Nathan Lee Graham in an affected, overdone
style that I find unappealing. Next
we hear ‘The Angel’, in which soprano
Ilana Davidson is required to sing a
demandingly high tessitura. Unfortunately,
despite Miss Davidson’s valiant efforts
the result sounds a little ugly, due
to the lie of the music, and this is
a great pity since Blake’s words are
anything but ugly. But yet again we
have an immediate contrast in the shape
of ‘The Sick Rose’. Bolcom gives this
a slow, intense treatment. The setting
makes its effect through economy of
means, both in the solo line (contralto
Marietta Simpson) and in the accompaniment.
This seems to me to be an extremely
successful setting, which is beautifully
responsive to the text and, indeed,
enhances it. Miss Simpson’s fine singing
is a pleasure to hear. The final piece
in the sequence is ‘To Tizrah’. This
is a most expressive chorus with a powerful
orchestral accompaniment. I love the
way that after all the power Bolcom
closes the setting quietly. However,
there’s a surprise at the very end.
After the music has finished Nathan
Lee Graham speaks the words "It
is raised a spirit and body." I’m
not sure where these words come from
for they appear neither in the text
that is printed in the Naxos booklet
nor in another edition of the poem that
I looked up. I’m sure there’s a valid
artistic reason for the inclusion of
the words (just as I know there’s a
valid artistic reason for everything
in Songs) but it’s a puzzling
addition and one that fails to quite
I’ve discussed this
section of the work in some detail because
it sums up my frustration with Songs.
There’s so much in the piece that
is good and much else that interests
me even if it doesn’t quite appeal.
But there are points in the score that
jar and unfortunately these occur too
often for me to "buy into"
the work without reservation.
What of the performance?
Well, there’s a large array of soloists.
Most of these are good though I find
Thomas Young’s tone rather hard and
he seems to sing at only one volume.
I can’t believe that Bolcom doesn’t
ask his tenor for light and shade since
all the other soloists provide it. Nathan
Lee Graham is also an acquired taste.
I do not care at all for his style of
recitation. His singing is variable
but at his best, such as the Big Band
rock number, ‘London’ (CD 3, track 11),
which I think works surprisingly well,
he’s very effective. Most of the female
soloists do well though, at the risk
of seeming ungallant, it seems to me
as if the recording has come a little
too late in Joan Morris’s career. She
sings her husband’s music with genuine
feeling but the vocal presence and breath
control now seem much diminished.
There are two absolutely
outstanding soloists. Christine Brewer,
as you might expect, is magnificent
and it does seem a shame that she only
has two solos, lasting only some ten
minutes in total. The real find of the
set, however, is baritone Nmon Ford,
a singer who was new to me. His first
appearance, in ‘Hear the Voice of the
Bard’ (CD 2, track 2), alerts us at
once to the presence of a special singer.
He has a splendid voice, which he uses
to project this fine number magnetically.
This is an imposing song, which is enhanced
greatly by Ford’s presence and intelligence.
Later Miss Brewer and Mr Ford sing ‘A
Little Girl Lost’ together (CD 3, track
8). Most of the number is sung (very
well) by Christine Brewer but the two
singers combine to excellent effect
for the final stanza, duetting dramatically.
There’s a considerable
amount for the various choirs to do
and the performances of all the choral
numbers are first class. There’s abundant
light and shade in the singing, which
is also splendidly disciplined, whether
the full choirs are involved or just
a smaller group. The choristers can
recite as well as sing. The famous ‘The
Tyger’ is spoken in unison (and it’s
all marvellously together) by the huge
choir. The first four verses are thrillingly
recited over an accompaniment of powerful
drumming before other instruments are
added for the last two verses. This
is a very original and exciting way
to treat the poem. And how daring, too,
since the slightest imprecision on the
part of the singers would sound even
more exposed than if they were singing.
Top marks to the choirs for this performance
and, indeed, for their singing throughout
also do Bolcom’s music proud. I’m sure
it helped enormously to have a conductor
of Leonard Slatkin’s experience and
ability on the podium. There’s just
as much polish and commitment in the
playing as there is in the choral singing.
The engineers have
done well to capture this vast ensemble
in good, realistic sound. The booklet,
which is in English only, is very comprehensive
and includes the full texts of all the
I’m truly sorry that
I have reservations about this uneven
work. It’s an ambitious composition,
which contains much that is entertaining
and rewarding. In the end, however,
I suspect it is just a bit too ambitious
and therein lies the trouble. However,
mine is very much a subjective response
and other listeners may well have a
different view, not least about the
eclectic nature of the music. And certainly
the piece has been well served by the
performers by any objective standards.
It’s unlikely that it will be recorded
again so admirers of William Bolcom
should take full advantage of the enterprise
that Naxos have shown in making it available
see also review
by Rob Barnett
It is very interesting
indeed to read John Quinn's reflections,
both informed and honest as they are,
on Bolcom's - what? Oratorio? Song cycle?
Phantasmagoria? As John points out,
some will take opposing views, as Rob
Barnett does in his more unqualifiedly
positive review. I myself find Joan
Morris remarkable in her earthy presentation
of the text, even if her singing does
not quite conform to bel canto requirements;
Nathan Lee Graham's performance of "Poison
Tree" in particular strikes me
as powerful and not a little scary.
I actually appreciated Ilana Davidson's
expressionist coloratura more than Christine
Brewer's strained high notes in the
Bergian "Earth's answer".
And so on. If I may explain one point:
John says >>After the music
has finished Nathan Lee Graham speaks
the words "It is raised a spirit
and body." I'm not sure where these
words come from for they appear neither
in the text that is printed in the Naxos
booklet nor in another edition of the
poem that I looked up.<< The
reason for that is probably the same
as the reason why authors of the booklet
have omitted the words in question:
they accompany the image Blake made
to accompany the poem (a relatively
late addition to *The Songs of Innocence
& of Experience*) - thus: "It
is Raised/A Spiritual Body" under
the picture, which can be seen online
by going to the following : http://www.blakearchive.org/cgi-bin/nph-1965/blake/erdman/erd/
Not all editions of Blake - unfortunately
- include the engravings.