Hyperion Records

Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op 74
Aldeburgh, completed 6 April 1965; first performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival on 24 June 1965; originally titled Songs and Sentences of William Blake
author of text
selected by Peter Pears from the Songs of Experience, the Auguries of Innocence, and the Proverbs of Hell

'Britten: Songs & Proverbs of William Blake' (CDA67778)
Britten: Songs & Proverbs of William Blake
No 01: Proverb I  The pride of the peacock is the glory of God
No 02: London  I wander thro' each charter'd street
No 03: Proverb II  Prisons are built with stones of Law
No 04: The Chimney-Sweeper  A little black thing among the snow
No 05: Proverb III  The bird a nest, the spider a web
No 06: A Poison Tree  I was angry with my friend
No 07: Proverb IV  Think in the morning
No 08: The Tyger  Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
No 09: Proverb V  The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction
No 10: The Fly  Little Fly
No 11: Proverb VI  The hours of folly are measur'd by the clock
No 12: Ah, Sun-flower
No 13: Proverb VII  To see a World in a Grain of Sand
No 14: Every Night and every Morn

Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op 74
In 1965, the Aldeburgh Festival was the venue for the substantial and challenging baritone cycle, the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. Britten’s close association with the legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau began in the early 1960s, and the baritone parts in Britten’s War Requiem (1962) and Cantata Misericordium (1963) had been written specifically for him to sing. Shortly afterwards the composer embarked on the composition of a solo song-cycle designed to showcase Fischer-Dieskau’s unique blend of intense lyricism and dramatic characterization, and Britten turned for inspiration to the vivid and sometimes visionary poetry of William Blake. Britten’s working title for the cycle—which was based on fourteen short but striking Blake texts selected by Pears—was Songs and Sentences of William Blake. The score was completed on 6 April 1965, the manuscript inscribed with the words ‘For Dieter: the past and the future’. The work, under its slightly revised title, was first performed by its dedicatee and composer at Aldeburgh’s Parish Church on 24 June 1965, and six months later the two men recorded their powerful interpretation for Decca at Kingsway Hall, London.

Britten’s Blake cycle returns in places to the dark intensity of his much earlier Blake setting, ‘The Sick Rose’ (‘Elegy’) from the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings of 1943. Both the fully chromatic melody and striking image of cankerous corruption in the earlier song look directly ahead to the Songs and Proverbs—which are based on texts drawn from Blake’s Songs of Experience (1794), in which ‘The Sick Rose’ is also to be found. With the addition of one poem from the Songs of Innocence (1789) and several epigrams from the undated Proverbs of Hell, Britten created a continuous structure in which the Proverbs are set to recurrent but constantly reworked ritornello material, a structural plan familiar from other Britten works of the late 1950s and early 1960s (principally the orchestral song-cycle Nocturne, the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Cantata Misericordium). These stark Proverbs are clearly distinguished from the songs they punctuate by their disconcerting lack of metrical synchronization between voice and piano—a feature retained from the Church Parable Curlew River, composed in the previous year—and they also make limited use of twelve-note techniques.

As so often in Britten’s later music, the tension between luminous diatonicism and elusive chromaticism is exploited throughout the cycle as a potent symbol for the conflict between innocence and experience at the heart of Blake’s poetry. The settings of ‘London’ and ‘Every Night and every Morn’ that frame the cycle are closely related in their ambiguous and subtly disturbing chromaticism, while greater tonal simplicity is reserved for natural scenes: the bright glow of ‘The Tyger’ and the lament for ‘The Fly’. Moments of tremendous rhetorical power are strategically located in ‘A Poison Tree’ and ‘Ah, Sun-flower’. ‘A Poison Tree’ features a highly original use of simple major and minor triads within a context of chromatic saturation. The young Britten had previously set this same Blake text to music on 2 March 1935; the earlier song remained unperformed until 1986. As in the opera The Turn of the Screw (1954), the intense chromaticism of the mature treatment of this gripping text serves as a graphic symbol of cankerous evil, and forms the utterly chilling core of the cycle.

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2010

Track-specific metadata
Click track numbers opposite to select

   English   Français   Deutsch