William Bolcom’s Monument to William Blake

Songs of Innocence & Of Experience

Almost fifty years ago American composer William Bolcom set out to set to music William Blake’s entire poetic collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Bolcom’s monumental work of the same title was finally finished in the early 1980s, and has become one of the most famous little-performed works in all of music. For good reason: the song cycle requires a huge orchestra with organ; ten vocal soloists (including coloratura and dramatic sopranos, and a “pop” mezzo‚Äîwritten for Bolcom’s wife, the amazing Joan Morris); two mixed choruses; children’s chorus, two harmonica soloists, and fiddle soloist.

The work was first performed in Stuttgart in 1984 and has had about a dozen performances since then. Now that wonderful recording company Naxos has issued a three-disk set of a live performance that took place at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in April 2004, under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. At last the rest of the world can hear the Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

A few words here can’t do the piece justice, but suffice it to say that the term “eclectic” is the understatement of the decade. The styles range from twelve-tone movements to reggae to blues, to Broadway-style. All to Blake’s poetry. Bolcom has found just the right music for each of the poems.

My favorite, sung by Joan Morris, is a simple and beautiful setting accompanied by low strings of “The Divine Image”.

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pary in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, His child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk, or jew;
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

Ms. Morris’s singing is heart-rending, and I admit to having tears in my eyes when I listen to this song. Perhaps because in this time of a divided nation, contested election, war, poverty, and everything else bad that is going on, we might remember, “Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell There God is dwelling too.”

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