Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

A Study in Songs: Comparative Analyses of 20th century settings of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Selections from Vaughan Williams's Ten Blake Songs, Britten's Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, and Rochberg's Blake Songs: For Soprano and Chamber Ensemble
by Berkebile, Jennifer, D.M.A., West Virginia University, 2017, 216; 10273766
Abstract (Summary)

The eighteenth-century poet, William Blake, is well-known today for his illuminated books, where a unique technique of relief etching allowed him to integrate text and illustration on a single printed copper plate, and his esoteric prophetic volumes. However, Blake’s work went largely unrecognized during his lifetime and musical settings of Blake’s poetry, in particular, are predominantly a twentieth and twenty-first century occurrence. With their distinctive styling and complicated interpretation, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul have provided material for many song settings over the course of the twentieth century and make for an interesting study of words and music.

Selections from three composers were chosen for the study: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1953), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), and George Rochberg (1918-2005). The study focuses on settings found in song cycles versus single pieces since a cycle (though not including all of the poems) would create the same sense of “variety within unity” that is evident in Blake’s collection. The cycles chosen are also all composed within a fairly close time span to make the most out of comparing the compositional techniques between interpretations within a similar historical and cultural context. Finally, the compositions exhibit different styles and musical idioms of the twentieth century in order to highlight the multitude of relationships possible between music and words.

The heart of the discussion lies in the relationship between text and music in the song cycles of Vaughan Williams, Britten, and Rochberg and how their musical settings affect and enhance the Blake texts. The unique obstacles in setting the poetry of William Blake are explored along with a brief overview of Blake’s work and cultural/historical environment and a detailed discussion of the poetic fundamentals of the Songs. A number of questions are considered when analyzing the selected poems and musical settings and conclusions are discussed at the end of the study. How do twentieth century musical idioms work with the early or pre-Romantic poetic style of Blake? Does the rearrangement of the poems from the original, carefully constructed volume alter the intentions of the creator or reveal new connections? How do the interpretations differ between composers? How, if at all, does the music attempt to portray the visual art included with the original poetry? What is the role of the performer in a work where the poetry is so well known as a stand-alone entity?

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Koehler, Hope, Kohn, Andrew
Commitee: Blair, Lee, Chafin, Robert, Ferer, Mary
School: West Virginia University
Department: College of Creative Arts
School Location: United States -- West Virginia
Source: DAI-A 78/10(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Music
Keywords: Blake, William, Britten, Benjamin, Rochberg, George, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Williams, Vaughan
Publication Number: 10273766
ISBN: 9781369765564
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