The poetry of William Blake has been a particularly fertile source of inspiration for generations of composers and songwriters in the twentieth century, unsurprisingly in Britain but also, in the past sixty years or so, elsewhere across Europe, as will be seen in this chapter. Settings of Blake to music followed fairly quickly after his poetry was popularized by Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of Blake in 1863, with ten compositions in the 1870s, mostly hymnal settings such as the rendition of ‘Can I See Another’s Woe’ in James Martineau’s Hymns of Praise and Prayer (1874). That Blake’s lyrics began to capture the public’s musical imagination in the nineteenth century should come as no surprise, as the Blake celebrated by his early advocates such as the Rossetti brothers was primarily the lyrical poet rather than the engraver of obscure and difficult illuminated prophecies.

The musicality of Blake’s work, most notably his very earliest compositions collected as Poetical Sketches and Songs of Innocence and of Experience, was frequently remarked by some of his earliest commentators, if less so by later critics. He was known to sing some of his poems at the salons organized by his earliest literary patrons, the Mathews, and the biographer J. T. Smith wrote that much of Blake’s verse was literally written by him to be accompanied by music.

As the nineteenth century progressed, this mental music began increasingly to take corporeal form as more and more compositions appeared, but it was in the twentieth century that Blakean music saw a spectacular flourish, inspired in part by the renaissance of his poetry and art in the decade leading up to World War I. Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ (1916) is only the most famous of the many pieces that appeared in the first decades of the twentieth century. From the 1960s on, Blake's words were taken up by pop and rock musicians, often as the patron saint of a new counter-cultural spirit, as with The Doors and Bob Dylan, or as a way to reflect on an increasingly materialist world.

Blake & Music is a new project as part of the Global Blake Network. Its aim is to bring together academics, artists and performers together to explore the ways in which Blake has been set to music in the past, and how he continues to be a vital source of inspiration to musicians around the world today.