Global Blake Symposium
Musical Afterlives

A one-day symposium from the Global Blake Network
exploring musical settings of Blake's poetry and his inspiration & classical and popular artists.

Date: 4 November, 2024

Keynote Speaker: Barry Miles

If Horatio’s famous quote “Ut pictura poiesis” seems incontrovertible when we look at William Blake’s illuminated books, “Ut musica poiesis” could be the next unquestionable truth when one comes across the thousands of musical renderings inspired by Blake’s verses.

As posed by one of the greatest Blake scholars, G. E. Bentley Jr., his work is more than a topic or theme for music, it is, above all, reason for music. So much so, that today William Blake is one of the most celebrated English-language poets set to music, having inspired a myriad of renderings, ranging from Hubert Parry's classical hymn Jerusalem (1916) to Patti Smith's panegyric In My Blakean Year (2004). The answer to such popularity is not an easy one. There is a conjunction of factors that may help to explain the extensive use of his work by artists who revolutionized the artistic scene in the second half of the 20th century, which encompasses form, content and the profound transformations of his literary reception over the years. This unordinary phenomenon suggest that Blake's ideas and aesthetics resonate with the crises and issues of the modern and contemporary world, having found in the digital and multimedia context of the 21st Century a breeding ground for further expansion.

Although the earliest setting dates back to 1863, it was only in the 1920s that Blake's reception in music started to increase more substantially. Propelled by the development of his scholarship, Blake became a favourite for classical composers, captivating the likes of Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and Benjamin Britten. In the sixties new musical genres emerged, with folk settings by the Beat poet and musician Ed Sanders in 1965, followed by Allen Ginsberg in 1970. A constellation of popular musicians and performers from the sixties and seventies such as Bob Dylan, The Doors and Van Morrison also found an abundant source of inspiration in his poetic and visual production. In the following decades the number of musical settings leaped from a few hundred to more than ten thousand embracing a wide range of music genres, consolidating Blake as one of the most ubiquitous voices of Anglophone literature in contemporary music.

Studies on Blake and music were inaugurated by George Sampson, in his The Century of Divine Songs (1943), which discusses the influence of religious hymns on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It was followed by Martha England’s Hymns Unbidden (1966), Nick Shrimpton’s Hell’s Hymnbook (1976). Other authors explored the influence of traditional folk songs and ballads on Blake’s poetry, such as Albert Friedman’s The Ballad Revival (1961) and John Adlard’s The Sports of Cruelty (1972). More recent publications such as Blake 2.0 (2012), William Blake and the Age of Aquarius (2017), William Blake and the Myth of America (2018), offer insightful chapters on Blake and contemporary music. Furthermore, the growing number of music settings in the first half of the 20th century prompted the publication of extensive music inventories, such as Gooch & Tatcher’s Musical Settings of British Romantic Literature (1982) and Donald Fitch’s Blake Set to Music (1989).

The aim of this symposium is to present a comprehensive discussion of Blake's reception in music in order to understand not only the genesis and motivations of the phenomenon, but also its endurance in the digital age, when multimedia and intermediality play a central role in the dissemination of literature. It also encompasses the articulation of word, sound and image in the appropriation of his work, which ranges from album covers and posters to music settings. The organisers welcome proposals for papers (20 minutes) and panels (two or three 20-minute papers). Potential topics, which should focus on either influence or engagement, include but are not limited to the following:

  • Blake’s music background
  • Studies of influence in Hymns, folk songs and ballads
  • Music in Blake’s work
  • Blake’s earliest musical settings
  • Blake and Jazz
  • Blake and Country music
  • Blake and Blues
  • Blake and Folk music
  • Blake and Hip Hop
  • Blake and Rap
  • Blake and Heavy Metal
  • Blake and Punk/Postpunk
  • Blake and Electronic Music
  • Blake and Contemporary Classical Music
  • Blake and Hybrid genres of Music

  • Blake and Performance (theatre, ballet)
  • Setting Blake’s poems and illustrations to music
  • Blake and music posters, album covers and film soundtracks
  • Reception by Women, People of Colour and LBGT+ in music
  • Routes of transmission: Blake and the web, social media, and music platforms

Abstracts of up to 500 words along with a short biographical note (50 words in the same Word document) should be sent to music@globalblake.com by 31 July, 2024.