The poems of William Blake (1757-1827) are celebrated as some of the finest in the English language, but what is not well known by scholars is that he set many of his poems to music.
“Some of his contemporaries talk in their memoirs about hearing Blake sing these songs at literary salons in London,” says Kevin Hutchings, a professor of English literature at the University of Northern British Columbia, where he holds a Canada Research Chair in Romantic Studies.
Alas, Blake never scored these musical settings, so “when he passed away, we lost his melodies,” says Dr. Hutchings.
Undaunted, the professor – who did his doctoral thesis on Blake – decided to “re-imagine” the musical interpretations of Blake’s poems. The result is a folk-tinged 14-song CD, released last year, aptly titled Songs of William Blake. Musical accompaniment is provided by Dr. Hutchings’ daughter, Toronto-based musician and producer Sahra Featherstone, and a number of her musical colleagues.
The CD, which includes a lengthy essay on Blake and extensive liner notes, brings Dr. Hutchings’ life full circle. He spent about a dozen years making his living as a musician after high school. “I financed my BA and my MA by playing my music in bars, pubs, clubs,” he says.
But when he got to his PhD, he no longer needed his music to earn money, thanks to scholarships and other funding. “I pretty single-mindedly pursued my studies, right through my postdoc and certainly while I was on the tenure track.” The CD thus connects his earlier musical life with his academic career, he says.
Dr. Hutchings has another CD in production, again with his daughter Sahra. That disc includes musical interpretations of four Byron poems, one by John Keats, and a few original songs composed with Welsh poet Graham Davis. He expects the CD will be released sometime next spring.