Part 2: In England
England welcomed us cordially. Our concert was a success. The magnificent Jacob’s Dream depicted by the genius of William Blake almost two hundred years ago and now turned into music, returned from Moscow back to London to be played by the London Sinfonietta under the baton of Russian conductor. It seemed to me that Londoners appreciated this. My wife Elena’s Horn Concerto was equally well received. After the concert we were invited to the Garrick Club, and together with our small children had a joyful dinner there until late at night. The next morning we moved from Kensington’s luxury “Tara” Hotel to the homes of our friends, who showed great care about us and took turns in kindly offering us temporary shelter. The newspapers’ reviews were rather positive: “...its spiralling motifs and sun-lit instrumental colours making a dreamlike counterpart to the visionary William Blake picture which inspired it” (Daily Telegraph) . “Inspired by William Blake’s drawing of the Biblical story, this beautifully crafted piece is sectional, with contrasted instrumental groupings marking the boundaries. It is also refined, revealing sensitivity for instrumental characteristics and a predilection for lyrical phrases. The ending, when the first violin emerges from a lovely texture of celesta, vibraphone, bells and the higher stringed instruments is a moment of transcendent magic. It also exemplifies the economy of Smirnov’s writing: not a note was inessential” (The Times) . Our publishers were pleased and decided to print out the both our scores.
Soon Kathleen Raine invited all of us for a cup of tea. The tea party lasted more than three hours and we had a long and wonderful talk about our favourite William Blake. I told her about my two operas written to the texts of Blake’s early prophetic poems and asked for her advice about what to choose for my next Blake project. With no hesitation, she showed me the original copies of Blake’s illustrations for The Book of Job that decorated the walls above her staircase and said that it could be a wonderful subject for a dramatic musical work. As a present she gave me a few of her books about Blake, as well as her own Selected Poems and Autobiographies. She also gave us an excellent reference to her friend John Lane, an artist and head of Dartington Hall Trust. She added: “He is crazy about William Blake exactly like we are, and he will definitely help you”.
My first composition written in England was a song-cycle: Short Poems, op. 60, setting five lyrical miniatures by Kathleen Raine, in every line of which I have found echoes of William Blake: This little house No smaller than the world Nor I lonely Dwelling in all that is
I completed the work on the 10th of May and presented a copy of my manuscript to the poet during our next meeting in her little house in Chelsea. She was delighted and asked me to send her a recording when this was to be performed.
17. Kathleen Raine and I in November 1991.
At the beginning of June I received a commission from the Composers’ Ensemble to write a piece for soprano and 5 instruments (2 clarinets, viola, cello and double bass). I decided that it was a good opportunity set to music the Blake’s Silent, silent night, which was described by Thomas Mann in his Doctor Faustus when he narrated the story of the fictitious composer Adrian Leverkühn as “a very strange poem by this author he so loved… who had provided these elusively scandalous verses with very simple harmonies, which in comparison to the musical language of the whole seemed more ragged, more eerie and ‘false’ than the most audacious dissonances, in which in fact allowed the triad to come to monstrous fruition”. When I finished this work and reread the episode above I felt as if Thomas Mann had been writing this about me and my new composition.
18. Silent, Silent Night, Op. 61, No. 1: the beginning.
After the beautiful performance of this song by the soprano Mary Wiegold and the ensemble conducted by John Woolrich on the 20th July of 1991, at the Cheltenham Festival, I added to it two more songs: The Tyger (Songs of Experience) and To See a World in a Grain of Sand (Auguries of Innocence, Pickering Manuscript), entitling the work Three Blake’s Songs, for voice and chamber ensemble, Op. 61. Nine years later I created a new version of the cycle: Four Blake’s Songs, for soprano and string quartet, Op. 61a , adding one more song, A Divine Image (Songs of Experience), borrowing it from my opera Tiriel.
Almost every week my family and I moved from one friends’ house to another and had already changed ten different places in London until Barry Gavin, a TV film director, suggested we stay at his cottage in a village called Cwm in Shropshire, where we happily spent the whole July. I thought about Kathleen Raine’s suggestion to follow Blake’s illustrations for The Book of Job, to create some dramatic musical work. Looking at Blake’s etchings I had chosen four of them, using the caption written above or below each of Blake's pictures as the texts for narration: 1. There was a Man in the Land of Uz (Ch.1:1-2), 2. The fire is fallen from Heaven (Ch.1:16), 3. Let the day perish wherein I was born (Ch. 3:3), 4. Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind (Ch. 38:1-2). I decided to limit myself with a solo instrument, the clarinet, using the player as also verbal narrator, who reads the text and then plays the melodic phrases representing the same words, translated into notes by musical means, based on the specific coding system where each letter corresponds to a certain note:
19. Four Studies after The Book of Job (Job’s Studies), Op. 62, No. 1, Code: letter=note.
When turned in music it looks like this:
20. Four Studies after The Book of Job (Job’s Studies), Op. 62, No. 1: the beginning.
This quite unusual and experimental opus entitled Job’s Studies (or Four Studies after The Book of Job), Op. 62, was premiered on the 25th of October, 1991 at the Ohio State University. It was magnificently delivered by a clarinettist Bruce Curlette and sounded akin to a strange mysterious ritual, a sort of a sermon in music .
Meanwhile I received a message from Devon: John Lane invited us to come to Dartington Hall on the 8th of August, 1991 to discuss the details how he could help us. This coincided with the second performance of my Silent, Silent Night that took place at the Dartington Summer Music Festival. Before our meeting we walked around the most beautiful garden and suddenly found a big stone tablet with the carved gold-plated inscription:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour
It made me feel that this place will be hospitable to us.
21. I in the Dartington Garden.
I told John Lane about our discovery, and he answered that this tablet and the inscription was his responsibility. John Lane asked his secretary to take our children for a long walk, and then after a two hours of exciting conversation, mainly focused on our mutual interest in William Blake, he declared that he had decided to provide us with a spacious six room house for one year, beginning from the next april, for free – we only had to cover our gas and electricity bills ourselves. Then he drove us to our future house and around all the attractions of the neighbourhood. All this seemed miraculous and we felt on top of the world. Later when we told our friends about this, they exclaimed: “This is Blake smiling on you”.
This was followed by other news: On the 19th of August in Moscow there was a coup d'état, which made our return there precarious. However our British visas were already drawing to a close and something had to be done. Our new friend Chris Tew wrote about us to Parliament, to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Mellor, a request to extend our British visas, and in early September there came an answer: we were allowed to stay here indefinitely. At the same time, we received visas for the trip to music festivals in the USA and Germany, where our works was to be performed. We rented a house at 4 Geraldine Road, Chiswick, and there our children first went to school. I received a new commission from the London Sinfonietta and also from the Chameleon Ensemble – both of which were directly related to Blake. One day in October we had a visitor, a newspaper correspondent who asked us a few questions. In a couple of days on the front page of The Independent a large picture of all our family with an article by Norman Lebrecht was printed: Russia’s top two composers flee to UK. The Smirnovs: economic migrants – or a brilliant musical catch? Lebrecht didn’t write exclusively about us but about all our colleagues who had fled Russia, an exodus that he described as “the most devastating musical migration since Hitler purged German culture in the 1930s.”
On the 12th of October, together with our children, we flew to America. We spent a week in Indianapolis, Indiana, and then moved to Columbus, Ohio, where the four works from my Blake-list were being performed: Job’s Studies, The Moonlight Story, The Seasons for soprano and ensemble, and the First Symphony, which was played by Columbus Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gunther Schuller. At the same time the Symphony was also performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and it was a pity that I was unable to be in two places at once to attend both the Ohio State and British premieres. From the USA we flew to the festival in Heidelberg, Germany and on the 4th of November we returned to London.
Deciding to continue my “visionary ballet” Blake Pictures, I focused now on Blake’s ink and tempera painting called The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve, which made a great impression on me when I saw it at the Tate Gallery. On the 4th of December I completed my new score: Abel for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, Op. 65. In this work the four figures in the picture correspond to the four instruments: Abel—clarinet, Eve—violin, Adam—cello, and Cain—piano. In the work, I also used the “Musical Alphabet” (See Ex. 11 in the First part of the article) invented by me in 1988. Each of the characters was given a unique motif enabling me to attempt to grasp the spirit of the picture in musical sounds and shapes:
22. Abel, Op. 65. Four main motives: Abel, Cain, Adam and Eve.
The 1st performance of this work took place on the 24th of June, 1992 at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, played by the Chameleon ensemble .
The next work was completed on the 2nd of February, 1992 in Cambridge, where we received a fellowship and three months living allowance at St John’s College. This was The River of Life, for a chamber ensemble of 16 players, Op. 66. It was inspired by Blake’s beautiful tinted with watercolour drawing of the same title that I had enjoyed viewing at the Tate Gallery. Blake illustrated the opening passage of Chapter 22 of Revelations, enriching it with some additional details. Once he is known to have said: “The last Judgment is one of the most stupendous visions. I have represented it as I saw it”. Now I could say similarly that I have represented it as I heard it. It was first performed on the 8th of November, 1992, at the Queen Elisabeth Hall, London by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen.
So, this became the fourth and the last part of my imaginary ballet Blake Pictures. I name this an “imaginary” because the ballet exists only in my own imagination. Despite each of its four parts was performed as a chamber ensemble work on numerous occasions they have never been played together or staged as a ballet that I would dream about.
23. The River of Life, Op. 66: the beginning.
After three wonderful months in Cambridge and a short visit of Moscow, on the 14th of April 1992 we moved into our new house in Dartington Hall Estate. We spent the happiest nine months in that beautiful place looked like a Paradise Garden. Among six compositions, which I wrote for that period, the two had Blake connection. I was reading a poem Vala or Four Zoa, when German organ player Friedemann Herz asked me to compose a short piece for solo organ. I immediately thought about Los and Enitharmon, two key characters of the immense cosmos of Blake’s mythology: Los, the Prophet of Eternity, symbol of poetry and creative imagination, and Enitharmon, the spiritual beauty, his consort and inspiration, whom Blake identified with himself and his wife Catherine. In some respect I also began identify them with myself and my wife Elena. So, I composed Diptych, Op. 70, in two movements: 1. Los, 2. Enitharmon, based on the melodic forms extracted from the letters of their names. Friedemann Herz premiered it on the 25th September, 1992, at Riga Dome Cathedral, Latvia.
24. Blake Pictures, a visionary ballet in 4 scenes: flier. 25. Diptych, Los and Enitharmon, Meladina Press, St. Albans, UK.
Another work written in Dartington was a Piano Quintet for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass, Op. 72, dedicated to memory of my teacher a composer Nikolai Sidelnikov. A special principle of pitch organisation that I found for the second movement, which had been influenced by Blake’s poem The Crystal Cabinet (see also Op.27g), became the main basis for the whole cycle unifying all three movements together. The first performance of it took place on the 23rd January, 1993 at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, played by the Music Group of Manchester. The quintet was also recorded on CD, the Meridian label CDE84586 by Primrose Piano Quartet and Leon Bosch, double bass.
Very soon, rather unexpectedly, Elena and I had received a five-year contract as visiting professors of composition at the University of Keele in Staffordshire. In January 1993 we moved to the campus, where we had a free house and a spacious room in the university building, where I taught and compose music anytime I wanted. In the first year, the members of staff and the students of the Music Department presented me with a magnificent gift: secretly from me they were preparing for the production of my chamber opera The Lamentations of Thel and told me about this when everything was already ready. The performance in costumes and even with decorations took place on the 29th May, 1993. It was conducted by Rahmil Fishman, and the role of Thel was sung by Jane W. Davidson, the same singer who participated in the premiere of the opera in 1989. This time she had been also a stage director of the show.
These five years were an incredibly productive period during which I wrote more than 40 compositions. The most ambitious of them was The Guardians of Space, almost half-hour long orchestral suite in eight movements, Op. 79, 1994. It was an expanded orchestral version of my piano cycle The Seven Angels of William Blake, Op. 50. Another piece was The Lamb, for counter-tenor and six viols, Op. 83, a setting of Blake’s The Lamb from Songs of Innocence, was first performed on the 2nd of May, 1995 at the Purcell Room in London, by Michael Chance, counter tenor and Fretwork ensemble.
26. The Lamb, Op. 83: the beginning.
One more piece, Miss Gittipin’s Talk, for soprano solo, Op. 98, was the setting of a short prose fragment from An Island on the Moon. It had been performed only once by a wonderful singer Jane Manning in a workshop in front of the students of the Music Department. I was very much attracted with that Blake’s witty satiric burlesque and even thought to write a comic opera on its subject, but because he author left it unfinished, I couldn’t manage to produce a good libretto with a convincing conclusion.
27. Miss Gittipin’s Talk, Op. 98: the beginning.
In Autumn of 1998 our university contract has come to an end and we moved in St Albans, nearer to London, where we live now. Here I wrote already more than eighty compositions, and more than ten of them are associated with Blake. The first one was A Cradle Song, for soprano and piano, Op. 126, 2001, for which I had chosen the text from Songs of Innocence. It followed with the electro-acoustic work: Innocence of Experience, for tape, Op. 132, 2001, quite a long cycle that lasts 27 minutes. It includes six Innocence songs: 1. Introduction, 2. The Lamb, 3. Laughing Song, 4. Infant Joy, 5. A Dream, 6. The Divine Image, and four songs of Experience: 7. The Clod & the Pebble, 8. The Sick Rose, 9. The Fly, 10. The Tyger. Five of these poems I already set into music previously, and now I returned to the musical material of those settings, but presented it here in a quite different manner. At first I asked my daughter to read the poems and then worked on the recording of her voice in my home studio editing it and adding to it some sounds of nature, musical instruments and so on . For “The Sick Rose” (No. 8), for example, I found a completely new musical idea, representing the Rose with a three-part contrapuntal chorus played by the electronic synthesizer that imitated string instruments, and for the Worm with a single snake-like voice using the same notes but dispersed by wide intervals between them in the very low register :
28. The Sick Rose, from Innocence of Experience, for tape, Op. 132: the beginning.
The next work on Blakean subject was the Inferno (String Quartet No. 8), in 17 episodes, for two violins, viola and cello, Op. 152, 2008: the first part of our family project, the cycle of three String Quartets after Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was commissioned by Rodewald Concert Society, in partnership with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The second part, Purgatorio, was written by my wife Elena Firsova, and the third, Paradiso, by our daughter Alissa Firsova, and our son Philip Firsov created three large ink drawings, and later three engravings on the same subject, which accompanied many performances of our quartets. Composing the Inferno, I looked through the set of Blake’s Dante illustrations, and my music was greatly inspired by them, so I added the subtitle to the score: “After Blake’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy”. Philip was also well familiar with these illustrations and in his work deliberately echoed some Blake’s images that could be clearly seen, for example, on the following detail of his drawing:
29. Philip Firsov: Inferno, drawing, detail, 2015.
I can explain how the text of Dante’s poem and Blake’s images were reflected in my music. In Inferno, Canto 13, there is an impressive episode, when the travelers crossing Phlegethon river, enter the Wood of the Suicides (in the Seventh Circle, the Second Ring). There was a loud groan from everywhere, as if whole crowds surround them, but no one was visible, and when Dante, at the instigation of Virgil, broke a branch, the tree cried: “Perche mi scerpi?” (Why do you scratch me?) . And it’s became clear: the suicides were turned into trees. Blake remarkably reflected this in his 25th illustration, where in the trunks you can see the features of human bodies:
30. William Blake: The Wood of the Self-Violators, Dante illustration No. 25. In a certain sense, this idea is reflected in the very structure of the music: the listener hears individual sounds, melodic phrases or chords, but in them are hidden some real people, or rather their names because they are encrypted in every musical fragment. For this I used a simple musical alphabet, invented by me in 1997:
31. Musical Alphabet: letter=note, invented by © Dmitri N. Smirnov, Keele, UK, 1997.
Such a technique is now commonly called "music cryptography" (or "cryptophony"). I will give an example: in the 5th episode of the first part of my Inferno quartet, that correspond to Canto IV, Limbo, where Dante speaks about those who lived before the Christian era, in eight chords in the bars 68-70. If to look closely, it is possible to see: each of these chords is made up of the letters of the name of one of the characters mentioned here: 1. Homer, 2. Horace, 3. Ovid, 4. Lucan, 5. Elektra, 6. Hector, 7. Aeneas and 8. Caesar (read vertically). For such a musical "encoding" I chose Italian spellings of the names that Dante used:
32. Inferno (String Quartet No. 8), Op. 152, Episode No. 5, the Pagans.
The first performance of the cycle Divine Comedy took place on the 4th November, 2008 at St George's Concert Hall, Lime Street, Liverpool; the performers were the members of Dante String Quartet .
The similar principle was used in my Blake-Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 6), in two movements, Op. 157, 2008, where I wanted to create a spiritual portrait of Blake by musical means. The first slow movement is a set of variations on a theme based on the letters of Blake’s name transformed into music. The opening theme is also repeated in the very end of the sonata:
33. Blake-Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 6), Op. 157, the beginning.
The second fast movement has the features of rondo-sonata form, and is a musical depiction of the poem The Tyger: its mirror symmetrical patters suppose to depict the “fearful symmetry” of the monstrous beast, which is “burning bright in the forests of the night” . The sonata is dedicated to my daughter Alissa Firsova, who first performed it on 20th of November 2008 at the Deptford Hall of Goldsmiths College in London. She also recorded it on her début CD: Russian Émigrés, Vivat 109, UK . The score was printed in the Meladina Music Series, Meladina Music, CreateSpace for Amazon, USA .
34. Blake-Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 6), on the Russian Émigrés CD, Vivat 109, UK 35. Blake-Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 6), Meladina Music, CreateSpace for Amazon, USA
My next Blake project was devoted to his so called “Visionary heads”: a series of black chalk and pencil drawings that he produced after 1818 for John Varley, astrologer. I was very much involved to the pre-compositional research, and created also an extensive article on this subject for English and Russian Wikipedia. Then I had chosen five of the drawings and composed a piano cycle titled the Visionary Heads, Op. 172, 2013, where I used the same technique as in two previous works. The cycle consists in five movements: 1. Blake's Instructor, 2. The Man Who Built the Pyramids, 3. Corinna, 4. Cancer Constellation, and 5. Owen Glendower. It was first publically played by my daughter Alissa Firsova on the 29th of March, 2014, at St Saviour’s Church in St Albans .
36. 1. Blake’s Instructor, 2. Piramid’s Builder, 3. Glendower 4. Corinna, 5. Cancer – the series of Blake’s drawings reflected in the piano cycle Visionary Heads, Op. 172
In 2013 I began compose a series of vocal miniatures after the Proverbs of Hell from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In December 2017 I have completed 20 of them, which formed all together the four notebooks with solo piano introduction to each of them:
1st Notebook, op151 (2006-07) Introduction 1. A Little Flower (56. To create a little flower is the labour of ages.) 2. The Busy Bee (11. The busy bee has no time for sorrow.) 3. An Eagle (54. When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius. lift up thy head!) 4. The Clock (12. The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom: no clock can measure.) 5. Pestilence (5. He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.) 6. Black and White (63. The crow wish’d every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white.) 7. Eternity (10. Eternity is in love with the productions of time.)
2nd Notebook, op185 (2015-16) Introduction 8. Learn, Teach, Enjoy (1. In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.) 9. The Cart and the Plough (2. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.) 10. The Palace of Wisdom (3. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.) 11. Prudence and Incapacity (4. Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.) 12. The Worm and the Plough (6. The cut worm forgives the plow.)
3rd Notebook, op186 (2016) Introduction 13. Dip him... (7. Dip him in the river who loves water.) 14. A fool sees not... (8. A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.) 15. He whose face... (9. He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.) 16. No bird soars... (15. No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.)
4th Notebook, op191 (2017) Introduction 17. All Wholsome Food... (13. All wholsom[e] food is caught without a net or a trap.) 18. In a Year of Dearth... (14. Bring out number weight & measure in a year of dearth.) 19. Revenges not Injuries... (16. A dead body revenges not injuries.) 20. The most sublime act... (17. The most sublime act is to set another before you.)
The score is printed in USA and available on Amazon :
37. Proverbs of Hell for voice and piano. Meladina Music, CreateSpace for Amazon, USA
In November 2017 I received quite unusual request from the Ensemble of the Soloists of the Georgian Symphony Orchestra to write a piece that could be played instead of Adagio of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3. In fact that Adagio consists just of two short chords and only provides a link between two fast movements. I was happy to make possible to connect in one performance two great B’s: Bach and Blake, and composed “Blake Intermezzo” for string septet on the theme that is based on the letters of Blake’s name that I already explored in my “Blake Sonata”. I dedicated the piece to 260th Blake’s anniversary. The premiere took place in Tbilisi a few days later on 28th of November exactly on birthday of William Blake .
Later I made another version of the “Blake Intermezzo”, for double bass and piano, Op. 190a, 2017, on request of Javad Javadzade, a double bass player from the same ensemble .
The scores of the both pieces were published by SMP Press, USA .
So far the list of my Blake set to music contains 44 compositions written for the period of 38 years (between 1979 and 2017). In parallel with this I devote all my spare time to studying Blake and translating of his works into Russian. Publishing my work, I use pen names: Dmitri N. Smirnov for music and D. Smirnov-Sadovsky for literary writings. In 2016 I completed a book called “Blake”, his first full-length Russian biography. The book was published in USA, but in 2017 it was also published in Russia by Magreb.org Publishers.
38. D. Smirnov-Sadovsky: Blake. Biography, 1st ed., CreateSpace for Amazon, USA
39. With two copies of Blake’s biography, 2nd ed. Magreb.org, Moscow, Russia
Also I began a publication of a complete Blake’s works in twelve volumes in a bilingual format with my own Russian translations, and already issued first four volumes:
40. Complete Blake’s Works, vol. 1, Poetical Sketches (bilingual) 41. Complete Blake’s Works, vol. 2, An Island in the Moon and early Prophecies (bilingual)
42. Complete Blake’s Works, vol. 3, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (bilingual) 43. Complete Blake’s Works, vol. 4, Poems and Ballads (bilingual)
I am working now on the fifth volume of Complete Blake’s Works with eight “minor prophecies” that include some Blake’s poems that never been translated into Russian before, such as The [First] Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania and The Book of Los. My another project, the first Russian translation of a poem “Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion” is already completed and is going to be printed soon by Magreb.org Publishers in Moscow.
I have been asked in many occasions: “Why are you fascinated by Blake? Why he is so important for you? What do you like about his work?” I can say that his works and ideas give me a strongest stimulus for composing music. His creative imagination and energy were so great that even now they able to inspire more than the works of any other poet, writer, thinker or artist. Some people say that his works are too simple and even naïve. But if it is so, together with this they contain an incredible power, depth and multitude of meanings. Some others regard his works too puzzling and incomprehensible. However this is what makes them so attractive, forcing us think and submerge into them to realize their deep meaning. He was and remains unique and original in everything he did, and I’m interested equally in his poetry and prose, visual art and philosophy. So, Blake became one of my main spiritual teachers, along with many others such as Dante and Basho, Hölderlin and Coleridge, Pushkin and Mandelstam, Bach and Beethoven, Mahler and Webern, Leonardo and Chagall: all of them seriously influenced my music and even my life, but Blake – more than anybody else.
1st of August 2017, St Albans, England
(Revised on 18th of March 2018)