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Blake Songs (Orchestral Premiere)

  • Bellefield Hall, Pittsburgh, PA 315 South Bellefield Avenue Pittsburgh, PA, 15213 United States (map)

Musical polymath Robert Frankenberry as a young Orson Welles in the wrold premiere production of Hagen’s opera “Orson Rehearsed” at the Studebaker Theater, Chicago, fall 2019. (Photo Elliot Mandel)

Hagen with Roger Zahab, music director of the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (and music director of “Orson Rehearsed”) and librettist / playwright / actress Barbara Grecki in Chicago, fall 2019. (Photo: Robert Frankenberry)

Musical polymath Robert Frankenberry joins musical direcgtor Roger Zahab and the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of the orchestral song cycle Blake Songs at Bellefield Hall on 20 November 2019.

  • To learn more about Robert Frankenberry, click here.

  • To learn more about Roger Zahab, click here.

  • To learn more about the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, click here.

  • To learn more about Blake Songs, click here.


Following is the work’s original program note:

I had just finished making a new setting of William Blake’s poem An Infant’s Sorrow as a conduit for expressing the emotions inspired by the occasion of my elder son’s eighth birthday when Robert Frankenberry asked whether I might have some songson poetry of William Blake. I thought that a set of Blake poems exploring a young person’s transit from the innocence of youth through young adulthood would be possible, since my thinking was running in that direction and, to be blunt, Blake’s poems tend to be blissfully short—something composers appreciate. The songs may be sung by either a man or a woman, but the narrative that I had in mind tracks a young man’s maturation.

The result is Blake Songs, which collects settings I have made of his poetry over the span of three decades. Drawn from the great “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” An Infant’s Sorrow views childbirth from the baby’s perspective—pain, fear, helplessness—the human condition in its nascent form. The first setting of this poem was made in 1986.

Hagen and Frankenberry during production of Hagen’s musical “I Hear America Singing,” in which Frankenberry starred and served as musical director in a role written expressly for him.

Hagen and Frankenberry during production of Hagen’s musical “I Hear America Singing,” in which Frankenberry starred and served as musical director in a role written expressly for him.

I followed that with a brand new Cradle Song, which views the baby from the mother’s perspective, and tracks the “inevitable harvesting” of innocence lost and experience gained. One of the things parenthood has taught me is that childhood is an extremely complicated, profoundly emotional time in one’s life—far more operatic in the event than I recall it as having been.

The anapestic dimeter of The Sick Rose has inspired me to make three settings of it over the past thirty years. For this cycle I chose the one that I composed in 2014. Experience is a doorway, the transit from innocence to decadence requires moving through that doorway. Who knows what, exactly, Blake is referring to, except that it is clear that virtue is lost due to corruption, however verdant: Nature teaches us also to let things die.

The Little Boy Lost captures the young man as a post-adolescent, febrile, and now immersed in life’s hurly-burly and the increasingly frantic struggle with faith.

I follow The Little Boy Lost with the other setting of An Infant’s Sorrow—this one from 1989. I imagine the infant now to be a young man recalling the circumstances of his own birth. The perspective different, the music shall have necessarily evolved with him.

Next, I chose to set Love and Harmony. The boy has experienced carnal desire and intuits that the transcendence following the fall (the turtledove) requires the feeding also of spiritual desire. Robust, “juicy” harmonies create a sensually generous context for Blake’s words in this brand new setting.

The thirteen minute set closes with a new setting (based on a setting first made in 1986) of The Lilly. The boy is now a man; the very adult poem concerns itself with perfect love. But the Lilly’s association with death reminds us not just of la petite mort, but that perfection is sterile, and that life is anything but perfect. Accordingly, the music is somewhat terse, but has lift.

Earlier Event: November 20
Opera Masterclass
Later Event: November 21
Composition Masterclass