Bolcom and Blake: Songs of prophecy and chromaticism

An article in the Globe last week about composer William Bolcom’s new string octet, given its Boston premiere on Friday, spilled the beans about Bolcom’s new Symphony No. 8, commissioned by James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and dedicated to the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. It’s a monumental work in four movements, a choral symphony that sets the prophetic poetry of William Blake (“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “America: A Prophecy,” and “Jerusalem, or the New Albion” among others) into a four-movement symphonic poem. It’s a foreboding piece to learn, particularly for the chorus that has to memorize six to eight voice harmonies that are frequently in augmented sevenths and diminished ninths to each other.

But last night we ran through it for the first time for Maestro Levine, and it started to make sense. And the moments of great lyricism started to insinuate themselves into my skull. And I started to realize that part of coming to terms with this piece is coming to terms with Blake himself, which is no small task.

I feel, as a lone chorister facing the work, somewhat like one of Blake’s copper plates. Having received my acid bath I am ready to reveal his text in all its glory.

We will premiere the work at Symphony Hall next weekend and in New York at Carnegie Hall on Monday night. If my good friend Pes, whose undergrad thesis was a work on Blake that he etched into copper plates (!), is out there listening, you should come by. I’d love to hear what you think of Bolcom’s take on the visionary.