Opus number: 55

Title: Songs of Innocence and Experience

Instrumentation: children’s chorus (SSA) and orchestra; 2-2-2-2, 1-1-0-0, 1 perc., harp, 8-8-4-4-2

Date written:  August 2000

Length: twenty-four minutes

Commissioners: Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the New England Cosnervatory Preparatory Division Chorus

Publisher: Ione Press, a Division of ECS Publishing

Premiere: Boston, Jordan Hall, January 20, 2001, Boston Modern Orchestra Project and New England Conservatory Preparatory Division Children’s Chorus, Gil Rose, conductor; Jean Meltaus, choral conductor.

Important Subsequent Performances: January 20, 2001; Chorus Pro Musica, Jean Meltaus, choral conductor, Fannueil Hall, Boston; April 26, 2002, Juilliard Pre-College Chorus, Rebecca Scot, conductor, Paul Hall, The Juilliard School; November 3, 2002, Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, conductor, Jordan Hall; November 9 and 10, 2002, Symphony Pro Musica, Mark Churchill, conductor, NEC Preparatory Division’s Children’s Chorus, Jean Meltaus, conductor, Bolton and Westborough, MA.

Texts: See Opus 53 texts

Recording: Albany Records (CD741) New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic and Children’s Chorus; Benjamin Zander, conductor

Program notes:  Songs of Innocence and Experience was written (or more accurately improvised) in three evenings in April of this year. The word improvised is important because the music was not written down while the work was being composed and I thought the best was to express the emotional directness of Blake’s poetry was through improvisation.

“William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a famous example of an adult’s perspective of the child. The child in these poems is rebellious, joyful, persistently playful, Christ-like, and always natural. The adults are, on the contrary, narrow, confining, rule-laden, Catholic, and superficial.

“An interesting balance also exists between the poems of innocence and those of experience. The Lamb is opposite the Tyger, the Nurse’s Song is transformed in The Garden of Love, and Infant Joy is answered by The Sick Rose. The piper referred to in the beginning bears a striking resemblance to the bard at the end.

“Very few of these songs begin and end in the same key. In fact, some songs will find their tonal conclusion in the next song giving the music a sense of continuity and connectedness typical of a cycle.

“If Blake’s Songs of Innocence simply represented the child and the Songs of Experience the adult, this black-and-white distinction would hold little interest to the reader and would have less to recommend it for a musical setting. Precisely because of the interdependence of these points of view, I think, the poems sustain repeated readings. Ultimately, the adult poet is resurrected by the regenerative power of wonder and play that seems to spring so naturally from children.

Songs of Innocence and Experience is written for children’s chorus (SSA) and orchestra. The work is a joint commission from the New England Conservatory Preparatory School and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and is dedicated to the memory of Frances Lanier.” –Note by the composer

Reviews: “Writing music for children’s chorus and orchestra usually dictates much about said work’s style and approach. Not surprisingly, Larry Bell’s Songs of Innocence and Expereince (which sets a bushel basket’s work to William Blake’s poetry) is dead-on triadic, perfumed with hints of Brahms, Britten, and folksy Mahler, though exhibiting some surprisingly imaginative harmonic progressions at times. The piece is charming, sweet, and sentimental in nature, well composed for its young singers. If it sounds a bit old-fashioned and foursquare, that’s more likely a by-product of writing for this kind of ensemble rather than anything Bell injected into the work’s fabric.” –David Cleary, 21st-Century Music

“The evening ended with another world premiere, Larry Bell’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” for orchestra and children’s chorus. Well prepared by director Jean Meltaus, the NEC Children’s Chorus sang in tune and with earnest conviction.” –Keith Powers, Boston Herald (January 22, 2001)

“Larry Bell’s settings of the Blake songs possess several virtues: The treble chorus sounds exceptionally pretty and never has to strain beyond its capabilities. The poems expose the children to first-rate laterature. And the opportunity for the youngsters to sing with orchestra in a work composerd specifically for them must have been very gratifying.” ­Ellen Pfeifer, The Boston Globe (January 23, 2001)