A note on the dating of The birds and The land of dreams

Malcolm MacDonald

I had occasion to refer briefly to the circumstances of composition of these two songs in a letter in Newsletter 43 [to be added to the website], but I shall be more detailed and specific this time, to show why there is no doubt in my mind that the dates at the end of the printed editions are in error.

First, what is ‘Winter 1917’? Does Brian mean ‘Winter 1916-17’ or ‘Winter 1917-18’? I think he means the latter, but it makes no jot of difference, our main independent witness against him (which is himself again, in the letters to Granville Bantock) records no song-composition during either set of winter months, winter 1916-17 was taken up with the Three illuminations, a possible lost orchestral version of same, the still-born Razamoff, and the beginning of work on The Tigers; the second winter was devoted entirely to The Tigers. It is the latter end of the following, 1918-19, in which he records the emergence of three Blake songs, two of which are firmly identified as Defiled sanctuary and The birds; the third, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be anything but The land of dreams.

The relevant passages are these:

12 January 1919 — ‘the Defiled sanctuary I altered & your suggestions have made a great improvement’;
27 January 1919 — ‘the Blake Serpent [ie Defiled sanctuary] is to be found in Routledge’s Poets & poetry of the nineteenth century—Volume - Crabbe to Coleridge… I set his pastoral The birds yesterday. I shall bring this to post to London along with the two you have tomorrow if you would like to hear it’;
1 February 1919 — ‘I have revised and rewritten all my latest art songs — including the three Blake and sent them to Mr Martin at Enochs’;
14 February 1919 — ‘The Martin business has come off. The serpent with 5 others are accepted’.

The ‘5 others’ were the Temple Keble songs, to which Defiled sanctuary seems to have been added as a makeweight to form two albums of three songs each. Brian’s original idea had been to offer his songs to Otto Kling of Chesters—Martin had been Bantock’s suggestion. An undated letter which seems likely to have been written only a little later than those quoted above (paper and handwriting match), after mentioning negotiations with Enochs, contains the sentence ‘I have offered two of the Blake (the 2 best) songs to Kling for 5 guineas’. Yet this approach was apparently unsuccessful: it was ‘Augeners who eventually accepted The birds and The land of dreams, as references to ‘the money received from Enock and Augener’ make clear after a break in the correspondence through the spring of 1919.

All this seems to me pretty conclusive: The birds was composed or at least drafted on 26 January 1919, chronologically the last of a group of three Blake settings which Brian included among his ‘latest art songs’. One of the others was Defiled sanctuary. The remaining one must surely have been The land of dreams. I have not been able to consult the Routledge volume mentioned by Brian as his source, but these three songs are the only ones, among his numerous Blake settings, to draw their texts from the posthumously published collection which survived in the so-called ‘Rossetti MS’ and which, in the standard Complete edition of Blake edited by Geoffrey Keynes, is known as Miscellaneous poems and fragments. I should be very surprised if the Routledge volume should prove not to contain The land of dreams.

A fair copy manuscript of The birds (but not of The land of dreams) forms part of the Augener Collection in the British Library (Add.MS.54352). It carries no date whatever, though it was presumably the basis of the printed edition, which did not appear until 1932. I would think that Brian added the date ‘1917 winter’ at proof stage. meaning by this ‘Winter 1917-18’, and that, as commonly happened after a such a passage of time, his memory tricked him by a year. The same phenomenon can be seen in the Cranz vocal score of The Tigers, published at practically the same timeall the printed dates at the ends of the various acts appear to be about a year too early (and they suggest a wrong order of composition). Which means in fact that Mike Smith, in his article on Brian’s word setting in Newsletter 50[1], is still correct in his statement that The birds and The land of dreams are ‘contemporary with The Tigers’—for Brian did not complete Act 3, in first draft, until 7 March 1919.

There is a need for a more detailed chronology of Brian’s creative endeavours through the crucial years 1914—1921, especially the order of composition of the very numerous songs and partsongs. The Bantock letters are a splendid (though by no means all-sufficing) tool for constructing one, and perhaps in the coming year I shall have a preliminary stab at the task. No promises, however…