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My Blake (Part 1: In Russia)


Dmitri Nikolaevich Smirnov

I grew up in a country where English literature was considered exemplary, and it was faithfully translated into my native language by many generations of eminent translators. British or American classics were almost as popular as Russian, but of course William Shakespeare always stood in the first place and eclipsed all other authors of the world. Therefore, it is not surprising that in my early youth, when I began to write music and was looking for texts for my vocal compositions, I initially turned to setting some of Shakespeare’s sonnets from the most popular Russian translation, by Samuil Marshak. I had only started studying English then.

One day in 1967, when by chance in a bookshop, I bought a Soviet book with an English title, In the Realm of Beauty, a collection of English-language poetry printed in English. I was struck by William Blake’s short quatrain

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 impressed me with its depth and universality—an incredible flight of the imagination while, at the same time, an amazing simplicity. I immediately felt that I had found the main thing I was looking for in art, poetry, music, and in life itself. After translating it into Russian I began to translate everything from that book—there were works of Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Keats, Burns, Edgar Allan Poe, and many other great poets, but Blake drew me in more than anybody else. Back then, I could not have foreseen how much this hobby would affect my music and life, causing me eventually even to emigrate to the country of the English bards. Later my wife, Elena Firsova, also a composer, set my first translation to music for chorus and orchestra in Augury, op. 38, 1988, one of her most monumental works, commissioned by and performed at the BBC Proms in London.

Part 2: In England appears in Blake 52.1 (summer 2018).


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