It’s LGBTQ history month here in the UK. Last year, we looked at Music and W.H. Auden – a taster. This time, how musicians have responded to Oscar Wilde and his writings is our subject.
Wilde was a poet, playwright, and author. He is also a queer icon. A man who dared to live his own life in fin de siecle Victorian London. That he did so from a place of privilege was no protection when he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and sentenced to hard labour in prison.
Wilde’s output ranged across a wide arena. If you know him only for society comedies such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, you may not know the children’s fables, poetry, or the decadence of The Picture of Dorian Gray. There’s also his writing from the period when his life fell apart.
Apart from the operatic reworking of his play, Salomé, I had no idea which of Wilde’s works might have made it into music. Here’s a selection of what I found.
Impression du matin
The poem opens with a reference to Whistler’s painting, Nocturne in blue and gold. Wilde though, focusses on the grey of the pre-dawn light as London gradually wakes.
The Thames nocturne of blue and gold
Changed to a Harmony in grey:
A barge with ochre-coloured hay
Dropt from the wharf: and chill and cold
The yellow fog came creeping down
The bridges, till the houses’ walls
Seemed changed to shadows, and S. Paul’s
Loomed like a bubble o’er the town.
Here’s a later setting by the American composer, Charles Griffes.
The selfish giant
The Selfish Giant is one of a collection of fables Wilde had published as The Happy Prince and Other Tales. Although written for children, these stories are an engaging read at any age. In this tale where a giant relents to let children enjoy his garden and is himself rewarded late in life, there’s tenderness and poignancy.
I’m not convinced either of those emotions come through in Eric Coates’ musical reworking of the story, composed in 1925. Have a listen and see what you think. You’ll probably know Coates from the Dam Busters’ March and By the Sleepy Lagoon.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The British Library has a wealth of resources about Wilde, the times he lived in, and his literary works. An essay by Roger Luckhurst on The Picture of Dorian Gray is entitled ‘Perversion and degeneracy in…‘ and that pretty much sums up the folk memory of the novel, whether people have read it or not. Dorian Gray leads an unfettered life. The portrait, his real self, is hidden away.
Lockhurst opens his argument in this way:
‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was a Gothic novel that skirted scandalous behaviour: the transgressive, supernatural elements of the genre provided a frame for speaking unspeakable things. The book tells the story of the beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, who is given the capacity to explore every possible vice and desire while his moral decay is hidden away in his painted portrait that bears all the marks of his degeneration.
It’s not surprising that the novel was one of the sources mined by the prosecution in Wilde’s later trial.
For the music choices here, I’m going for songs that mine that folk memory I talked about earlier. Here’s James Blunt – ‘Tears and rain’ with the phrase ‘Hides my true shape, like Dorian Gray’.
And now, Styx – ‘Sing for the day’ with its comment ‘ageless and timeless as Dorian Gray‘.
To end with, we come to the one musical setting of which I was really aware. Salomé is a retelling by Wilde of the Biblical story which culminates in the beheading of John the Baptist at Salomé’s request. Here again, we come across words describing the play as an example of ‘decadence’ with ‘sensual’ overtones. You only have to look at Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for that to come across.
It’s also a play where the modern idea of the ‘male gaze’ abounds. This thought that art is created and presented for a largely gendered, privileged audience is turned back on itself as Salomé uses it to her advantage. When the Royal Shakespeare Company produced Wilde’s play to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the (partial) decriminalisation of being gay, Salomé was played by a man. This added layer gave the whole play a poignant, telling twist. You can see a short trailer for the play here .
If the play is rarely staged, the same can’t be said for Richard Strauss’s opera. Wilde’s writing in the play is highly structured with recurring motifs and phrases. These quasi-musical features unsurprisingly made Salomé a good choice for an opera libretto. The lurid subject matter – murder and eroticism in a Biblical context – caused some issues when the opera was first performed.
Even now, the Dance of the Seven Veils is open to comment and speculation every time a new production opens. Here’s a recording:
And finally, here’s a short clip from the end of the opera when Salomé is presented with the head of John the Baptist. As you might expect, there’s a lot of stage blood around.