The Picture of Dorian Gray – Final Thoughts from the Composer’s Desk

It strikes me that whenever I announced to people that I had set about writing an opera, I never actually received that reaction I expected. I was certain I’d be met with derision – “What makes you think YOU can write one, Bowes?” Up to the point that I began working on Dorian, I had only really written choral music and a few songs. My only forays into purely instrumental music consisted of a piano quintet I concocted for my A-level coursework, an arrangement of a school song (Bedford by the River – won a cash prize for it, to be fair), and a frankly ridiculous setting of the Requiem Mass, which I hope will never be performed in its current state. Yet, the reaction, especially when I told everyone of the subject-matter of this opera, Wilde’s seminal novella The Picture of Dorian Gray, was unanimously positive. A few more knowledgeable friends asked whether it had been done before, to which I ask: how many versions of Faust or Romeo and Juliet are there? Answer: frankly too many, not that I wouldn’t consider doing a Faust-related one at some point – indeed, one can see Dorian itself as a Faustian tale. Nevertheless, the reception to the idea was that I ought to push on, and so I did. Thus, I have reached the end of the compositional process (barring edits after the fact) and I have more than enough time to sit and worry about the show. Which I do – all too often, in fact. And which also led me to write this pair of articles for The Pangean.

At the end of my last article, I had reflected on the music of the first Act, but I came to realize after its publication that I had failed to actually discuss compositional process, which I suppose is far more interesting than simply taking you, arm-in-arm, on a promenade through what you will, in just a matter of months, be able to hear for yourself. Therefore, while I will still move chronologically through the final Act, wouldn’t you rather hear about how I did the composing, rather than what composing I did?

In all honesty, I have not been composing for long enough to have entirely unified a process. Different pieces require different things from me. Some pieces can go from just the little scribblings in a notebook straight into my computer, where I will transform them from the idea into an actual functioning piece. Others, such as the song-cycle I am currently working on, Crow, needed to be mapped out in full-score on paper first, and in ink – it felt particularly necessary for Crow, as it lent a sparseness to the writing that was very helpful (although, I must say that it has been an absolute b*tch to write up on my computer.) These are the two ends of a sliding scale upon which Dorian sat somewhere in the middle. Or, in fact, off of either end. Some scenes, such as the theatre scene in Act One went straight from my brain into the computer, as the nature of the scurrying accompaniment made it a real bore to hand-write, without the joy of copy-and-paste and editing after the fact. Others, such as the entire last scene, were almost entirely drafted on paper first and then written up – although I admit that at least part of the reason for hand-writing the entire last scene was that my laptop was on the blink and I was 3,000 miles from home. But, it keeps the romantic notion of the composer scribbling away with pen and ink alive, so I’ve got to keep up appearances.

And so we come to the last Act. Although much of this was drafted last, the prelude to the first scene was, in fact, finished long before most of Act One, as it gave me, frankly, a nice compositional break from the Prologue. My librettist Jamie and I had to come up with some way to symbolise several years of debauchery that the audience missed by swanning out for their interval drinks in the bar. I assume that the debauched years will be lived through in the minds of our performers during this interval; it would be nicely ‘method’ of them. But how to illustrate it in music? I gave the audience a brief, slow moment in which to mourn Basil and Sybil, both brutally killed at the end of the first Act, before setting about the musical debauchery. Decadence and wild abandon are often achieved in music through the use of rowdy dances. Ravel was a master of this, especially in the finale of La Valse, or consider Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – the poor girl dances herself to death at the end. But, as those of you who know me can testify, I am no dancer. So how should I go after the same effects? It’s actually fairly obvious: the thing that makes a dance a dance is the rhythm, with which I have very little issue (getting the legs to do what they’re told on the other hand…). Therefore, I took one of the rhythmic motifs that described the den of iniquity that was the theatre in Act One, and laid it underneath a pulsating Yoruba-inspired cross-rhythm from a pair of drums to create a heady mix of open fifths and driving rhythms that symbolises Dorian’s embracing of Harry’s lessons.

Similarly, the segue into the first scene, which itself takes place in an opium den, takes its influences from Debussy’s use of the quartal harmony to lend an air of intentionally fake orientalism, with added xylophonic twinkling. This is undercut by the following chorus ‘number’ – Dorian, his mind full of a romantic poems, hallucinates that the other patrons of this establishment all begin singing, in French, about the beauty of Venice, at odds with both the Chinese-y music of the den, as well as with the general dinginess of London at the end of the 19th century. And, as a unifying feature of this scene, the music is still Debussy-inspired. With a French poem, especially by a poet such as Théophile Gautier, one can’t not look to Debussy, I feel.

“Sur une gamme chromatique,
Le sein de perles ruisselant,
La Vénus de l’Adriatique,
Sort de l’eau son corps rose et blanc.”

The remainder of the first scene is dominated by the one appearance of Sybil’s brother James, who rages like a bull in a china-shop while attempting to pursue Dorian. His aria was one for which I did the most planning – James had to be able to arrive on the scene and make enough of an impact to make him feel like a threat for the remainder of the show, despite not having been seen in the previous acts. Thus, he demanded a full-on show-stopper of an aria. What makes music sound angry? It’s much the same as that which makes music sound debauched, as both violent anger and wild abandon stray from the comfortable emotional spectrum. Thus, I focused on rhythm again. I wrote out his words, some of the most violent I have read in Wilde, and began to speak them to myself over and over again. Individual lines became something of a rapid chant, savagely thumping away, until I was able to write down specific rhythms I had associated with them. The aria became very caballetic, with compound rhythms driving underneath the singer’s howling. And then I worked out the melody. It’s not greatly complicated, just arpeggiating through the chords underneath. Far more important is the tessitura: James was, in my head, a Bass, albeit one with a very solid top range, and this aria is one that exploits it, as I push the singer to the upper extreme, bellowing away in righteous fury, while the orchestra churns away tempestuously around him, until he disappears into the night to hunt his sister’s ‘killer’.

In the second scene, the last scene to be written, and not appearing in the novella, we return to Lord Henry’s house. Yet the house has a much darker aspect than when we had seen it in the first Act. For one thing, it is about three in the morning. But, more importantly, Henry’s wife has made a decision that will cast a pall on the man for the rest of the show. To give a sense of this foreboding, I searched back through her brief appearance in Act One for melodies associated with Lady Victoria, finally picking the languorous downwardly meandering tune she uses to describe her enjoyment of pianists to manipulate into a mournful prelude to the scene, descending through the strings in a canon, before a quote from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin foreshadows the fateful letter that she has written for Harry. Harry’s music, on the other hand, is much brighter and jolly – he’s drunk, and he sings in a drunkenly twisted patter, while Victoria drums up the courage to tell him she is leaving. When she finally pours forth all her upset, we move from twisted patter into a driving baroque-esque raging, reminiscent of Handel’s more overtly furious moments, most particularly Dejanira’s aria, Where Shall I Fly from Hercules, in which the overwrought Dejanira is driven mad by guilt, having caused the death of her god-like husband. But, for me, there was a deeper meaning behind the baroque façade that I had Victoria put up.

Jamie and I discussed this scene at great length, deliberating over how to stop Victoria from seeming like a shrewish, nagging wife, and more like the bright, free woman she ought to be. Neither of us understand women (or, in my case, people in general) as well as we’d like to think, I suspect, but I truly believe we have drawn here a very human event: Victoria pretends, in her baroque raging, that her divorce is for all sorts of moral and societal reasons, citing Harry’s insalubrious behaviour as more than enough reason for her to leave him. Yet, she ultimately confesses that this is a pretence. She married him because that behaviour, fuelled as it was by his Byronic intelligence, was highly attractive. However, he has now ceased being Byronic, and is simply being indulgent and destructive whilst ignoring her as a wife. All the romance has gone from his behaviour. It’s a far more interesting character that Jamie has drawn through this dichotomy than what could have been there: a shrew reprimanding a wastrel for his wastefulness.

We finally return to Dorian, still suffering shock from his encounter with James Vane, on retreat in the country. We find him alone in the grounds of the Duchess of Monmouth’s house, musing on the events of the previous few days. For this scene, we took full advantage of the non-linear storytelling we had introduced with the appearance of Sybil at the end of Act One. There is, in Wilde’s original, a scintillating scene of witty repartee between Harry and several other pillars of society after a dinner hosted by the Duchess. However, in streamlining the show, we feared we would lose this in order to focus more clearly on Dorian himself. That is, we feared until one of us realised we could just do another pseudo-flashback, as Dorian recalls the events of the previous evening. Therefore, we have another moment of lighthearted patter from Harry, who is joined by the chorus – I felt I was channelling all of my love for Die Fledermaus or even the great Victorian partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan, trying to create some feeling of effervescence in the midst of the terror that is consuming Dorian here. This continues into the next big chorus moment, after the flashback, when these society lords and ladies enter the field in which Dorian has been sitting in order to go shooting, singing words by Rudyard Kipling, from his Verses on Games:

“Peace upon Earth, Goodwill to men”
So greet we Christmas Day!
Oh, Christian, load your gun and then
Oh, Christian, out and slay.”

This joyful entrance is set to a reharmonisation of Sullivan’s tune Noel, known to most of us as It Came Upon A Midnight Clear. At the same time, something of RVW’s Antiphon or Bruckner’s Te Deum was never far from my mind, in terms of the orchestration. It may have become obvious to you that I am always thinking of other things to relate my music to. It is a problem I run into occasionally – am I being influenced, which is fine: music does not exist in a vacuum; or am I simply copying? Quoting things is fine, especially in such a long work as this (there are many quotes in Dorian, most of which I have not pointed out, but all of which make me irrationally, self-indulgently happy), but copying is not just plagiaristic but, personally, pointless – even if my original thought, at the inception of this opera, was that “I wish Britten had written a Dorian Gray.” Hopefully, my style has become distinct enough from just “a kid copying Britten”. Hopefully.

Moving on, there is so much to point to in the final scene. Therefore, I will keep my comments limited to two particular moments. In this last scene, we see Dorian and Harry finally alone in Dorian’s living room. Dorian is by now incredibly stressed – Vane hunted him all the way to the Duchess’ estate, and, in trying to creep up on him, was shot by one of the Lords on their morning shoot – which Dorian took as a terribly ill omen. Returning to London, Harry has been keeping tabs on his young protégé, making sure the fear and stress doesn’t get to him. Therefore, he ups the levels of inane babble. The treatment of his final moment of inane babble is possibly one of my favourite bits of composition I’ve done to date. I say my composition, but actually, Harry’s last aria is founded entirely upon a piece by Alexander Scriabin, who, although I mention him very infrequently, is one of my favourite composers, if only for his absolutely insane theories about the end of the world (and attempts to bring said end about) and his pretence at having synaesthesia, which he tried to use to create a light-organ or ‘clavier à lumières’ with which to compose for the colour-spectrum―which is, I think you’ll agree, fairly bonkers. Nevertheless, I got it into my head to use this moment at the end of the piece to highlight musically a big change in Dorian: before we meet Dorian in the Prologue, we hear him from offstage, playing a snippet from Schumann’s Waldszenen, a very calm, nature-themed work for the piano – a piece of innocence, if you will. But now, at the end of the evening, many years later for the two remaining characters, Dorian returns to the piano to ignore Harry’s inanities, and plays Scriabin’s Nocturne for the left hand. This highlights a change in Dorian in several ways. Firstly, it is significantly more technically and harmonically challenging than the Schumann, in part because it is specifically for the left hand, but also because of Scriabin’s tense, dense harmonic language, which is significantly more discordant and much less innocent than Schumann’s. Moreover, Schumann published Waldszenen in 1849, whereas the Nocturne was composed in 1894; there is nearly half a century of musical development, pushing the boundaries of tonality and taste, between the two, indicative of the passage of time within the show, perhaps, and certainly indicative again of the corruption of Dorian’s innocence over that time.

Finally, we come to the grand collapse that is the ending. I shan’t spoil the last few pages by discussing exactly how the show closes, because that would undoubtedly be a travesty. What I would like to discuss is the allegorical use of the story of Belshazzar in the closing moments. In my first plan of the end, I had refused the idea of an off-stage chorus as too ‘operatic’ for an intimate close to this show, much too close to the end of Don Giovanni or the countless other shows that copied that dramatic close, with the lecher dragged into hell by an immaterial chorus. However, one chat with Jamie transformed my conception entirely: I was not overly keen on my first draft’s ending, and he wrote some new words to close the show – they were splendid. In a tangent to Dorian’s flashback or his vision of Sybil, Jamie brought up an off-stage chorus, symbolic perhaps of Dorian’s frantic brain or of heavenly judgement (I’m inclined to think one particular way, but others may disagree), singing the “writing on the wall” that appeared at Belshazzar’s Feast: “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin” or, as Jamie put it, “Thou art in the balances, and art found wanting.” Dorian, in his desperate bid to redeem himself after his years of immorality, cannot help but hear these words, directly paralleling the condemnation that is his own portrait hanging upon the wall. Thus, in composition, I had to avoid not just the links to Don Giovanni but also to Walton’s own Belshazzar’s Feast, again a favourite work of mine. Fortunately, context saved me here, as the chorus slowly makes itself known, crescendoing slowly to become just about audible on-stage, before making a final fortissimo statement and leaving Dorian to contemplate his fate – with little over a minute left of the opera.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.