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by Philip Scowcroft

Wilde was one of the greatest of all wits and it is hardly surprising that he inspired music, at times of high quality. By and large the best Wildean music comes from films but there is much of interest for us to note in works for the musical stage and the concert room.

Of the stage musicals, The Importance of Being Ernest has unsurprisingly been most frequently adapted, but what IS surprising is that none of the attempts has been really successful. The Importance (1984) by Sean O’Mahoney, with Brian Bennet as its musical director, was the only one of them to reach the West End and then only for a beggarly run of 29 performances at the Ambassadors Theatre. The late 1950s saw quite a rush of Ernest musicals: Found in a Handbag (1957), with music by Allon Bacon, put on at Margate; Half in Ernest (1958), whose music was by Vivian Ellis, no less, with William Blezard as musical director and which did not get beyond Coventry, though it had had exposure in the United States; Ernest in Time, or My Dark Gentleman (1958, John de Grey, staged at Canterbury); and Ernest (1959, Malcolm Sircom, Farnham). More successful than any of them was After the Ball, based on Lady Windermere’s Fan, adapted by, and with music by, Noel Coward, whose name sufficed to ensure 188 performances at the Globe in 1954. For the sake of completeness (in my experience) I should mention that a couple of years ago I saw a knockabout pop musical adaptation of The Canterville Ghost with a score by Paul Stebbings and Phil Smith; reviewing this for the local Doncaster paper I said "Wilde it isn’t, wild it certainly is". Curiously none of these did as well as G & S’s Patience which sought to parody Wilde and his set.

Several of the Wilde–inspired films have had major composers, British and American, to write music for them. Not perhaps George Bassman who wrote for The Canterville Ghost (U.S.) in 1944, but certainly Alexandre Tansman for Flesh and Fantasy (which included Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime; U.S.,1943), The Picture of Dorian Grey (Herbert Stothart, U.S., 1945), An Ideal Husband (GB, 1947) which had a fine score by Arthur Benjamin and another British film, the classic The Importance of Being Ernest, which had one, almost as good, by Benjamin Frankel. Nor must we forget Wilde (1997), the film about his own life, with some gorgeously tuneful music by Debbie Wiseman.

Among concert settings of Wilde there are several settings of cantatas and musicals for children made during the 1980s. A musical, Il Principe Felice (1982) came from Italy, musical by Franco Mannino; this was followed by an English version of The Happy Prince in 1984, a 45 minute piece with music by Veronica Bennett, and The Selfish Giant (1985), a cantata for narrator, unison voices, piano and optional guitar by John Bryan (b. 1952), one of several children’s cantatas by him during the 1980s: The period from around 1970 has seen several Wilde vocal settings from both sides of the Atlantic: the Sonnet on Hearing the Dies Irae Sung in the Sistine Chapel (1969), for chorus a cappella by Malcolm Williamson; Four Impressions (Le Jardin, Impression du Matin, La Mer, Le Reveillon: despite the French titles the texts are in English) by C.T. Griffes (1970); Symphony in Yellow, Opus 13B for high voice, and harp or piano by Carey Blyton (1973); Requiescat for two sopranos and piano (Richard Berger, 1979); from 1985, Endymion, for soprano and chamber choir, by Joseph Horovitz; and from 1986, Arthur Wills' anthem The Sacrifice of God, partly based on words from The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Plenty of variety there, both in text and composers – a variety that would doubtless have pleased Wilde.

Philip L Scowcroft





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