Siobhan LAMB (b. 1963)
The Nightingale and the Rose (2011)
Gerard Presencer (trumpet)
Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish Radio Big Band/Siobhan Lamb
rec. date and venue not stated
PROPRIUS PRCD 2068 [55.40]
Oscar Wilde’s short story The nightingale and the rose has given rise to many musical adaptations. There have been operas by Renzo Bossi (1910), Hooper Brewster-Jones (1927), Jonathan Rutherford (1966), Margaret Garwood (1973) and Elena Firsova (1994), ballets by Harold Fraser-Simpson (1927), Janis Kalnins (1938) and David Earl (1983), and a cantata by Henry Hadley (1911). This work falls into the last category, taking passages from the story and setting them for music.
I should declare a certain interest here; I myself wrote an opera on the subject in 1975, from which a suite was performed in London in 1976. But The nightingale and the rose is a literary work which admits of very many possible interpretations, and although I have heard none of the settings given in the opening paragraph of this review - I would like to hear those by Fraser-Simpson, Hadley and Firsova - some details of the latter are available on the internet - I can also recognise some of the inherent problems involved in taking Wilde’s dark ‘fairy tale’ as the basis for a musical work. Quite apart from the major difficulties of staging, there are also some problems created by Wilde himself in his treatment of the story.
A young student is in despair because his beloved will not dance with him unless he brings her a red rose; a nightingale overhears his lament, and thinks she recognises in him the archetype of the true lover of whom she has always dreamed but whom has never yet encountered. She discovers that the only way she can obtain a red rose for him is to sacrifice herself by piercing her breast with a thorn, and in ecstasy she agrees to this bargain; but the student is unable to comprehend her words when she tells him of her sacrifice, and remains in despair. The nightingale sings throughout the night as she dies, and the red rose is duly created. When the student presents it to his beloved she still rejects him because she has been sent “some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.” The student ends the story with the rueful reflection that love is an illusion, and that he would be better served by devoting himself to some more profitable field of study.
The allegorical nature of the story is clear, but Wilde has cloaked it in some of his most delectably purple prose. Where he creates problems for the composer is in his treatment of the central passage where the nightingale sings. She has been voluble enough until that point, but for her song itself he confines himself to descriptions of the reactions of the garden itself and the world of nature to her song - “the cold crystal stars lean down and listen” - and provides no words at all for the nightingale herself. Firsova in her opera includes at this point four sonnets by Christina Rosetti which are of the right period, but cannot possibly match the lurid intensity of Wilde’s most scented writing. In my own opera I reserved the descriptions of nature for chorus and allowed the nightingale to vocalise wordlessly above that; here Siobhan Lamb sets various passages of Wilde’s own text, without any interpolations, over four movements.
Unfortunately the booklet, which provides the text, does not explain the manner in which the texts selected have been chosen; but the intentions of the composer are nevertheless clear to anyone who knows the original story, and she follows the outlines of Wilde’s fable closely. Siobhan Lamb studied in London where she worked as a flautist for some years before moving into the field of musical theatre; her experience in this field clearly tells, and she has a keen sense of the drama of the story.
The first movement is a condensed setting of the student’s ‘lament’ for chorus accompanied by a classical wind band. The words are provided in the booklet, but the English diction of the Danish chorus is very good, and one can clearly hear that the dance between the student and his beloved would have a decidedly jazzy feel. The distinctive phrase “she said she would dance with me” is taken up by the solo trumpet as the basis for some improvisations which conjure up the scene. This develops into a sultry swing movement employing the full forces of the big band sound. It is not quite the more effete dance that Wilde writes of - “the sound of the flute and the violin” - but the right giddy atmosphere of imagined sexual intoxication is well evoked.
The second movement introduces us to the nightingale. The trumpet of Gerard Presencer spins a delicate counterpoint around the shy sound of saxophones, rising to an impassioned climax at the return of the opening words “Here at last is a true lover.” The middle section returns us to the student - “If I bring her a red rose she will dance with me” - in choral music of bruising sensitivity before the dance music from the opening movement returns. At the end we return to the nightingale and her gentler music. Incidentally the words in the booklet contain a misquotation of Wilde’s text in the line “what I shy of he suffers,” where the word “shy” should clearly read “sing”. The chorus sing the incorrect version of the phrase, which is nonsense in the context.
The third movement, the longest, combines dialogue between the red rose tree and the nightingale where they seal her fatal bargain before phrases from Wilde describing the end of her song. The music grows more jazzily violent, but the nightingale’s “one last song” although as wild as the text states is surely not cathartic enough for the “song that is perfected by death” - positive shades of Tristan here in Wilde’s writing. Per Gade’s electric guitar solo just seems the wrong sort of sound, although it is superbly played and does achieve the right sense of wildness. The sense of romantic tragedy is missing, although Presencer is beautifully expressive in his depiction of the nightingale’s death.
The last movement sets an abridged version of the final confrontation between the student and his beloved, ending with his flippant words “What a silly thing love is. I will go back to my books.” It opens with a gentle chorus reprising the line “If I bring you a red rose, you will dance with me” around which Presencer weaves a charmed and magical counterpoint. The women of the choir produce a suitable bitchy tone for the beloved’s rejection of the proffered rose, echoed with some sarcastically loaded sneers from the men and some really sleazy playing from the band. In my own setting of this final scene I allowed the fragments of the nightingale’s song which had accompanied the student’s final words to coalesce back into their original unity, concluding the score with a sense of consolation which Wilde’s darker ending does not really justify; Siobhan Lamb does the same here, with text reprised from the first movement to accompany the musing meditation of Presencer. This makes for a most satisfying conclusion.
In short, although I must confess a personal adoration for this story which may well colour my impressions of the music, this setting by Siobhan Lamb is by and large a gem. She clearly loves the story as much as I do. The playing throughout is quite excellent and the recording is well-balanced and forward.
While we’re on the subject of settings of Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories, how about somebody re-releasing Argo’s excellent 1967 LP recording (ZNF5) of the late Malcolm Williamson’s beautiful one-act opera The happy prince?
Paul Corfield Godfrey
This setting is by and large a gem.