De Profundis: A Wildean musical journey through Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde is a writer known to almost every speaker of the English language. Known not only for his literary mastery, Wilde was a renowned personality in the latter half of the 19th century. 

For two years from 1895-1897, Wilde was placed in solitary confinement in Reading Gaol for sodomy. During this period, he wrote a letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. According to Dr Gregory Mackie, a Wildean scholar in the department of English, Douglas was “one of the greatest shits in the history of English literature.” An extremely good-looking, flamboyant and well-connected man, Douglas was never tried or placed under arrest for his “indecent actions” with Wilde or other men.

De Profundis, the letter from Wilde to Douglas, not only addresses specific points in their relationship, but Wilde’s own downfall, his suffering in prison and the injustice of the situation. The School of Music is putting on a performance of Frederic Rzewski’s composition – a set of eight piano preludes interlinked with excerpts from Wilde’s work.

Terence Dawson, a professor in the School of Music and pianist for the production, recites the text in a dictated rhythm, accompanied by the musical composition.

“It’s in a rhythm that [Rzewski] has dictated, but it’s not unnatural at all,” said Dawson. “It’s basically the rhythm of the speech.”

The pianist has to play the music at the same time as the speech. In a way, that also seems perfectly natural. In combination with the words, there are singing, humming and whistling portions as well as using the body and piano as percussive instruments. The composition is driven by the text where the overriding emotion stems from.

De Profundis is a complex work for the musician. Dawson spent an intensive six weeks rehearsing the piece before deciding to fully commit to the performance. Rzewski handwrites his compositions and provides specific, elaborate directions for the extended non-musical techniques.

“I could play the music expressively, but when it came to putting them together and figuring out how I’d be able to do those two seperate things, that was the big challenge for me,” said Dawson on the rehearsal process.

The performance is preceded by a panel discussion about the fusion of Wilde’s words and Rzewski’s music. Panelists are Dawson and Mackie who will also be joined by Dr. David Metzer of the School of Music.

“I think what we’ll be talking about is looking at the emotive power of the text because it’s highly emotional and quite intense at moments,” said Mackie. “I can see how it would lend itself to music because of its emotional power and range – from suffering to joy, rage and anger.”

There is, of course, a long history of poetry being set to music and being used as lyrics, but the text from Wilde’s De Profundis is prose.

“This piece encapsulates or represents that struggle of uncertainty, but also the resilience and the strength of human spirit,” said Dawson. “It shows how strong a character he really was. It’s a powerful piece of music combined with powerful text.”

Wilde is not known for his musical connections or associates – he is more akin with his extensive knowledge of literature, art and philosophy. Yet, De Profundis lends itself beautifully to the music of Rzewski. The music is both lyrical and tonal – a very listenable piece which serves to effectively emphasise the hideous conditions Wilde was subjected to.

“After 30 minutes, you get a very small glimpse of what it could have been like,” said Dawson. “It still chokes me up because I don’t think an ordinary person can understand what it’s like to go through two years of solitary confinement.”

This performance is striving to show the intense interrelations between the arts, music and words in complete harmony and cohesion.

De Profundis will be performed on October 29 in the Roy Barnett Recital Hall. The panel discussion begins at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are available online and in person.