The Orbit of the Soul
Composer: Robert Pound
Lyricist: Oscar Wilde
Artists: Jonathan Hays (Baritone) and Craig Ketter (Piano)
Writer, poet, playwright, and critic Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) achieved exceptional fame in the 1890s with theatrical successes, such as An Ideal Husband (1894) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and also gained notoriety for morally provocative works, especially The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890/1891) and Salome (1893). His personal life was similarly double faceted: he cultivated an outwardly respectable middle-class life with his wife Constance and their two sons, while indulging discretely in homosexual liaisons. In particular, his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury, proved disastrous. The volatile marquess, enraged by his son’s relationship with Wilde, presented Wilde with a card reading, “To Oscar Wilde, posing as a sodomite.” Concerned to defend his reputation and fiercely goaded by Lord Alfred, Wilde sued the marquess for criminal libel. Unfortunately, incriminating evidence against Wilde himself surfaced in the trial, and he dropped the case. In turn, those revelations concerning Wilde’s homosexuality prompted the government prosecutor to file a lawsuit against Wilde for “gross indecency.” After two more trials, Wilde was indicted and sentenced to prison for two years of hard labor (1895-1897). While in prison, he composed an open letter to Lord Alfred, De Profundis. The letter ascribes much blame for Wilde’s demise to Lord Alfred, though he does accept responsibility for letting himself “be lured into the imperfect world of coarse, uncompleted passions.” He also reflects at length on the tension between aspiration and inclination: “There is no such thing as changing one’s life. One merely wanders round and round within the circle of one’s own personality.” The harsh experience of prison all but destroyed Wilde. He died impoverished in Paris three years after his release.
Biographer Richard Ellmann compellingly shows that Wilde alternately sought and feared a spectacularly tragic fall from social grace, and many of Wilde’s own words read as prophecies of his fate: “Every single human being is the fulfillment of a prophecy because every human being is the realization of some ideal.” Taking that quote as a point of departure, The Orbit of the Soul realizes such a reading of Wilde’s life. His story follows an ancient, mythic, heroic pattern: he first arises through brash, youthful victories (I. Uncompleted Passions), then meets with an extraordinary obstacle compelling a journey to the underworld (II. Midnight in One’s Heart), and finally emerges from communion with the dead in some form of apotheosis (III. Creed Made Complete). Though Wilde’s emergence from prison did not result in restoration of his artistic or social status, he nevertheless applied his exceptional talent to a cause of social justice, composing The Ballad of the Reading Gaol and public letters, successfully advocating for better treatment of prisoners, especially children. Moreover, Wilde has achieved posthumous apotheosis through the endurance of his works and, to some, as homosexual martyr exonerated by the repeal of British anti-homosexuality laws in 1967 as well as the 2017 pardons of persons convicted under those laws. The Orbit of the Soul aggregates these perceptions and perspectives into a symbolic narrative of Wilde’s life and an appreciation of his works, his talent, and his genius.
The Clarke Forum at Dickinson College commissioned The Orbit of the Soul in 2000 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Wilde’s Death, as part of a week-long symposium on Wilde and his contemporary compatriot, George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950). The symposium culminated in a concert on November 10, 2000, on which pianist Jennifer Blyth and mezzo-soprano Lynn Helding premiered this work.
Pound, Robert, composer, The Orbit of the Soul, lyrics by Oscar Wilde, with Jonathan Hays (vocals) and Craig Ketter (piano), Roven Records, 2018, streaming audio. Accessed August 13, 2019. Naxos Music Library.