Yair Dagan: A Musical Accompaniment to The Picture of Dorian Gray


Music is often mentioned as one of the motifs in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Of the novel’s twenty chapters, only four don’t have musical references in them[1]. But, despite this abundance of musical terms or names of composers and performers, only four musical works are explicitly mentioned. In this short paper I will try to connect these pieces to the novel’s plot and atmosphere, assuming that when Wilde mentions a musical piece, he is probably familiar with it, and, maybe, it even echoes in his mind at the time of his work. These works were, in my opinion, chosen very carefully by Wilde not only to add ambiance to the novel (which they do), but they also hint, predict and relate strongly to Dorian’s character and to the plot itself. I will try and limit myself to presenting in a very short manner only the direct context and connections between the musical works and the novel’s plot, and avoid going into musical or artistic analysis of them. This I leave to the music and arts experts.

1. Enter the Plot

The first musical work mentioned in the novel is Schumann’s Waldszenen (Forest Scenes). As a matter of fact, this work is used by Wilde to introduce Dorian’s first appearance ‘in the flesh’ to the reader:

As they entered they saw Dorian Gray. He was seated at the piano, with his back to them, turning over the pages of a volume of Schumann’s ‘Forest Scenes.’ ‘You must lend me these, Basil,’ he cried. ‘I want to learn them. They are perfectly charming.’ (p. 22)[2]

Forest Scenes, a cycle of nine piano miniatures, presents us with a forest (a specially loved German romanticism subject) where each miniature is entitled according to its place in this forest setting.

The first piece, Eintritt (Entry into the Forest), takes us into our walk the forest with a peaceful walking rhythm, in a similar matter as the reader is taken into the plot of the novel, or, as I will try to show, Dorian himself is presented with a glimpse of his future life and choices.


Robert Schumann, Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), Op. 82. Bartholf Senff: Leipzig, 1850 First Edition.  Lithographed cover showing a hunter seated with his dog and catch in a clearing of a dense forest. The names of the pieces are written across individual leaves of foliage in the foreground, and a banner across the top bears the incipit of the Jagdlied.

The forest, as depicted in Schumann’s work contains a variety of places: some are pleasant, like Freundliche Landschaft (Friendly Landscape – no. 5) with a feeling of sunlight breaking through the branches or joyful like Jagdlied (Hunting Song – no. 8), but some are gloomy and lonely like Einsame Blumen (Lonely Flowers – no. 3) or even magical and cursed like Verrufene Stelle (The Cursed Place – no. 4). Schumann originally prefaced this troubling miniature with a morbid an eerie poetic motto from Friedrich Hebbel’s Waldbilder:

Die Blumen, so hoch sie   wachsen,
Sind blass hier, wie der Tod;
Nur eine in der Mitte
Steht da im dunkeln Roth.
Die hat es nicht von   der Sonne:
Nie traf sie deren Gluth;
Sie hat es von der Erde,
Und die trank Menschenblut.

Tall as they grow, the flowers here
are pale, just like death;
only one in the middle
stands there in dark red.
Its colour does not comes from the sun;
whose glow never reached it;
it comes from the earth,
which drank human blood.

The second piece, Jäger auf der Lauer (Hunter on the Lookout), is a highly animated one, which is brought to an abrupt close with a sound resembling two rifle shots, which might foreshadow the killing of James Vane further on in the novel.One other troubling piece in the cycle is no. 7: Vogel als Prophet (The Bird as a Prophet). The poetic motto for this piece (although discarded later by Schumann) is taken from the last line of Joseph von Eichendorff’s poem Zwielicht (Twilight): Hüte dich! Sei wach und munter! (Take care! Be alert and on thy guard!) Eric Jensen[3] went further and interpreted the prophecies of the bird as ‘foreboding of warning and imminent danger’. Christopher Reynolds[4] discusses another allusion in Vogel als Prophet to Schumann’s Scenen aus Goethes Faust. Schumann used the same musical motive in the boys’ chorus in part III of the work where the chorus warns the innocents.Is Wilde warning Dorian of an imminent danger when he meets Lord Henry for the first time? Are the different places in the forest can be seen as symbols of the choices before Dorian at this early stage of his life? Or does the cursed place with the flower nourished by blood remind us of the picture and Dorian’s soul? I would like to think that the answer to the above questions are affirmative. I wouldn’t presume that Wilde was or was not aware of the recurring musical motive in Scenen aus Goethes Faust, but if he was, than here we have another link to the novel resemblance to Goethe’s ‘Dr. Faust’ (being introduced in so many articles by so many critics).

2. Here comes the Bride

The next two musical works named in the novel are two of Richard Wagner’s operas. In 1877 Wilde had, probably, the pleasure of hearing Wagner conduct his music in person:

That ‘Art is long and life is short’ is a truth which every one feels, or ought to feel; yet surely those who were in London last May, and had in one week the opportunities of hearing Rubenstein play the Sonata Impassionata, of seeing Wagner conduct the Spinning-Wheel Chorus from the Flying Dutchman, and of studying art at the Grosvenor Gallery, have very little to complain of as regards human existence and art-pleasures.[5]

The first work, Lohengrin, is mentioned by Dorian (at the beginning of chapter four) when he meets Lord Henry’s wife, and used by Wilde to depict her shallow character:

‘…I saw you with him the other night at the opera.’ She laughed nervously as she spoke…,

‘That was at Lohengrin, Lady Henry, I think?

’‘Yes; it was at dear Lohengrin. I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage, don’t you think so, Mr. Gray?’ (pp. 66-67)

Wilde could have used any other work by Wagner to make his humorous point (most of them answer to the ‘loudness’ criteria of Lady Henry), but he chose specifically Lohengrin’. I think this choice is for good reasons. What could be a better musical piece than the opera’s ‘Bridal Chorus’ for introducing this chapter which ends with the words:

When he [Lord Henry] arrived home, about half-past twelve o’clock, he saw a telegram lying on the hall table. He opened it and found it was from Dorian Gray. It was to tell him that he was engaged to be married to Sibyl Vane. (p.87)

But Lohengrin, besides providing suitable background music to the chapter, provides also some similarities between both the opera and the novel’s plots. Lohengrin arrives to the rescue of Elsa as her knight in shining armour similar to Dorian (‘Prince charming’) intent to rescue Sibyl from Isaacs[6] and his shabby theatre. Lohengrin abandons Elsa just before their wedding and so does Dorian, leaving Sibyl behind. Sibyl doesn’t know Dorian’s name[7], similar to Elsa, who does not know her saviour‘s name. When abandoned, both Elsa and Sibyl are stricken with grief and die. And finally, Elsa’s brother reappears after many years as Jim reappears after 18 years towards the end of the novel.

image002 Print depicting a scene from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. Printed in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.   30th May 1877
image003Print depicting a scene from the opera Tannhäuser.   Printed full page in the Supplement to the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic   News. 9th June 1877

3. Love and Death

The second of Wagner’s operas mentioned in the novel is Tannhäuser. In chapter eleven, where the picture is already revealed to the reader as Dorian’s dark soul, the narrator tell us how Dorian has become obsessively drawn to Wagner’s Tannhäuser and the ‘rapt pleasure’ Dorian takes in ‘seeing in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul’. Here we don’t need to speculate since Wilde points out the connection and context of this musical work to the plot. But Tannhäuser has more connections to the novel than the ones revealed in Dorian’s thoughts. This musical work is regarded as one of the main symbols of the decadent movement. For Tannhäuser, as for Dorian, the highest love lies only in the pleasure of the senses.  As Sibyl sacrificed her life for her unfulfilled love for Dorian so does Elizabeth in the opera, and as Tannhäuser will seek redemption so will Dorian on the evening of his death (though Dorian did not fully repent his sins). A curious resemblance can be found between Tannhäuser and Wilde’s life in Wilde’s conversion to Catholicism at the end of his days, but that’s beside the point.I limit myself to the above, though ‘Tannhäuser’ is mentioned by Wilde in The Critic as Artist[8] (which was first published the same year as The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott’s Magazine). In addition, some critics have found parallels between Tannhäuser’s motives and other Wilde works (for instance The Fisherman and his Soul[9]).

4. A Crucial Evening

The last but not least musical piece mentioned in chapter nineteen of the novel is Frederick Chopin’s nocturne. Though the narrator does not name which of the twenty- one nocturnes composed by Chopin was played by Dorian to Lord Henry that crucial night, there are two hints in Lord Henry’s comment about it:
How lovely that thing you are playing is! I wonder, did Chopin write it at Majorca, with the sea weeping round the villa and the salt spray dashing against the panes? It is marvellously romantic. (p. 322)
The first hint is that it might have been written in Majorca. The second one is that it reminds us of the sea. From all Chopin’s nocturnes, only two are regarded as ‘offsprings of the trip to Majorca’[10]. These are Op.37 no. 1 and 2. Of these two, Huneker writes of the second (in G major) as:
…charming. Painted with Chopin’s most ethereal brush…, the double sixths, fourths and thirds are magically euphonious. The second subject, I agree with Karasowski, is the most beautiful melody Chopin ever wrote. It is in true barcarolle vein; and most subtle are the shifting harmonic hues.[11]
The first bars of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 37 no. 2
And indeed, listening to this magnificent piece reminds one of the movements of water and waves (which even can be ‘seen’ in the left hand part going up and down). I do not know the extent of Wilde’s piano playing (if any), but Chopin was one of Wilde’s favorite composers, as he put it in his own words:
After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. (The Critic as Artist (Gilbert), 1890; rep. in Intentions, 1891)


I believe that a good author, before setting off to write a novel, conducts a thorough research on the topics or terms he decides to incorporate in his work. Wilde was probably no exception. Having that said, I based the above text on the assumption that Wilde was familiar with the musical works he mentions in the novel to a great deal of extension.Last, I would recommend that if the reader of the novel would like it to ‘sound different’ next time, he can read chapter two along with playing Schumann’s ‘Forest Scenes’[12] in the background and chapter four accompanied by Wagner’s ‘Bridal Chorus’[13] from ‘Lohengrin’. For Chapter eleven ‘Tannhäuser’s’ Prelude[14] can add color and chapter nineteen will have a different ambiance with Nocturne Op. 37 no. 2[15], Chopin’s beautiful melody.
[1] Erica Scettro, Oscar Wilde’s Musical References, available at: http://www.oscholars.com/TO/Appendix/Library/Musical%20References.pdf

[2] All references to The Picture of Dorian Gray are from the  Ward Lock 1891 edition available at: http://www.archive.org/details/pictureofdoriang00wildrich

[3] Eric Frederick Jensen, A New Manuscript of Robert Schumann’s Waldszenen Op. 82, The Journal of Musicology Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1984), pp. 69-89

[4] Christopher A. Reynolds, Motives for Allusion: Context and Content in Nineteenth-century Music. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2003.

[5] Oscar Wilde, ‘The Grosvenor Gallery’ Dublin University Magazine 1877.

[6] As Dorian tells Lord Henry: Then we must get her out of the Jew’s hands’ (p.81).

[7] As Sybil’s mother says to her: ‘Besides, what do you know of this young man? You don’t even know his name.’ (p.90)

[8] Gilbert: ‘Sometimes, when I listen to the overture to Tannhäuser, I seem indeed to see that comely knight treading delicately on the flower- strewn grass, and to hear the voice of Venus calling to him from the caverned hill. But at other times it speaks to me of a thousand different things, of myself, it may be, and my own life, or of the lives of others whom one has loved and grown weary of loving, or of the passions that man has known, or of the passions that man has not known, and so has sought for.’

[9] Amelia A. Rutledge ‘Flowers of Love, Death, and Redemption: Wagnerian Motifs in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’ and ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’’ available at: http://www.oscholars.com/TO/Specials/Tales/Opera_Ruttledge.htm

[10] James Huneker, Chopin: The Man and His Music, New York, C. Scribner’s Sons 1901

[11] Ibid.

[12] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jE3IrjtDEGc

[13] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8J7Jhx93s9w

[14] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRHizA6IdzU

[15] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymouzrzzgZ0

  • Yair Dagan writes ‘As for myself, regarding art and literature I have no formal education (except in musicology), but extensive knowledge from years and years of being an enthusiast. I come from the computer industry, and have my degrees in computer science and mathematics. I also own a master’s degree in Law.  My knowledge on Wilde and the late Victorian era is from self-learning, but I really got deep into it.

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