The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Ballet in Five Movements (2015)

Flute (+alto), Clarinet, Percussion, Piano; 4 dancers (3 male, 1 female); stage lighting techniques; original portrait

World Premiere: February 19, 2016

Written as a call-to-scores entry for EnsembleCONCEPT/21 at Indiana University South Bend.

Program Notes:

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a milestone work for myself, as I incorporated a variety of new techniques and ideas, stepping out of my comfort zone as a composer. Based on the novel by Oscar Wilde, this piece tells the story of the intriguing Dorian Gray through music, visual display, and dance. I found it appropriate to set one of Wilde’s works to music, for he himself said, “Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memories.” But adding dancers and visual display to the work makes the performance more impactful in telling the story of Dorian Gray without words. In planning the piece, I decided to break it up into five short movements depicting five important ideas and events in the life of Dorian Gray. When analyzing the novel, I realized that a major focus is on Dorian’s relationships with others and how they influence his life, change his character, and ultimately lead to his downfall. These relationships are presented both in the interactions among the dancers and the interactions among the instruments in the ensemble. 

The first movement, The Portrait, sets the mysterious backdrop indulging our curiosity to find out who Dorian Gray is. The music employs aleatory technique primarily in the piano and vibraphone, along with smaller aleatoric moments in the clarinet, to create colorful canvases of sound, to musically paint the portrait of the beautiful Dorian Gray. Standing out among the ensemble is the alto flute, as the flute throughout the entire piece represents Dorian. The clarinet represents the other characters with whom Dorian interacts: Basil Hallward, Lord Henry, and Sybil Vane. The movement ends ominously foreshadowing the unsettling events to come. 

In the second movement, Lord Henry, we see the beginnings of Dorian’s slow progression into corruption through the formative relationship between himself and Lord Henry. Lord Henry imposes on Dorian his life philosophy of hedonism, a philosophy that centers around the pursuit of pleasure without regard to moral constructs. The clarinet (Lord Henry) enters the movement with excitement and frivolity followed by the flute (Dorian) imitating the clarinet. Then there is a conflict, starting with the vibraphone solo, and the flute and clarinet bicker back and forth, representative of Dorian’s uncertainties with Lord Henry’s philosophy. But ultimately Dorian embraces hedonism as a way of life for himself, and his strange friendship with Lord Henry continues onward. Sergei Prokofiev’s 10 Pieces for Piano, “Marche” (Op. 12) influenced my writing in this movement. 

As we enter the third movement, Sybil Vane, the music slows down and enters a gentle love theme in the clarinet based on a motif from the first movement. This movement focuses on a new perspective of Dorian Gray, the romantic side of him that comes to life in his love for Sybil Vane. But when Dorian realizes after a poor acting performance by Sybil that he was only in love with her acting and not Sybil herself, we see a very different side of Dorian, the corruptive side that ultimately wins. Dorian abruptly ends the relationship with Sybil because for Dorian she is no longer worthy of his attention. This shows us what Dorian values in a person; it is less about their dignity but more of what they can offer him. That night, Sybil kills herself, represented by the sudden glissando in the clarinet and the feather-beamed accelerando in the flute, followed by the toll of tubular bells. Visually, we see the projection of the portrait now having a more sinister expression. 

After Sybil’s suicide, the rest of the novel shows Dorian’s slow decent into absolute corruption, becoming an unsatisfied aging man. The fourth movement, The Murder of Basil Hallward, starts with Dorian alone and conflicted with himself. Then Basil enters the scene and begins interrogating Dorian about the rumors he has heard, and expressing his concern for his old friend. Dorian clearly does not want to hear it, and while upstairs arguing in the room with the now hidden portrait, in a burst of anger, Dorian stabs Basil and kills him, this death represented in a run in the flute followed by the toll of the bells, moving directly into the fifth movement. Musically this movement borrows motifs from the three previous movements bringing them altogether in a chaotic scene. 

The fifth movement, The Fall of Dorian Gray, returns to the ideas of the first movement. The clarinet, vibraphone, and piano provide a now peaceful backdrop while the flute performs in aleatoric fashion dissonant atonal passages with clear instructions to seem separated from the rest of the ensemble, inspired by Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. In a way this represents the forces outside of Dorian’s control, how life goes on while he suffers with his inner torment and guilt. One night, Dorian runs up the stairs in a wild frenzy to the room with the portrait intending to destroy it forever, to destroy the source of his life’s misery. He kills himself, leaving the portrait of a young beautiful man untouched. His death is represented in the shrill high “G’s” in the flute, a final breath, a piercing scream of agony. The piece concludes solemnly, reminiscent of the ominous end of the first movement. 

J.W.G. II