Félise, 1878

This strange and slightly drunk waltz by Theophilus Marzials feels apt for the Swinburne poem from which he took the words – ‘Félise’, from Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866). It’s a poem about the ending of an affair, though while the narrator originally loved Félise (and she was not in love with him), he has since fallen out of love, while she has discovered the fondness for him that he once craved. The poem appears to curl around its subject, explaining and examining itself (though perhaps it’s a voice alone), before signing off with a snap. The imagery is, at various times, blasphemous, hot, cold, and erotic.

Marzials has been sympathetic to this movement, although he has taken only two of the 59 verses, which form a song within the poem, composed for (and out of?) the narrator’s ex-lover (‘What was the song I made of you?’). From this poetic fragment Marzials has created a similarly fragmentary song. It has the effect of something heard in passing. It fades in and out. It totters, turns, tiptoes, and swoons back and forth, and doesn’t quite know where it’s going, except round and round. Perhaps it’s affection, but it’s restless and unsatisfied. The words, which blend lips, colours, and months, jump along the notes, sometimes in step, other times not. And it ends arbitrarily, with a sense that it might get up again for another turn. The words, are in any case, odd and transgressive:

O lips that mine have grown into

Like April’s kissing May,

O fervent eyelids letting through

Those eyes the greenest of things blue

The bluest of things grey,


If you were I and I were you,

How could I love you, say?

How could the roseleaf love the rue,

The day love nightfall and her dew.

Though night may love the day?

Marzials’s composition has a decadent sense. Perhaps there’s a whiff of too much drink, or too much chlorodyne, to which Marzials was sometimes addicted. As I mentioned earlier, in the posting of his much more robust and popular Ask Nothing More, Marzials was an eccentric and an aesthete in the truest sense.

This setting shows up the limitations of the software I am using. Although it does a very good job at re-creating the music, the mood – especially from the vocal part – should be much more legato, that is, connected and flowing.

London: Stanley, Lucas & Co, 1878

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A Match, 1880

This is a great rendition of Swinburne’s ‘A Match’ from Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866), by Louis Napoleon Parker (1852-1944). It manages to be sweetly melodic, dramatic and rousing at the same time, with a twist at the line, ‘If you were thrall to sorrow’. The song uses stanzas 1,2,4 & 6 of Swinburne’s poem, with the last mixing metre and phrasing into sado-masochistic concerns, ‘If you were the queen of pleasure, / And I were king of pain’.

Parker, born in France (hence ‘Napoleon’), was a student of the Royal Academy of Music and the organist and director of music at Sherborne. A noted Wagnerian, he was also a hugely successful playwright (The Cardinal, 1903, Disraeli, 1911, Drake, 1912), with many of his plays produced by Sir Herbert Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre in London, and a translator (Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, 1889). His organisation of a huge patriotic and spectacular pageant in Sherborne in 1905 (with a cast of over 900), led to commissions for similar events in Dover, Warwick and York (and other towns and cities), and he went on to organise the historical section of the Lord Mayor’s shows in London.

Music published in London: A Cox, 1880

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Rondel – Kissing her Hair

This was the first piece of music to be inspired by one of Swinburne’s poems. From 1867, Walter Maynard’s Kissing Her Hair takes its name from the first line of Swinburne’s ‘Rondel‘, from Poems and Ballads (1866). Maynard was the pseudonym of Thomas W. Beale (1828-1894), a major Victorian music impresario.

That this piece was published just a year after Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads suggests that Beale was capitalising on the poet’s notoriety.

London: Cramer & Co. Ltd, 1867

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Ask Nothing More

Ask Nothing More, by the unconventional Theophilus Marzials (1850-1920), was a hugely successful song of the 1880s. The lyrics were taken from Swinburne’s ‘The Oblation‘ (Songs Before Sunrise, 1871). Marzials was also a poet, and wrote what has often been claimed as the worst poem ever written, ‘A Tragedy’, from his Gallery of Pigeons and other Poems (1873), which starts, ‘Death! / Plop! / The barges down in the river flop, / Flop, plop, / Above, beneath.’ Another poem in the collection refers to his mistress, whose ‘bosom breathes ambrosial’, and whose garment is ‘as soft music flows, […] It madrigals while she goes.’, etc.

A line in the second verse of this song, ‘Touch you and dream of you, sweet,’ looks like censorship, as the original Swinburne line runs, ‘Touch you and taste of you, sweet,’ (see ‘The Oblation’, The Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 6 vols, London: Chatto & Windus, 1911, II, 221). Given Marzials’s poems, one wonders who decided that the line ought to be changed.

London: Boosey & Co, 1883

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Atalanta in Calydon

This is the overture to the 1906 production of Swinburne’s play Atalanta in Calydon (1865), composed by Muriel Elliot, who published the full score in 1912. Originally performed at the Crystal Palace in South London and the (since demolished) Scala Theatre, it was directed by Elsie Fogerty, and was revived in 1911 at The Lyceum. Fogerty, who went on to train both Gielgud and Olivier, also played the role of Althaea.

No publisher given, 1912.

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Love Laid His Sleepless Head

Composed by Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) to lyrics commissioned from A. C. Swinburne, for John Hollingshead’s 1874 production of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ at the Gaiety Theatre London. It was sung by the character Anne Page (and a chorus of children), at the beginning of Act  iii, scene iv (see ‘The Swinburne Letters’, vol. ii, p. 355).

Lyrics originally published in the Examiner on 26 December, 1874, and reprinted in Poems and Ballads, Second Series (1878).

Music – London: Boosey & Co, 1875

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The Triumph of Time

Composed by Adela Maddison (a.k.a. Mrs Brunning Maddison, 1862-1929), from Twelve Songs (Op. 9, No. 3), 1895, London: Metzler & Co. This is a really terrific adaption, translation, or perhaps transmutation of Swinburne’s text. Moody, elemental, maybe it’s music that’s playing poetic and musical phrasing off against each other. For a copy of the full score, please click here: Triumph_of_Time final score.

Words by A. C. Swinburne (Poems & Ballads, First Series, 1866)

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