About this work:
The song cycle as a genre makes something novelistic by adding music to a series of semi-independent poems. I have sometimes wondered what it would be like to do the reverse: to start with an actual novel and break it down into a small series of semi-independent fragments. Henry James seemed like an ideal choice for the purpose because his novels have so many passages that can stand almost alone as if they were prose poems. The Wings of the Dove in particular seemed rich with these. It is perhaps James's most sensuous text and the sensuality, even eroticism, of much of its prose has the paradoxical effect of heightening its introspective power.
The cycle is based on six passages, which with small exceptions are extracted verbatim and without internal ellipses. The texts are generally sung without repetition of words or phrases; the voice treats them as narrative. This rule, however, is proved by its proverbial exception: songs two and five feature condensed repetitions of their entire texts, acts of re-narration that open the question of what drives narration as such. The question is compounded by the piano, which frames the text with cyclical, lyric forms, the familiar shapes of traditional song, to which the voice, which never repeats itself musically, poses
an alternative understanding.
James's novel concerns an especially dark romantic triangle. In love with the impecunious Kate Croy, Merton Densher woos a dying heiress, Milly Theale, in hopes of becoming her heir. He does, but at the cost of both the money and his mistress, neither of which his conscience will let him keep. The first three songs evoke Milly's experience of Venice, where she has gone in vain to recover her health; the fourth is a flashback to the moment tha tMilly, looking at a Venetian portrait, realizes that she is doomed; the next two take up Densher's discovery
of the enormity of his actions; and the last sets the famous close of the novel, Kate's exit and parting words.
Although the songs interpret the moods and meaning of the novel, they are also independent of it. They treat the extracts as a free sequence of evocative moments: an open invitation to imagine a narrative pattern of one's own, a possible story of which the extracts and music together form the expression. The cycle explores what it feels like to do that, and to do it because a great deal depends on the story to be told and the means of telling it.
Six Songs and an Epilogue from The Wings of the Dove was composed for baritone Michael Halliwell from October 2006 through March 2007 as five songs; the sixth, number four in the sequence, was added in May 2008; the whole was revised in 2019.