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Goldsmith Opera-title pages-1

May 14, 2014

The Deserted Village: Novelistic Inspiration and a Musical Mystery

Where does inspiration come from? As Sarah Rayne explained in this video interview, the inspiration for What Lies Beneath was largely musical: The novel crystallized around a few lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century poem “The Deserted Village,” and the realization that an opera based on the poem had been written in the 19th century by Irish composer John William Glover. That opera is the source of the eerie music that runs through the village and the novel. Here is a passage from the novel:

He heard a sound so uncanny his skin prickled with horror.
Music. Elusive and blurred, as if it was struggling to make itself heard, or as if it was coming from a very long way off. It was as if cobweb strands of the past were trying to weave themselves into a pattern, and Jan stood very still, an icy finger seeming to trace a pattern down his spine. Somewhere in this sad lonely place, someone was summoning up the echoes of music written more than a hundred years ago—music that was now virtually forgotten and almost lost. The Deserted Village.

And so we decided to investigate: Could we actually hear the recording of The Deserted Village? At first it appeared as if we might be able to locate a copy in a library somewhere, but after combing library catalogs and spending some considerable time on the phone with real live librarians, we have come up empty. However! The vocal score is indeed available from several sources, and here are the opening bars of the opera:

Goldsmith Opera_vocalscore

Here is an interesting note: The Goldsmith poem “The Deserted Village” is about a village (the critical consensus is that this is an Irish village) emptied of its inhabitants, and it contains scenes of idealized village life, descriptions of the abandoned village itself, and also the distant land where the villagers might find themselves in exile. It is here that the line about “poisonous fields” is to be found:

Ah, no. To distant climes, a dreary scene,
Where half the convex world intrudes between,
Through torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe.
Far different there from all that charm’d before,
The various terrors of that horrid shore;
Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray,
And fiercely shed intolerable day;
Those matted woods where birds forget to sing,
But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling;
Those poisonous fields
with rank luxuriance crowned,
Where the dark scorpion gathers death around;
Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake;
Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey,
And savage men, more murderous still than they;
While oft in whirls the mad tornado flies,
Mingling the ravaged landscape with the skies.

The scene appears geographically confusing, but it suggests America, and one scholar has argued that it is precisely locatable in southern Georgia, around the Altamaha river, and is apparently consistent with 18th century English traveler descriptions of the southern United States.

The poisoned fields and the imagined place of exile do not appear in the opera. Though the most recognizable lines from the poem have been preserved, a plot has been added to Goldsmith’s descriptive poem, and a truly operatic one at that, complete with double crosses, mistaken identities, long-lost children and reunited lovers. Additionally, the opera includes a character named “Oliver Goldsmith” who wanders around the village over the years singing the verses of the poem.

Do you, dear readers, know of this opera, and is there possibly a recording out there somewhere?

Complete text of the Oliver Goldsmith poem



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