It is a curiosity that the publication of Wesley Stace’s novel Charles Jessold Considered As A Murderer (Jonathan Cape) should coincide with that of Rob Young’s majestic survey of English pastoral music Electric Eden but it is safe to say that they complement each other. The milieu in which Stace sets his tale is that of English classical music in the early decades of the last century. This was the period in which composers were assiduously collecting folk songs to form the basis of compositions that would be particularly English, and from which the fictional Jessold attempts to create the first major English opera since Purcell’s Dido And Aeneas.
Thus the immediate fascination of the novel is the description over the first hundred pages of the modus operandi of song collecting. The famous episode of Cecil Sharp, John England, and ‘The Seeds Of Love’ which launched the whole process is briefly referred to, and then there are accounts of collecting adventures illustrating the bitter disputes over patch and method. Stace’s narrator Shepherd, an effete conservative dilettante, opposes both the use of recording equipment and the involvement of less socially-advanced upstarts.
These episodes culminate in the serendipitous discovery, in a barn sheltering from rain, of the shepherd Marsh who sings them the song ‘Little Musgrave’. ‘Little Musgrave’ is to provide the basis for Jessold’s opera and in its love triangle of Lord and Lady Barnard and Musgrave the dynamic of the whole novel. The multiplicity of three-way relationships; in the song, in the life of the sixteenth century composer Italian Carlo Gesualdo, and in that of Jessold; provide the thematic structure and allow the novel to reach its conclusion in the 1950s rather than in the devastating events of June 1923 which do for both Jessold and his opera.
There’s a further fascination in the information that’s fed as the tale progresses. In the life of Gesualdo himself, of whom Peter Warlock (in part a model for Jessold) wrote the essay Carlo Gesualdo Considered As A Murderer, about German internment camps of the Great War, about the origins of the Wigmore Hall (like the British royal family it anglicised its name) and more besides. Set partly in London and partly in rural Sussex it’s imbued with elements of English neo-romanticism, which has the reader at times seeing the action through a Powell and Pressburger patina.
This is particularly true of Stace’s superb account, with its walk-on part for Vaughan Williams, of the first night of Britten’s Peter Grimes at Sadlers Wells in June 1945; it certainly carries echoes for me of the opening scenes of The Red Shoes. Under most circumstances these pages would send the reader scurrying for a recording, except by this point the novel is un-put-downable; I actually read the final 200 or so pages in one sitting. That speaks to an easy prose style and a riveting read, which it absolutely is.