Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

The story of Charles Jessold is a highly interesting one in that it is just as much the story of Carlo Gesualdo, of Little Musgrave, of Leslie Shepherd. Set amongst the backdrop of early 20th-century Europe, a time of great technological innovation and societal change, the novel takes place in and around England: a nation yearning for its own musical voice. A greatly respected musico-historical context (the time of the Second Viennese school, Strauss, Schoenberg, Busoni, and Ravel to name a few) pervades the efforts of the novel’s composer protagonist and these concerns are voiced quite clearly by his confidant and biographer.

The relationship between Jessold and Shepherd is one of great depth that plays itself out in separate movements and acts to unfold to its fullest degree. This aspect of the work is what makes the narrative somewhat operatic. An incredible range of character emotions and dilemmas mount one on top of the other and interweave to create a very dramatic portrait of relationships complicated by love, desire, and betrayal. The story clearly charts the loss of Jessold’s innocence in ways that parallel and allude to his predecessors who have suffered such eerily similar fates. With the depth of the music at hand the book delivers a gripping portrait of personal struggle to maintain musical integrity at the cost of emotional well-being and even sanity.

While operatic in many ways, the story revolves around the creation and eventual failure of The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard. The ballad structure finds itself nestled neatly into each tragically storied affair that the novel touches upon, and it essentially ties all of them together in a way that allows the reader to assume the fate of young Jessold. Ballad structure – when succinctly defined – draws greatly from popular narrative as it is rehashed through the movements of time, imagination, and creativity. Structurally speaking, however, a ballad abides to no strict themes nor does it specify the types of tales it is employed in retelling. The emphasis is placed mostly on the aspect of communal verse and how it spirals off into the shared culture of a given community. William Hall Clawson clarifies the salient aspects of ballads in a 1908 article he wrote for the Journal of American Folk-lore. Borrowing some of the research and ideas of his predecessor, Prof. Francis Barton Gummere, he states:

…communal composition, or the successive improvisation by various members of a singing, dancing throng, of narrative lines or stanzas which are made under the stimulus and cooperation of the whole throng, which express ideas common to all, which are caught up and repeated by the throng and afterwards handed down by oral tradition of its members… The ballads, that is, have been transmitted to us by representatives of that stage of society which is known to produce communal verse. To this verse, moreover, the refrains of the ballads, their frequent repetitions, and their choral qualities, give them a strong resemblance; but, on the other hand, they have an artistic coherence and an aesthetic value… – (Clawson, 350)

The story of Gesualdo presents an example of this sort of story-telling and distilled meaning that is constructed through transmission. The tale is introduced in the very first pages of the book and comparisons between the stigmatized Carlo Gesualdo and the fresh-faced Charles Jessold are made without hesitation, however, based merely upon name. Thus, it follows that Wesley Stace’s ballad of Charles Jessold is established within the thematic context of cuckoldry and uxoricide from its very beginning.

In expanding upon these quickly introduced themes one might begin to look at any of Jessold’s compositions through a lens critical of a character flaw that might bring forth such ugly circumstances. The novel begs its reader to hear Jessold’s music in defiance to the pre-supposed conventions of the music that has come before him, but also as he builds off of them. This is due mostly to his level of ambition and Shepherd’s assertion that the nationalist movement Britain requires “needs a catalyst” (Stace, 46). Amongst the imposing musical backdrop of the greatly admired and believed superior Austro-German expressionist composers and the newly minted compositional technique of atonality, Jessold’s efforts seem to want something else, something unordained. Yet, whether or not Jessold finds success with such innovation he does concentrate most of his efforts upon Little Musgrave, a ballad with relative stylistic simplicity. A plot point such as this truly drives forth the inherent moral of the ballad, as well as helps to structure the developments of the novel’s story arc. Little Musgrave, much like the story of Gesualdo, becomes the inspirational libretto for the opera that is Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer.

While this story does situate itself within the time of the Austro-German expressionist movement, it seems to draw upon musical traditions that date as far back as the Renaissance. The parallel narrative of Gesualdo should be considered musically in the style of its protagonist composer: madrigal. This type of music is relatively simplistic as well. Madrigals are primarily secular songs performed in a capella and most usually written for five voices of different chromatic tone. Normally, the intent of a madrigal is to interpret secular text with the utmost fidelity, however, Gesualdo’s themes and compositions seemed a departure from this. It is said of Gesualdo and his love song Resta di darmi noia:

Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, was a tempestuous figure of the Renaissance whose colorful life (he murdered his wife’s lover) is reflected in music both daring and intense. His harmonies, both chromatic and surprising even to twentieth century ears, are said to have disturbed his more placid contemporaries.

This madrigal is a despairing love song. The translation is: “Cease to torment me, cruel delusion, that I shall never again be the one whom you love. Joy for me is dead. I dare not hope ever to be happy again.” – (Moore, 30)

This thematic tone of intense despair and lost love come to the forefront of Jessold as the novel wears on, charting the ups and downs of the maturing composer. However, not all of the Gesualdian aspects of Jessold’s career are as dour as his legacy would come to be. One of the young composer’s earlier works, the Folk-Song Oratorio, interestingly implements the madrigal compositional technique by employing five classic English folk-songs for the purpose of interpreting the life of Jesus, albeit Jessold’s Jesus. Although it might not be the most pious of secular images, Folk-Song Oratorio has a clear relation to the madrigal studies of Jessold’s youth. Five parables, rather than five voices, do the work of bringing an audience through the trials and tribulations of a messiah fraught with moral conflict and uncertainty. The third setting in particular, “The Bitter Withy,” depicts a young Jesus in conflict with three young rich lords who refuse his request to join their game. These young boys and their exclusionary words are accompanied by “a throaty chorale of woodwind,” to which Jesus vengefully responds with “a fanfare of haughty brass.” When the plotted revenge comes full circle the young lords are found helpless, unable to swim in the river over which Jesus crossed so easily, and they drown “amid slithering trombones and loud trumpet clangour” (Stace, 73). His apt use of the dissonant sound qualities inherent in each orchestra section is what paints the vivid scenery of this specific parable. Whereas, the woodwinds have the dualistically effective qualities of softness and sharpness to convey mockery and bullying, the brass section has the descriptive power of a resolute foreboding. And though, it is a less righteous retelling of the messianic life it is the stand out sequence in the piece and it exhibits Jessold’s deep and conflicted sensibility far before he falls prey to other more difficult vices.

Jessold’s position amongst his contemporaries may be one of the greater reasons for his proclivity towards the folk ballads of his own nation. One of the books main topics of discourse is England’s lack of national propriety. In relation to the mainland European nations, England seems to lag behind, mired in the musical traditions of the past. Allusions to other prominent European composers – mostly those of Germany, France or Italy – are made mostly to pose the question of just how England can revive its own heritage in an age of music that is highly modern and influenced by social and cultural forces that are not so imperative in the British Empire. As Jessold argues in one of his earlier visits to Cheyney Cottage: “We don’t have their worries. We have no territorial problems; our enemies are not pounding at our borders, eroding our national identity, splintering our nation…we are not a nervous baby country, struggling to be heard… Quite the reverse: we are an Empire. We are grown up, smug, overfed and happy with the status quo” (Stace, 45). It seems that the music at hand in the book struggles with not only ideal, but also the concept of form and how it is constructed based off of cultural perceptions. In regards to the English identity, Jessold’s music most closely relates to the neoclassical movement; ultimately a response to German modernism.

Neoclassicism can be a difficult ideology to describe. In essence, it is mostly concerned with the deliberate retreat from the atonal music of the early twentieth century. It is a “retrospectivism and stylistic allusion” to the music of the 18th and 19th centuries (Taruskin, 286). There is a nostalgic aspect to neoclassical work that does not necessarily return to the exact reproduction of the styles and forms of the 18th century, but does heavily reference it. Neoclassical music seeks the past. It’s origins are normally associated with the outbreak of the First World War, a period during which Jessold was helplessly imprisoned at Badenstein in Germany. Considered as a coping mechanism for the national and broader social duress that spread throughout Europe, neoclassicism was generally dismissed as a retroactive clinging the tonal system of the past. It tendered sentiments regarding its inauthenticity and was viewed as an ironic technique that, rather than doing something new, deliberately stayed in the past.

The first musician to have the term attached to his work without such distrust was Stravinsky, for his piece Symphonies d’Instruments à vent. However, the perception of the piece as “neoclassical” has inevitably shifted over time and has been interpreted in many ways; too many to begin to understand it in just one. Perhaps the terms greatest descriptive accuracy came from the critique of Stravinsky’s music as it was in opposition to Schoenberg (Taruskin, 290). All musical critiques between styles of music during this period had mostly to do with national perceptions of musical aesthetic and how they crossed paths with one another. The French differed from the Germans and they made it apparent with how they described their own music versus those of their contemporaries. Yet, it bears mentioning that neoclassical composition was thought of more as an impulsive style of composition, rather than a concentrated movement with any sort of supportive base. It was an aesthetic that became a noticeable feature in early 20th century music that helped to contrast the musical styles of the period.

The term neoclassical is a broad one that does not quite nail down all the specific aspects of Jessold’s work. This may be why it works well in description of his style. His conflict with the music of his time leads him to alternative compositional styles that attempt to deviate from the modern and recapitulate the classical and more traditional values he holds dear to his home country. It becomes apparent in Jessold that the young English composer is rapt with the English folk ballads of the countryside, but sometimes to a point of frustration. Jessold finds himself at a standstill with the folk songs that he loves. He tells Shepherd at one point: “All I hear is good taste… The songs are perfect on their own” (Stace, 102). He then goes on about the genius he found in Schoenberg’s “Second String Quartet,” in which Shepherd sees little value. But, Jessold feels that the unconventional aspects of the piece are what speak so highly for it. He is torn, and a great argument erupts between the two that inevitably leads to weakened relations and general distrust.

Leslie Shepherd closely relates to the traditional music of the earlier times, whereas Jessold expresses a heightened interest in the compositional deviation from it. Schoenberg’s “Second String Quartet” poses as an interesting topic for this argument of musical merit between the musician and the critic to manifest. Upon its premiere the piece was met with harsh rejection and dismal review. It was loathed mostly for its atonality and its disharmonious cacophony; both orchestrally and vocally. Deliberate or not, the work challenged the already accepted conventions of musical resolve and chromaticism. The quartet has been considered “a kind of complementary cultural signifier of the dysfunctional nature of musical Modernism…,” which, ironically, has deep roots in the work of Wagner; known for his deviated but highly praised style of composition. But, the work was reflective of Schoenberg’s own woundedness and ambivalence in relation to his audience and his music. It is a heavily conflicted work of art that embodies his “complex and often refractory interior dialectic with both the ideas and musical language of Wanger’s music dramas” (Crispin, 62). Thus emerges an internal nationalist dialogue as it relates to the Austro-German compositional traditions, which were quite insular and critical of other national musical movements.

This aspect of stylistic ambivalence and uncertainty seem to motivate all of Jessold’s cryptic and generally immoral actions. Yet, when we look at he and Miriam Shepherd’s affair from the standpoint of Leslie Shepherd’s own acceptance of it, morality becomes an unwieldy and rather difficult concept to apply. What does stand out in the narrative is the growing despair behind Jessold’s confident façade. When Little Musgrave does finally draw back the curtains for its dress rehearsal Shepherd is dumbfounded at the opera’s lack of conventional development, he recounts the absence of preludes, interludes, postludes, symphonic development, and clear statements of themes. It seems that the piece relies more upon the score and the characters, which normally would have indicated an inferior product, yet garnered a standing ovation and even Shepherd’s acknowledgement that it was beyond him. “The power of the whole thing was undeniable,” he says on page 181, “quite overwhelming.”

It seems that to Shepherd’s informed opinion of what Musgrave could have been he is mostly stunned by what it became in the creatively muddled hands of Jessold. It bears mentioning as well that Jessold’s ambivalence is only intensified upon the discovery that his mysterious and well-trusted poet/librettist Joshua Cradeless is merely a pseudonym for Jessold himself. Yet, despite all misgivings his leaning towards doing something different echoes the ultimate favoring of modernism in his work. Little Musgrave closely relates to Richard Strauss’s staging of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Both contain the distinctive key-notes of tragic destiny, but also an intensely deviated compositional practice that is beyond the work of their respective times.

A spirit of disastrous fate pervades the story of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Strauss’s perception of the piece was structured mainly around efforts to expose the taboo of the times and try to shed light on themes that were generally disregarded. Critics were astonished at the “‘thunder,’ ‘noise,’ and orchestral ‘cacophony’ Strauss had in store for them” (Dierkes-Thrun, 376). It was believed that Strauss had intended the sheer cacophony for his audience in order to set his opera apart from anything that they had seen before. It was sensational, only to be matched by the controversial narrative of Salome itself.

The score was admired by Strauss’s many contemporaries (including among them Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, Gabriel Fauré, Ferruccio Busoni, Schoenberg, and Anton Webern). It had made crucial technical leaps and bounds from the operatic scores that preceded it; it truly was a work containing a particularly nascent quality. One has to imagine, in the context of late 19th-century composition, how magnificently different it was to hear lines divorced from harmony, not to mention their being alongside such advanced tonal and rhythmic methods which were entirely revolutionary. There was also a complex arrangement of 49 instrumental and voice parts to boot. It was described as “something monstrous, stimulating the nerves in the extreme” (Dierkes-Thrun, 376). This performance created an entire apparatus by which Strauss could influence changes of mood and tone in an instant; it worked like a drug on an unsuspecting audience. It had noticeably departed from the usual dramatic effects provided by orchestral arrangement and instead focused itself into a auditory barrage.

A lack of dramaticizing musical conventions seems to course through both works and most definitely ties the two operas into a league of their own (albeit a fictional one). However, their nuanced style of musical storytelling were extremely effective in their own unorthodox way, a way that confronted the traditional style and revolutionized their craft. Jessold and Shepherd’s Little Musgrave can be looked at as an English stand-in for the musical eruption that was Strauss’s Salome. It says a great deal about the provenance of Jessold’s love for the folk tradition of English music. From start to finish he holds these folk ballads in high regard for their deep and soulful descriptive power and he makes it his life’s work to bring the most perfect form of The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard to the stage.

Wesley Stace’s novel portrays a time rife with musical evolution and a recharting of broader meanings in the contexts of societal upheaval and national vitality. Charles Jessold is a highly complex character whose flaws are not hidden away. In fact, they are made so clear to the reader as to allow a full grasp of the internal issues facing the composer and how they come to shape his music. However, it isn’t until the final act of the book, when Shepherd is in his twilight years, that the weighty truth of Jessold comes to the surface. His affair with Miriam, having been held back from our conception of the man, abruptly gives texture and purpose to his previous mishaps and the deterioration of his relationship with his favorite critic. The murders do not speak to us as a point of rage, but rather a merciful act on behalf of Leslie Shepherd. The arrangement between Jessold and Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd is the underlying motivation for all emotional and musical turmoil. When these facts come to the fore we can begin to understand that darkness and ardor that lurks beneath us the entire time.

Whether it is an attempt at romanticism, neoclassicism, or modernism, Stace’s novel walks its reader through a complex period of growth and emotional reclamation of the music of Europe. In essence, it plays itself out as if it were an opera of epic proportions, spanning the many years that marcate Jessold’s fall from grace and plunge into emotional despair and longing. Like him or not, Shepherd’s narrative is an atonement for the issues of the past he had yet to fess up to. With a beautifully lyrical structure, that only makes itself apparent in the final movement of the piece, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer becomes the stories that its beginnings merely described for their facts and curiosity. As it slowly moves into the musical life and mental anguish of its subject – Jessold, from younger to older – the tones and themes begin to challenge us to confront his spiralling out of control.


Moore, Douglas. From Madrigal to Modern Music, a Guide to Musical Styles,. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1942. Print.

Taruskin, Richard. “Back to Whom? Neoclassicism as Ideology.” 19th-Century Music 16.3 (1993): 286-302. JSTOR. Web.

Clawson, William Hall. “Ballad and Epic.” The Journal of American Folklore 21.82 (1908): 349-61. JSTOR. Web.

Crispin, Darla M. “Arnold Schoenberg's Wounded Work: 'Litanei' from the String Quartet in F Sharp Minor, Op. 10.” Austrian Studies 17 (2009): 62-74. JSTOR. Web.

Dierkes-Thrun, P. ““The Brutal Music and the Delicate Text”? The Aesthetic Relationship between Wilde's and Strauss's Salome Reconsidered.” Modern Language Quarterly 69.3 (2008): 367-89. Duke University Press. Web.

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