Sphinx by David Lindsay, Sphinx by Cyril Scott

Sphinx by David Lindsay (cover)I was doing some research into David Lindsay’s third novel, Sphinx (published in 1923) — whose title refers to a fictional piece of piano music composed by a fictional composer, Lore Jensen, that’s played early on in the book — when I found that there actually was a piano piece of that name, published in 1908, fifteen years before Lindsay’s novel, and so quite possibly still in circulation at the time the book was written. I’m certainly not going to make the case that Lindsay must have known about it, or that it might have played some part in inspiring his novel (in which the fictional piano piece is mostly there to spark off a conversation about the book’s themes), but it’s fun to explore the possibility, largely because of one further coincidence I’ll come to in a moment.

The real-life 1908 “Sphinx” was composed by Cyril Scott (1879–1970), who was considered by some to be ‘in the forefront of modern British composers’ in ‘the first quarter of the last century’ (the quote is from this 2005 article), though after the Second World War he seems to have drifted from favour. One speculation is that Scott, being continentally-educated and more modernistically-inclined, didn’t fit in with the emerging idea that English music should be about English-educated composers reworking native folk themes.

Cover to score for Cyril Scott's SphinxAnother possibility is Scott’s interest (like many artists and writers of the early 20th Century, such as Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Conan Doyle) in the occult and supernatural. Some of his works, such as his 1917 opera The Alchemist, and his 1932 ballet based on Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, reveal this interest, and he also wrote books on these (and other) subjects. This is something that fell out of fashion in post-WWII culture, and may have had a distancing effect on the critical elite.

Scott’s interest in metaphysics was sparked by the pianist Evelyn Stuart, who was a Christian Scientist, and who championed his work, premiering many of his pieces, and who introduced him to his publisher. (Scott published a lot of miniature pieces for piano, of the sort that people at the time bought as, later in the century, they’d buy singles. His producing what might have been seen as populist, commercial work is cited as another potential reason for his disfavour in the post-WWII years.)

But here’s that other interesting coincidence I promised (though I’m sure it is just a coincidence). In Lindsay’s novel, the fictional piano piece “Sphinx” is played by a young woman called Evelyn Sturt — one letter different from Scott’s friend, the real-life pianist Evelyn Stuart.

In Lindsay’s novel, the short piano piece is described as follows:

‘It was what used to be called a “tone-poem,” a work built round a single central idea. Evelyn evidently found its freshness attractive, for she played it with far greater sympathy and feeling than either of the Chopin pieces. Despite her protestation, she made no obvious blunders. It was quite short, in length a mere trifle, but after the first minute Nicholas grew interested and impressed. The opening was calm, measured and drowsy. One could almost see the burning sand of the desert and feel the enervating sunshine. By degrees the theme became more troubled and passionate, quietly in the beginning, but with a gradually rising storm—not physical, but of emotion—until everything was like an unsteady sea of menace and terror. Towards the end, crashing dissonances appeared, but just when he was expecting the conventional climax to come, all the theme-threads united in a sudden quietening, which almost at once took shape as an indubitable question. It could then be seen that all that had gone before had been leading the way to this question, and that what had appeared simple and understandable had been really nothing of the sort, but, on the contrary, something very mysterious and profound. . . . Half a dozen tranquil and beautiful bars brought the little piece to a conclusion. . . .’

Opening bars to Sphinx by Cyril Scott

Cyril Scott’s “Sphinx” (Opus 63) is similar in many ways. It’s reasonably short, as classical music goes (4 minutes, 27 seconds in Michael Schäfer’s recording, available digitally from Amazon UK and US), it opens quietly — in a way that immediately reminded me of the opening of one of my favourite pieces of creepy film music, Christopher Young’s spine-tingling end theme to Hellraiser — gradually rises in both intensity and dissonance (‘Mysteriously, and sustained’, the score says), then lapses back to its initial quietude.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that Lindsay was thinking of Scott’s real piece when he was writing about Lore Jensen’s fictional one — his description, after all, is a pretty obvious structure for any piece of short, mysterious music — but reading Lindsay’s prose, and listening to Scott’s composition, it’s easy to imagine it leaving you with the sense of “an indubitable question”, even if the question is only, “Did David Lindsay know this music?”

The novels Lindsay published during his lifetime have been in the public domain since 2016. After thinking someone, surely, would bring the more obscure ones out as ebooks, I gave up waiting and this week published Sphinx on Kindle and other ebook formats. Hopefully this will help make the rest of Lindsay’s work, other than just his most famous work, A Voyage to Arcturus, accessible to a wider readership.

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