Original Musical Setting of “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Rationale, Score, and Recording (listen here: https://soundcloud.com/user909901369/the-yellow-wallpaper)

by Wesley Chu, Linda Numagami, and Mallory Zakeosian

Written for Transcendence & Entrapment: Nineteenth-Century American Literature (LARTS 345, Fall 2012) 

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1891 story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a woman suffering from what today would likely be deemed postpartum depression is brought by her physician husband to an isolated country house, where she is secluded in an attic room and subjected to the rest cure. Over the course of this treatment, her mental state deteriorates; she begins hallucinating women imprisoned behind the room’s grotesque yellow wallpaper, identifying with them as she resists her own entrapment. The story’s ending seems to represent her descent into madness as a form of rebellion against societal expectations of women.

Inspired by this story, we set excerpts to music scored for soprano, viola, and piano, the instruments of our individual majors. Our process began with selecting text from the beginning, middle, and end of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” so as to provide a complete, if abridged, experience of the story. We show the protagonist’s transition to insanity, beginning with her complaint about her husband, “You see he does not believe I am sick!”; moving to her agitated declaration that “I never saw such a worse paper in my life”; and concluding with her final sense of transcendence and triumph over her husband, who has fainted upon seeing her crawling around the room, “so that [she] had to creep over him every time!” (Gilman 3, 5, 19). We first wrote the vocal lines, followed by the instrumental accompaniment and textural lines. After composing, we spent several hours recording; during post-production, we recorded piano ef-fects over other tracks, synced tracks, and equalized the sound.

The text evokes strong imagery correlating with our musical techniques. The piece begins in a pensive and peaceful mood, providing setting and context for the rest of the narrative. This A-major introductory section is the most melodic and harmonically stable part of the piece, representing the protagonist’s docility and sanity. However, the protagonist soon exhibits undertones of distress, uncertainty, timidity, and wariness; the reoccurring triplet motive that begins in this section gives an unevenness to the music, and open tonalities and searching accompaniment lines in the viola and piano evoke the protagonist’s impending desperation. Both harmonics and rolled chords contribute to the sense of openness. When the soprano sings, “it is a big airy room,” her melodic line opens up through an expansion of range on the word “big.”

The next section (rehearsal letter B) introduces a faster tempo and more rhythmic complexity, creating a frantic and anxious mood. The key starts to become ambiguous, and we use more chromaticism, dissonance, and tri-plets to build the feeling of the protagonist’s despair and mental breakdown. The piano line drops out for several measures to create a thinner texture and make the disturbing vocal line more prominent. Pulled prepared piano strings heighten the creepiness while contrasting sections of eerie calm emphasize the protagonist’s unsettled mental and physical state in an otherwise tranquil environment.

In the next section (rehearsal letter C), the vocal line continues to represent the protagonist while the viola at times represents the woman behind the wallpaper and the piano evokes the setting of the room. Eerie and unsettling to the ear, the tremolo, ponticello, and plucked and struck piano strings represent the shaking and moving the protagonist sees behind the wallpaper. More chromaticism, triplets, and expanded range in the vocal line help capture the feeling of movement. The joining and inflection of the various parts offer intensification at different moments, such as when the voice repeats “I pulled, she shook” in counterpoint with the viola (mm. 56-58); eventually the viola responds to the vocal line to illustrate the narrator’s identification with the woman behind the wallpaper (mm. 60-61). Chromaticism in all parts represents the protagonist’s and wallpaper woman’s crawling around the walls. The pulling and shaking action builds with trills and sforzandos; in order to create the effect of the protagonist’s ripping off the wallpaper, Mallory dragged her nails across the low strings of the piano (mm. 60-61).

 A short instrumental section (mm. 62-67) marks the change that has occurred in the protagonist. She has in some sense escaped her husband’s oppression, and the calmness shows her confident defiance. However, the ini-tial vocal theme from the introduction comes back in the viola line, now agitated rather than stable, and the piano remains sharp to remind listeners that although the protagonist has finally freed herself, she has had to sacrifice her sanity to achieve transcendence. The instruments drop out to emphasize the defiant spoken line, “I got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back.”

The conclusion (rehearsal letter D) reuses melodic material and motifs from the beginning of the piece but treats them with dissonances and extended musical techniques. Emphasizing the juxtaposition between the protagonist’s initial healthier state and her final insanity, these distortions, along with the vocalist’s lingering between two pitches, end the piece with an unsettled feeling.  Listen to a recording of the piece here.







Work Cited 

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Ed. Ann J. Lane. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1999. 3-19. Print


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