The first that I ever read of Harold S. Farnese was in L. Sprague de Camp's Lovecraft: A Biography (1975). (I have the Ballantine paperback edition of 1976, which lacks an index.) Here is part of what de Camp had to say about him:
Harold S. Farnese, dean of the Los Angeles Institute of Musical Art [sic], wrote to Lovecraft proposing a joint project: a Cthulhuvian operetta in one act, called Fen River and laid on the planet Yuggoth. As a starter, Farnese had already set two of Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth sonnets, Mirage and The Elder Pharos, to music. (p. 387)
Remember that in a letter to Weird Tales, published in August 1931, Farnese had praised Lovecraft's poems as "very fine," writing that they played "a good second to the author's inimitable stories." In the months before Farnese sent off his letter to Weird Tales, the magazine had published several of Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth cycle, including "Nyarlathotep" and "Azathoth" in January 1931, "Mirage" and "The Elder Pharos" in February/March, and "Alienation" in April/May. They would be the last of Lovecraft's poems published in Weird Tales in his lifetime.
De Camp didn't give a date for the letter Farnese sent to Lovecraft in which he proposed this joint project. I suspect that it was in 1932, as there are at least two letters extant from Lovecraft to Farnese, dated September 22, 1932, and October 12, 1932. I presume these to be answers to letters written by Farnese. De Camp wrote that, after Lovecraft demurred, "Farnese kept urging," suggesting that there was further correspondence between the two. A source on the Internet says that Farnese wrote several letters to Lovecraft, beginning July 11, 1932, and ending January 9, 1933. That fits with my supposition. It also fits with the timeline of Farnese's summer of 1932 (see the bullet points below).
One of L. Sprague de Camp's themes in his biography of Lovecraft is the author's self-defeating (and ultimately self-destructive) ways. There are those who have their differences with de Camp, but in this at least, I think he was right: Lovecraft, almost certainly because of his upbringing (and especially because of his father's abandonment of him and his mother's unstable emotional state, which resulted in a kind of emotional abuse of her son), too often defeated himself, sabotaged his own efforts, and in the end more or less destroyed himself by long habits of malnourishment, undernourishment, and perhaps even self-starvation. In any event, Lovecraft, offering various excuses, backed away from a collaboration with Harold Farnese, and so a wonderful opportunity (and to us a fascinating possibility) was missed. None of that changes the fact that if Farnese did indeed set "Mirage" and "The Elder Pharos" to music, then these were very likely the first adaptations of Lovecraft's work to a form other than poetry or prose.
Harold Farnese had been interested in weird fiction since at least 1925 when he wrote his first published letter to Weird Tales. There are some other interesting tidbits from his career, though, and I wonder about a couple of them: Could Farnese actually have performed, sometime in 1932, his music based on Lovecraft's poems?
- On September 25, 1927, the Los Angeles Times published a classified advertisement under the heading "Church Notices--Liberal and Orthodox" that reads in part: "Ancient Spiritual Church [. . .] Mons. Harold Farnese M.A.B.B. of Dyon Un. France will speak on 'What Is Colour?' Piano & vocal solos." (p. 69) (1) That to me suggests that Farnese, like so many other figures in weird fiction, was interested in the occult and alternative spiritual and religious practices. Later correspondence suggests that he was interested at least in black magic.
- In January 1932, the Los Angeles Times mentioned a composition by Farnese as among those that were recently attracting attention in musical circles. The title of Farnese's composition, a piece for piano, was "Dance of the Moon Dwellers." (2, 3)
- In the latter part of July 1932, Farnese left on a trip with other instructors from the Institute of Musical Education. They traveled to Oakland, Portland, and Seattle to conduct normal classes in those cities and returned to Los Angeles in early September. If Farnese and Lovecraft carried on their correspondence from July 11, 1932, to early 1933 (see above), did Farnese then complete his settings for Lovecraft's poems prior to leaving on his trip? It would seem so.
- On the evening of November 21, 1932, violinist Jascha Gegna, recently arrived on the faculty at the institute, played a concert there. Farnese played piano. Included in the program were pieces by Senaillé and Corelli, as well as "two numbers by Harold Farnese" [emphasis added]. Could these have been his settings for "Mirage" and "The Elder Pharos"? (4)
- About a week later, Gegna and Farnese performed once again at the institute. Senaillé was once again on the program, as were "two numbers of oriental atmosphere by Harold Farnese" [emphasis added]. Again, were these Farnese's adaptations of Lovecraft? (5)
The chance for an operetta based on Lovecraft's poetry, in which Lovecraft would write the libretto and Farnese the music, came and went in 1932-1933. Then, four years later, it disappeared forever, for on March 15, 1937, Lovecraft died in Providence, the city of his birth.
To be continued . . .
(1) Coincidentally, "The Colour Out of Space"--same spelling--by H.P. Lovecraft was published in Amazing Stories, also in September 1927.
(2) "Southland Composers Versatile in Writings" by Helen Scott, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 3, 1932, p. 44.
(3) The film White Zombie was released on July 28, 1932. Guy Bevier Williams (1873-1955), musical director of the Institute of Musical Education, was the uncredited composer of the chant that plays over the main title sequence of the film. Presumably, Williams worked on that composition in late 1931 or early 1932, perhaps at the same time that Farnese was composing his two settings of Lovecraft's poems.
(4) [Item], Los Angeles Times, Nov. 20, 1932, p. 41.
(5) [Item], Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 1932, p. 48.
Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley