Skip to content
BSO, Pops, Tanglewood, and Symphony Hall Logos

The Dong with a Luminous Nose

Langer's characterful setting of Victorian poet-artist Edward Lear’s The Dong with a Luminous Nose benefits from her considerable experience as an opera composer.

Elena Langer was born December 8, 1974, in Moscow, Russia, and lives in London. The commission that was to become The Dong with a Luminous Nose came from Elena Dubinets, artistic director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in 2021; it was co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director, through the generous support of the Arthur P. Contas Commissioning Fund. Langer conceived the solo cello part for her friend Kristina Blaumane, principal cellist of the LPO. Blaumane was soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir in the world premiere under Andrey Boreyko’s direction at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on March 18, 2023. The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of the piece, also its first American performances, are those of March 14-16, 2024. The BSO’s co-commission has been designated a “Koussevitzky 150” commission, celebrating the conductor’s 150th birth year, the centennial of his first year conducting the BSO, and the 75th anniversary of his last year as music director.

The score of The Dong With A Luminous Nose calls for mixed chorus and solo cello with an orchestra of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, piccolo trumpet, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 or 4 players: triangle, mark-tree, whip, ratchet, whistle, temple-blocks, wood blocks, rainstick; suspended cymbal, 2 gongs, tam-tam; glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, tubular bells, flexatone), harp, celesta, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 23 minutes long.

A delight in words, wit, and surprising narrative is a throughline for the London-based Elena Langer, whose fluency in and appreciation of her adoptive language has led her to work with outstanding poets and dramatists for a series of major works in English, including high-profile collaborations with Welsh National Opera and its artistic director David Pountney. She also worked on several projects with the important British poet Glyn Maxwell. She set her own Russian-language libretto based on folk texts for Songs at the Well, which was premiered at Carnegie Hall and from which she later created an opera, and composed songs on texts of the absurdist Russian writer Daniil Kharms. Her most recently completed opera is the The Suicide, based on the 1928 comic satire by Nikolai Erdman.

Born in Moscow, Elena Langer studied piano and musicology at Gnessin Music College before attending the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where she studied composition with Yuri Vorontsov. She moved to England in 1999, studying at the Royal College of Music with Julian Anderson. At the Royal Academy of Music, she worked with Simon Bainbridge, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Jonathan Harvey.

While still at the RAM in 2002, Langer was appointed Jerwood Composer in Association with the Almeida Theatre and wrote the first two of several works with Glyn Maxwell, Ariadne and The Girl of Sand, which were both premiered at the Almeida Theatre. Their chamber opera The Lion’s Face was premiered by the Opera Group, London, in 2010; their most recent work together, It’s Not You, It’s Me, for soprano, baritone, and piano, was premiered in 2019.

Langer participated in Carnegie Hall’s Professional Training Workshop Program, guided by soprano Dawn Upshaw and composer Osvaldo Golijov in bringing Songs at the Well to Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in May 2009. That summer she was a Composition Fellow of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Music Center, where Ariadne was performed and where Upshaw was also a faculty member. These American connections led first to a commission from Bard College at Upshaw’s behest for the comic opera Four Sisters in 2012 and from the Boston Symphony Orchestra for her instrumental chamber work Five Reflections on Water, premiered by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players in March 2019.

Langer has also fulfilled commissions from the Zurich Opera, Warsaw Autumn Festival, and Russia’s Homecoming Chamber Music, Music Spring, and Moscow Autumn festivals, among others, and from within England. Her Welsh National Opera projects included the poignantly comic Figaro Gets a Divorce, based on Ödön von Horváth’s play and staged by the WNO in 2016, and Rhondda Rips It Up!, a vaudeville/cabaret-influenced comedy about the suffragette movement on a libretto by Emma Jenkins. She worked further with former WNO artistic director David Pountney for Beauty and Sadness, based on Yasunari Kawabata’s eponymous final novel, which was premiered in Hong Kong in spring 2019.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra previously played Langer’s orchestral Figaro Gets a Divorce Suite, which she created on commission for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra at the request of its then-artistic director Elena Dubinets. After subsequently becoming artistic administrator of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Dubinets approached Langer about writing a new work for the orchestra and its choir, and the BSO was brought on as a co-commissioner.

After accepting the commission, as Langer related in an interview for the London Philharmonic Choir, she hit upon the idea of setting Edward Lear’s poem The Dong with a Luminous Nose while sitting on a bench in Hampstead Heath. She’d known the poem for many years and felt its combination of sonorous and clever wordplay and humor, characterization, and unexpected notes of melancholy lent itself to the dramatic setting she envisioned. The inclusion of solo cello adds dimensionality and intimacy to the work. In the composer’s view, “The virtuoso cello solo also plays various roles. In a way it might be the soul of the Dong. The Jumbly Girl has no voice in the poem, but perhaps the cello represents both her and the Dong. Sometimes the cello competes with the orchestra or has a dialogue with the chorus.” The solo cellist for the LPO premiere was the composer’s good friend Kristina Blaumane, the orchestra’s principal cello; the BSO’s principal cellist Blaise Déjardin is soloist in the BSO's March 14-16, 2024, performances.

Originally published in 1877, Edward Lear’s well-known “The Dong with a Luminous Nose” shifts the perspective of his early poem “The Jumblies,” which introduced the adventurous and fun-loving people whose “heads are green, and their hands are blue / And they went to sea in a Sieve.” Like the readers of that poem, the Dong—we don’t know what color his hands or head may be, and his wondrous illumined nose is a prosthetic—is charmed and bewitched by the Jumblies, especially one particular Jumbly Girl, and their departure for lands “far and few” is the root of the poem’s, and Langer’s setting’s, poignancy, represented most pointedly by the cello solo.

The piece opens with the solo cello in an extended cadenza Prologue. The low choral voices evoke “the vast and gloomy dark” as we encounter the Dong seeking his lost love. An expansion and upward trajectory leads through the third verse as the searcher is identified, sopranos and also joining the lower voices: “The Dong!” (The name is frequently called upon in latter in the setting for its onomatopoeic suggestion of bells.)

A short transition for solo cello takes us back to idyllic days when the Dong was happy. The lilting nostalgia of the chorus is brightened by strange orchestral touches, highlighted by the flexatone, vibraphone, and quick figures in flutes and clarinets. Nostalgia gives way once more to darker textures as the Dong realizes he has lost his Jumbly Girl. His decision to go find her calls forth the most unsettled and strange, the most searching, music of the piece.

The lilting music returns for the description of the Dong’s optimistic creation of his nose-lantern, but the dark creeps back as the Dong resumes his search, underscored and intensified by a second long solo cello cadenza. In the surging, majestic music of the last verse, it’s clear that the Dong’s efforts, fruitless though they may be, are to be admired and honored. The piece ends brightly with the chorus pealing the Dong’s name into the ether.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony’s Director of Program Publications.