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Parisian Intersections

Baudelaire’s Legacy to Composers


Helen Abbott

The period from the 1850s to the 1890s in Paris marked a key turning point for poets and composers, as they grappled with the new ways in which poetry and music could intersect. Under the particular conditions of the time and place, both art forms underwent significant developments which challenged the status of each form. In both creative and critical work from this era, poets and composers offered tantalising but problematic insights into ‘musical’ poetry and ‘poetic’ music.
The central issue examined in this book is that of what happens to poetry when it encounters music, especially as song. The author places Baudelaire’s famous sonnet ‘La Mort des amants’ at the heart of the analysis, tracing its transposition into song by a succession of both amateur and professional composers, examining works by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Serpette, Rollinat, Debussy and Charpentier, as well as an extraordinary parodic song version by Valade and Verlaine.
A companion website offers recordings of each of the songs analysed in this book.


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Chapter 1 Parisian Intersections


What happens to poetry when it encounters music? This is the central question of this book, and one which has preoccupied poets, musicians, critics and philosophers throughout the ages. As poet and critic Yves Bon- nefoy has identified, the mid-to-late nineteenth century in France is ‘un des moments les plus remarquables de l’alliance de la poésie et de la musique […] où plus que jamais musiciens et poètes s’intéressent les uns aux autres’.1 This is the time of Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) and Richard Wagner (1813–1883), two seminal figures whose developments in the domains of poetry and music continue to have profound resonances today. Critical studies of the relationship between Baudelaire and Wagner to date have focused on concepts such as ‘writing on music’ (Margaret Miner), ‘writing about music’ (Mary Breatnach), ‘the idea of music’ ( Joseph Acquisto), or ‘music writing literature’ (Peter Dayan), for example.2 However, these stud- 1 Yves Bonnefoy, L’Alliance de la poésie et de la musique (Paris: Editions Galilée, 2007), pp. 58–59. 2 Critical studies on the relationships beteween Baudelaire and Wagner have f lour- ished in the last twenty years in particular, from Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s Musica ficta (Figures de Wagner) (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1991), and Margaret Miner’s Resonant Gaps between Baudelaire and Wagner (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995), through to Mary Breatnach’s ‘Writing About Music: Baudelaire and Tannhäuser in Paris’, in Walter Bernhart and Werner Wolf (eds), Word and Music Studies: Essays on the Song Cycle and...

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