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Parisian Intersections

Baudelaire’s Legacy to Composers

Series:

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 2 Liebestod

Extract

The alliance of love and death through song has a long and enduring cultural history, from the ancient myth of the swan song, to the oft-repeated line ‘Love is as strong as death’ from the Song of Songs 8.6, and the Liebestod of Tristan and Isolde and beyond. For poets in nineteenth-century Paris, this aesthetics of death has a particular resonance. One of the most significant explorations of the role of death in relation to song in this era is Théophile Gautier’s 1838 Comédie de la mort, which inspired future generations of poets and composers, including Baudelaire.1 An extended collection of poems, it of fers a vision of death which opens up f leeting, restorative, glimpses at a better life beyond the present one. In particular, the poems explore the possibility of an alliance between verse and song in order to achieve an enduring afterlife, but the yearned-for afterlife to be attained through death remains elusive. In the opening ‘Portail’ of La Comédie de la mort, Gautier signals how his verse resembles song through a layering of analogies associated with death: Mes vers sont les tombeaux tout brodés de sculptures, Ils cachent un cadavre, et sous leurs fioritures, Ils pleurent bien souvent en paraissant chanter. (vv. 79–81)2 1 An early version of Baudelaire’s dedication to Gautier for the first edition of Les Fleurs du Mal signals that Baudelaire had read La Comédie de la mort. See John E. Jackson, La Mort Baudelaire: Essai...

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