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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 3 Musical Theories

Extract

The first few months of 1861 marked two important developments in Baudelaire’s career. February 1861 saw the publication of the revised second edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, and in March and April 1861 he wrote and pub- lished his first and only piece of music criticism, the now famous essay on Wagner. It was around this time that Villiers wrote his letter to Baudelaire in which he compliments him both on the Wagner article, and on a number of poems from Les Fleurs du Mal that he particularly admires.1 In this letter, ‘La Mort des amants’ is singled out for special comment, as Villiers enthuses to Baudelaire that the poem is a ‘tour de force […], où vous appliquez vos théories musicales’ (VIA. Corr.I, p. 46). This suggests that the important role af forded to music in the context of Baudelaire’s ‘La Mort des amants’ is not just an aesthetic one, but also a theoretical one. However, given that Baudelaire himself was no expert in music, let alone in music theory, it is not at all clear what these ‘théories musicales’ might be. A year earlier, in a letter to Wagner dated 17 February 1860, Baudelaire describes how he felt when he first heard Wagner’s music, and he admits that his musical knowledge is scant: il me semblait que cette musique était la mienne, et je la reconnaissais comme tout homme reconnaît les choses qu’il est destiné à aimer. Pour tout autre que pour un homme d’esprit, cette...

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