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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 4 Song


Aesthetic and theoretical formulations of the relationships between poetry and music derived from the writings of Parisian poets in the early 1860s point towards the idea that a sonnet as profound in compass as ‘La Mort des amants’ should result in in-depth, high calibre song settings, a kind of ‘vértiable musique’, and not just any old music. Yet the practice is rather dif ferent. In the mid-nineteenth century in France, song was undergoing significant changes sparked, in part, by the developments in poetic writing, much of which was instigated by Baudelaire. The very terms used to describe song in the mid-nineteenth century in France undergo key changes over the course of just a few decades. For example, the term chanson – at once a catch- all term for song as a whole, and a word that designates a particular type of popular song – changes in meaning over the course of the century. The way in which this happens is significant in terms of understanding what type of song is able to emerge from poetry in the Paris of the 1840s–1890s. The typology of nineteenth-century French song typically focuses on the shift from the romance (a simple, sentimental song form) towards the more developed mélodie (which embraces a more complex structure and emotional content). However, the word chanson, also designating a light song form, persists throughout the century, whereas the romance falls out of usage as mélodie gains currency around the middle of the century. The shift from...

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