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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 6 Legacy


Baudelaire could not have foretold the extent of the legacy he would leave through his poetry. Even in ‘Je te donne ces vers…’ (B. OC.I, pp. 40–41), which deploys the Renaissance conceit of promising an afterlife to a mistress through the poet’s own verse, Baudelaire does not make that promise with complete confidence. Instead, his poetry provides ‘meditations on what an afterlife might be’, to use Rosemary Lloyd’s analysis. Lloyd suggests that ‘his poems on death […] are not about loss and mourning so much as attempts to imagine an afterlife’.1 In imagining possible afterlives, Baudelaire also envisages new environments for his poetry, but he is unable to foretell quite what might happen to his poetry as it enters dif ferent domains. The numerous reworkings of his poetry – of which a set of particularly sali- ent examples have been brought together here – point towards the fact that poetry, once published or made available in the public domain, rarely remains as ‘just’ poetry.2 When it moves into music, the poet no longer controls the shape of his verse. Not all poems generate the same quantity of diverse reworkings or adaptations as ‘La Mort des amants’ has, however. Only a core number of poems from Baudelaire’s œuvre has repeatedly been set to music or adapted. This indicates that certain types of (Baudelaire’s) poetry are more attuned to the potential to become music than others and ‘La Mort des amants’ is a clear case in point. Even whilst gesturing towards music, however,...

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