Notes and Narratives
Edited By Una Hunt and Mary Pierse
‘De la musique avant toute chose’: Poldowski’s Settings of Verlaine’s Poetry
In his seminal book of 1899 entitled The Symbolist Movement in Literature, author Arthur Symons writes of his friend: ‘With Verlaine the sense of hearing and the sense of sight are almost interchangeable. He paints with sound and his line and atmosphere become music’.1 Thus the ‘prince of poets’ belongs not only to the realms of literature but also to the French art song or mélodie as it is known. The poetry of Verlaine plays an important role in the history of French art song. The most celebrated settings by Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel represent only a small percentage of the vast corpus of songs, which were composed between the period of the poet’s lifetime and the present day. The image-laden works, particularly from Verlaine’s earlier collections, have continued to resonate with composers to this day, including popular-genre artists such as the singer/songwriter, Léo Ferré. To date, however, the composer Lady Irène Dean Paul (1879–1932), known professionally as Poldowski, is the most prolific creator of musical settings of Verlaine’s poetry. Her twenty-two settings are derived from a variety of his collections. The name Poldowski conceals what is a particularly rich and interesting Franco-Irish connection.
Born in Brussels in 1879, Irène Régine Wieniawska was youngest daughter of the celebrated violinist and composer, Henryk Wieniawski and his Irish wife, Isabella Hampton. She never knew her famous father due to his untimely death in 1880 yet, ironically, she was the...
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