By Matt McNicholl, Student Researcher

Funded by the University of Sheffield SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) sheme 2016

SUREStudent researcher Matt McNicholl was awarded a competitive SURE scholarship in 2016 to work with the Baudelaire Song Project team on songs in translation. Here he presents some of the key findings of his research, which was co-supervised by Dr Caroline Ardrey and Prof. Helen Abbott. This research will also be presented at the SURE showcase held at The Octagon Centre, University of Sheffield on Thursday 16th February 2017, between 17:00 and 19:00.


In his study Translating Baudelaire (2000) Clive Scott makes a brief and tantalising reference to two settings of Baudelaire’s poem “Tristesses de la Lune”, both by the heavy metal band, Celtic Frost. The first of these takes the original French text for its lyrics, while the second uses words from Joanna Richardson’s English translation of the poem. The two songs both feature on the 1987 album, Into the Pandemonium and offer an intriguing insight into the mechanisms behind setting poetry to music, when translation is brought into play.

Celtic Frost have recently made a come-back; in 2009 their song “Inner Sanctum” was featured in “The Lost and the Damned”, the fourth instalment of the well-known Playstation game Grand Theft Auto. Into the Pandemonium was re-released on CD thanks to renewed interest in the band generated by the game. This meant that gamers and the new-wave of Celtic Frost fans were, perhaps inadvertently, exposed to Baudelaire in French and in English.

While they may not be the main selling point of the re-release of Into the Pandemonium, the settings of “Tristesses de la Lune” and its English rendering “Sorrows of the Moon” form a fundamental part of the thematic architecture of the album. The original Baudelaire setting is the only song in French on the album, and appears as track four, while the English-language version is track twelve. The fact that these two songs are separated by a number of other tracks, all hinting at themes which we find in Les Fleurs du Mal, poses some important questions about the way in which Celtic Frost have appropriated Baudelaire’s poetry, weaving his words into their own musical work.

Celtic Frost’s settings of Baudelaire play upon a dynamic of concealing and revealing. Baudelaire himself is almost entirely hidden from listeners’ consciousness: neither he nor translator Joanna Richardson are acknowledged in the sleeve notes of Into the Pandemonium. In the French version, only Mark Eric Ain, bassist and songwriter, is credited, while for the English version Ain worked in collaboration with the band’s principal songwriter Thomas Gabriel Warrior. “Tristesses de la Lune” is the only song on the album which Ain has written alone – all his other songwriting ventures appear to have been undertaken with Warrior. It is perhaps worth noting here that, within the context of Into the Pandemonium, collaborations in praesentia, are credited, while those collaborations in absentia (i.e. with Baudelaire and Richardson) go unacknowledged.

As well as being Ain’s only “solo” songwriting effort, as we’ve already noted “Tristesses de la Lune” also stands out amongst the other tracks on Into the Pandemonium as the only song performed in French. Although, broadly speaking, this is a heavy metal album, the musical styles Into the Pandemonium encompasses are extremely diverse; exploring the relationship between these two differing approaches to singing Baudelaire places the eclectic nature of the album in stark relief. Baudelaire’s poem is distanced from its Anglophone rendering by the various different musical and performative features which the band bring to their song settings. First and foremost, “Tristesses de la Lune” is performed by a female singer, Manü Moan, from the all-female Swiss new dark wave band The Vyllies, while “Sorrows of the Moon” is performed by a male voice, Celtic Frost’s lead singer Thomas Gabriel Warrior. The differing use of voice in these two song settings is important on a number of levels: crucially for our understanding of Baudelaire’s poetry, the different use of voice calls into question the identity of the speaker of the poem, inviting us to explore Baudelaire’s poem from different gender standpoints.

On first listening, “Tristesses de la Lune” and “Sorrows of the Moon” seem to have little in common both at the level of composition and of performance: the two songs are in different musical styles and different languages, sung by different singers of different genders. But Celtic Frost have hidden a little “Easter Egg” in their album, if not for their gaming audience, then certainly for those with an interest in the relationship between French poetry and music. The opening bars of “Tristesses de la Lune”, played by a string quartet, introduce a key motif, which is taken up five tracks later in “Sorrows of the Moon”, this time played in true heavy metal style, by an electric guitar and bass, with plenty of distortion. The use of distortion suggests a deliberate attempt to create contrast between the English language setting and the French original, offering a clue that there might be more similarities hidden in these radically differing settings of “Tristesses de la Lune”, if we know where to look…

The possibilities for reading Baudelaire in new ways are fruitfully explored in Celtic Frost’s settings, through transposition, translation and transformations in the lyric and singing voices. This opens up many avenues for exploration of word and music relations, including, most pertinently, the role of translation in analysing song settings of Baudelaire’s poetry. The Baudelaire Song Project has located Baudelaire settings in seventeen different languages so far, and Celtic Frost’s contrasting settings could prove to be a useful benchmark for testing our approach to poetry and song in translation.