By Dr Helen Abbott (Project Director)
When the idea for this project first germinated, one of the questions was ‘why choose Baudelaire?’ over any of the other major French poets (or English, or German, or Russian ones for that matter).
It’s easy to give a formal answer to the question.
Charles Baudelaire is one of the most significant literary names in France, fully part of the canon of French literature, who was highly implicated in interart relations (especially painting and music). He was part of a particularly vibrant artistic scene in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. Much has been written about Baudelaire’s interest in music, and the possible ‘musical properties’ of his verse. But much less has been written about what others have done with his poetry – composers, songwriters, performers – and his deeply influential poetry seemed ripe for this study.
But. There is also a much more personal response to the question that I’d like to share with you.
I fell in love with Baudelaire as a teenager. And when I first got to sing his poetry, I was bowled over by the effects it produced. I was fortunate enough to be offered a choral scholarship at university, alongside my studies in languages, and this meant I got weekly singing tuition from a highly-regarded singing teacher Suzanne Flowers. By chance, Suzanne – as well as being a founder member of the prestigious Monteverdi Choir, with whom she performed for 41 years – also had a great affinity with France, the French language, and French poetry. So I was able to learn a number of Debussy songs with her, benefitting from her expertise in singing in French. We worked on the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire set of Debussy songs, which are highly complex, musically rich, and technically challenging. Suzanne coached me through a number of performances of the set – during my time as an undergraduate and a postgraduate researching French poetry and the concept of ‘voice’. That is when I really began to uncover all the complexities of singing Baudelaire’s poetry, and I recognised – although I could hardly articulate this – that singing Baudelaire was different from singing Verlaine, or Leconte de Lisle, for example. Baudelaire’s poetry had a different quality, which for me, made greater intellectual demands of me as a performer. Sometimes that’s a bad thing – overthinking the text when you are trying to sing and perform can be a major barrier to communicating with your audience. But sometimes it’s a good thing, and it leads to where I am now: leading a major research project examining all types of Baudelaire songs, by all kinds of composers and songwriters.
I am looking forward to getting the opportunity to perform and record some of the rarer settings of Baudelaire’s poetry, and to listening to new compositions, and to working with budding songwriters. Baudelaire’s appeal may be a personal one for me: but he speaks directly to so many others too. Whether you like his poetry for its decadent, gothic side, or you enjoy the dandy figure that he promotes, or you like the soundworld of his verse, or his social engagement which privileges the underclass, or the way he captures the modern city in his texts, Baudelaire has something to say for everyone.
Responding to Baudelaire’s poetry is a personal thing, and it’s important to be reminded of that as we start to work with more and more diverse song settings of his poetry.
For project Quick Facts, take a look at our Baudelaire Song Project Fact Sheet