The Baudelaire Song Project

I’ve been a little quiet on here of late but that’s because I’ve been busy building my new major research project – The Baudelaire Song Project – for which I (together an international team of researchers, grant proposal outcome permitting!) am setting out to collate and analyse “all the song settings ever” of C19th French poet Charles Baudelaire. It’s a daunting task, but extremely exciting. As I’ve been building up the project and developing my plans into something increasingly concrete, I’ve found a particular way of working to be very beneficial: working with non-academics… I’ve talked about this before but it is becoming increasingly central to my modus operandi as an academic researcher specialising in song settings of the major French poets of the nineteenth century. Three events this year have really helped shape my thinking, and redefine some of the parameters of The Baudelaire Song Project.

1. Masterclass and workshop with British soprano Sophie Bevan
2. Festival of the Mind talk at Castle House, Sheffield as part of Languages Live!
3. Invited lecture at Westminster School

The first of these saw me working once again with a wonderful professional singer- we focused on Berlioz/Gautier Les Nuits d’été. Sophie is a consummate professional, who works tirelessly to ensure vocal readiness, including impeccable French language diction coupled with a deep interrogation of the underlying poetic text. So often when working with Sophie we’ve found a surprising way of “unlocking” a familiar text or song, and on this occasion it was no different. It’s just that this time round it wasn’t just me, Sophie & her accompanist (Richard Longman did a wonderful job on the keys this time round) but we also worked with 5 young singers tackling singing in French (some for the first time). It was an opportunity to see the full range of the demands a French song setting makes of the performers. Something that it’s too easy to forget when you are immersed in it professionally. With Sophie focusing on vocal performance and skills, and me focusing on French language, diction & meaning, it was profoundly rewarding to watch whole interpretations change and develop quite radically in just a short space of time. Feedback from the singers and some of the members of the public attending the event reminded me that something which might seem low-key or “amateur” can have transformative effects- not just on the participants but also on me as a researcher. Young singers are too often put off or daunted by singing in French in part because of the perceived difficulty, in part because they simply don’t get the opportunity to hear it, to try it out, and to be coached and guided in it (there is only so much a singing teacher alone can do). So it’s becoming an increasingly integral part of my “mission” to incorporate regular work with singers and audiences from a whole range of backgrounds and experiences- and of course it helps when someone as brilliant as Sophie is just as committed to this collaborative way of working. Lots more similar events and activities are in the planning phase now, working with a number of established singers and organisations both here in the UK and in France, so watch this space!

The second was, on the face of it, a modest 30-minute slot as part of the University of Sheffield’s big collaborative research and engagement series of events known as Festival of the Mind, held in conjunction with the city council, and using major city-centre venues where possible. For me, this meant a first: giving a public talk in a disused department store right by a major tram interchange. Surrounded by signs telling me the cash desk was this way (it wasn’t there anymore..), and long-defunct CCTV security domes, I found it quite cathartic to share my passion for Baudelaire’s poetry in such a context. Baudelaire is known as the poet of modernity, and here we were in a venue which spoke of modernism’s dreams – and how they can falter. Baudelaire knew all about new spaces for commerce and cities changing shape through demolition and rebuilding (read his poem ‘Le Cygne’ to see how he felt about Paris’s regeneration projects in the 1850s). Against this backdrop I sang and talked about some of the different song settings of that most famous poem ‘L’Invitation au voyage’ – from the naive oom-cha version of the 1860s to the luscious Duparc 1870 setting right through to some of the 1950s and 1970s reimaginings of the poem. It felt like I was able to tell the story of how the poem has been reworked through the ages precisely because I was in a space which itself had gone through multiple reworkings and is awaiting its next transformation. It cannot help but remind us that one of the things that happens in setting a poem to music is that the text sets out on a journey to an unknown destination. Just as Baudelaire wrote of dreaming about going “là-bas”, to an unspecified imagined location, so too does Baudelaire’s poetry itself set out on journeys into the unknown. For how was Baudelaire to know that “L’Invitation” would be picked up, albeit subtly, by Louis Vuitton for their latest ad campaign? For a poem that some claim talks of Amsterdam, and others of the Far East, the Louis Vuitton advertising team take us to the Louvre and then onto Venice. The point is that poetry enables these multiple destinations to coexist within the same text- so that, as I’m increasingly learning, it is no surprise that Baudelaire’s poetry has found itself adapted into such diverse musical contexts and genres.

Finally, the third event saw me speaking to a group of schoolchildren aged 15-18, in a setting renowned for its privilege (Westminster School’s long history is well-known), but the specific room I was lecturing in was formerly British parliamentary offices. This time the poem I had chosen to focus on was ‘La Vie antérieure’. How apposite, once again, that I found myself talking about modern engagement with the idea of ‘past lives’ in an environment that was once the heart of government policy-making and is now filled with young people setting out on their futures and thinking about their possible career paths. The students at Westminster showed deep understanding of what Baudelaire’s poetry sets out to do, and offered probing questions particularly about the inter-art relations inherent in his work. It reminded me that the supposed narrowness of my research (I was bemoaning to a colleague just the other day that I don’t just want to be known as the boring Baudelaire & music person…) is in fact merely a narrow lens through which to access a whole array of ideas, materials, and media.

As The Baudelaire Song Project starts to formally take shape in the coming months, I am looking forward to revisiting and questioning afresh materials and texts for which I had inadvertently assumed a given meaning. Despite being highly trained in handling the complexities of poetic texts in French, these experiences have been a salient reminder that unless I keep up the quest for the new and the different, and keep attentive to the unexpected, I will risk missing some of the most striking developments in the relationships between Baudelaire’s poetry and music. And although I have a very clear plan as to how I am going to access all the song settings of Baudelaire’s verse and prose poetry, I shall keep my eyes and ears peeled along the way, especially when I’m taking part in events that do not, on the face of it, claim to be primarily academic or research focused. Modern-day academia may talk now of co-production as an engaged way of working, but it’s clear to me that everything I’ve been doing throughout my career to date, whether working with professional musicians (often labelled “practice-led research”), or giving public talks (with their potential for “impact”), or going into schools to share my passion for languages and poetry (is this “outreach”?) is just a natural part of being an academic. For me it is not about the labels or ticking the right boxes to satisfy requirements imposed by the academy, but it is all about constantly being alert to new research findings in contexts I cannot expect or plan for.

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One response to “The Baudelaire Song Project

  1. Nicholas Armour

    I do hope you are in touch with Chris Underwood, who has done a lot around
    the musical setting of French poetry, including master classes in which I have been involved. He has been absolutely adamant on the need to understand the poet and, ideally, to have listened to recordings of a poet (and his contemporaries) reading the poems. Nicholas

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