When I get asked the question “why did such and such a composer choose to set Baudelaire to music?” two things spring to mind in response:
1. The question implies a secondary, comparative one “and why not another poet?”. Dealing with this would draw me down the path of making difficult-to-substantiate value judgements about how “good” or “bad”, or how “musical” or “unmusical” a particular poet’s work might be. And that makes me nervous, because it is very subjective…
2. The question also implies that there is always a rational (conscious) choice behind a composer’s decision to use a particular poet or poem. The reality turns out often to be rather different. If you are lucky, you might be able to find some explanation for a particular choice of poem buried deep in the composer’s private correspondence, say. Or even better, a composer may even state their reasons in the liner notes of a record they put out. But most of the time, no textual evidence remains. This can lead others to conjecture and speculate, often attempting to draw on biographical material of a failed love affair, or some other attractive gossipy tale. But I am glad when there is nothing. Because a logical (biographical) explanation for choosing a particular poem or poet is usually a red herring that also makes me nervous…
So I turn the “why” question into a “how” question: How has a composer dealt with a Baudelaire poem? How has s/he responded to the text? How has s/he reworked it? These questions generate far more compelling responses- with tangible evidence that we can rely on.
But today I was reading the liner notes of Ruth White’s extraordinary Flowers of Evil album from 1969 in which she offers a particularly appealing explanation for her choice of Baudelaire’s poetry. She talks of the ‘electrifying force’ of his poetry and of how she tries to parallel that in her electronic music. It’s tempting, then to change my cagey way of dealing with the “why” question and instead answer it with a much simpler response. Why set Baudelaire? Because, quite simply… it’s electrifying.
6 January 2014: As an addendum, I love the answers to the “Why Baudelaire?” question on the Baudelaire in a Boxu project website. Particularly “because he would be so irritated”…!