Where do voyages take us?

SIGCD509_Voyages album cover.jpgI enjoyed reading Tim Ashley’s thoughtful review in Gramphone of Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton’s Voyages album of (mostly) French and (some) German song. Ashley talks about the ‘story’ the album tells of imaging life in far-off places, and how it is framed by Baudelaire’s ‘L’Invitation au voyage’ (Invitation to journey) and Goethe’s ‘Kennst du das Land?’ (Do you know the land?) – two extremely well-known poems which have each had multiple afterlives in various formats. Baudelaire’s poem has been the inspiration for Louis Vuitton adverts featuring David Bowie, Goethe’s was turned into a famous aria Connais-tu le pays? (Do you know the country?) by the French composer Ambroise Thomas in his 1866 opera Mignon which James Joyce later refers to in his story ‘The Dead’ (Dubliners, 1914). Mignon is a key, but elusive, figure who gets reused time and again by poets, novellists, and composers well beyond her first appearance in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhem Meister’s Apprenticeship) in 1795. Terence Cave has written a wonderful book on this called Mignon’s Afterlives: Crossing Cultures from Goethe to the Twenty-First Century (OUP, 2011). Cave shows just how prevalent the Mignon idea became in France, picked up by poets like Nerval and composers like Auber (via Balzac lyrics). In fact, a key link is the poet Théophile Gautier, whose work Baudelaire admired enormously (he dedicated Les Fleurs du mal to Gautier), and whose poems Berlioz famously set in Les Nuits d’été (1840–41). The final song of Berlioz’s set, L’Île joyeuse, is patently another kind of ‘Mignon song’, using Gautier’s poem ‘Barcarolle’ from his collection of poems called La Comédie de la Mort (1838). A breathless invitation to travel to far-off lands, it ends with the line ‘Au pays des amours’ (to the land of love). This is echoed in Baudelaire’s own ‘L’Invitation au voyage’, as I’ve written about more fully in an article in French Studies on Gautier and Berlioz called ‘Singing and Difference’ (2017). Gautier translated Goethe’s Wilhelm novels for a French audience in 1861. But much earlier, in 1833, he’d published a poem called ‘La Chanson de Mignon’ (Mignon’s Song) which places emphasis not just on the idea of travelling to another place, but also on going there to live and love, and ultimately die, together. Baudelaire echoes this clearly in his poem ‘L’Invitation au voyage’ with the words ‘aller là-bas vivre ensemble’ (to go there to live together) and ‘aimer et mourir’ (to love and to die). Gautier and Baudelaire adapt the Goethe song by adding the more sombre twist of also dying in that imagined (perfect) place the lovers travel to. If there had been space on the Voyages disc, we would have included the Berlioz songs too – we certainly talked about them a lot in the preparation and coaching sessions we had leading up to the recording!

In his review, Ashley makes one comment about the Baudelaire poem that I want to reconsider, offering an alternative perspective on the text from my position as a Baudelaire specialist, and a words and music researcher. Ashley states how Baudelaire’s version of the imaginative Mignon song presents a ‘decadent city to which Baudelaire transgressively wishes to take “my child, my sister”’. Quoting from the translation of the opening line of the poem, Ashley suggests that it is morally questionable that poet addresses the woman in potentially incestuous terms. It might be helpful to clarify that in nineteenth-century France, using the words ‘mon enfant, ma sœur’ was much like we might call a woman ‘babe’ today (albeit less pejorative). It is a term of endearment which carries none of the erotic or sensual weight that might be found elsewhere; it is loaded with innocence rather than transgression. It evokes a child-like incorruptibility. In this way, it is much closer to the vision of a non-tainted, ‘prelapsarian world’ that Ashley identifies in Mignon persona of the Goethe poem ‘Kennst du das Land?’. The idea, also, that Baudelaire’s poem indicates a specific location to travel to with his female lover (e.g. a ‘decadent city’) is also not straightforwardly evident from the poem. Like many of his poems (except for the overtly Parisian ones), Baudelaire leaves the destination unclear – he allows us to imagine where it might be and how it might look. Countless commentators have suggested the poem is about travelling to Venice, or to Amsterdam (the final stanza mentions canals); others have suggested it’s about the near east, or the islands off north-east Africa such as Île de la Réunion (previously Île Bourbon) where Baudelaire had travelled, reluctantly, in the 1840s (the second stanza mentions ‘oriental splendour’). But nothing is explicit or concrete in the poem itself. Like the quote used on the Voyages album cover, Baudelaire wants us to use our imagination to its fullest – because imagination is ‘the Queen of the Faculties’. So we can make the journey in our minds, through Duparc’s music, to wherever we want… It is, in fact, rather like the Goethe poem. The destination itself is never defined. We are simply asked to imagine it for ourselves.

There’s one other comment about the Baudelaire poem that often gets put about. In his famous setting, Duparc cuts out the second stanza of the Baudelaire poem (the one that mentions the ‘oriental splendour’ of the room the lovers will inhabit). Music critics have sometimes claimed that cutting that stanza out makes sense because it doesn’t really fit with the overall theme of the poem about an exotic voyage. It is a strange claim (as I’ve argued in a chapter called ‘How Composers Accept Baudelaire’s Invitation to Song’). The eminent German Lied scholar Susan Youens, for example, writes in a Journal of Musicology article that Duparc omits the second stanza because he focused on a ‘musical evocation’ of an ‘ocean voyage’ and that ‘the description of the richly decorated chamber the lovers will inhabit when they reach their destination’ is simply not a good ‘fit’. But the description of a richly decorated chamber is there in the second stanza of Goethe’s ‘Kennst du das Land’ poem, and that has been set to music on multiple occasions, whether in the famous Schubert setting, or in Duparc’s ‘Romance de Mignon’ (which is a loose French translation of Goethe’s text). On the Voyages album we do in fact also hear the full French text of the Baudeliare poem (with the ‘missing’ second stanza), but it is in Chabrier’s setting featuring an obbligato bassoon part performed by Amy Harman. (A rare chance to hear this song live will be on Fri 9 March in Sheffield at Music in the Round’s SongMakers collaboration Baudelaire and the Bassoon concert with another formidable song duo, Louise Alder and James Bailleu).

What we find out from all of this is how Baudelaire’s ‘L’Invitation au voyage’ poem has multiple previous incarnations (in Goethe, Schubert, Gautier, and Berlioz, to name but a few) as well as an array of afterlives (in Duparc, Chabrier, and plentiful other composers, songwriters, and even luxury-goods-advertisers). Like all the related poems and songs, we are invited to imagine far-off places, but we are not told exactly what they look like; we get the sense, somehow, that we will benefit from the experience. Mysterious Mignon lurks behind it all, turning up in various guises, more or less innocently. And we can get to hear all of this afresh through Mary Bevan’s sumptuous performances on the new Voyages album.


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