Tag Archives: Baudelaire

When a book nears its release date…

My third academic book is nearly ready for release. OUP has produced a webpage for the book, and Amazon and Foyles already have it online for pre-orders. It is so exciting. It gives a real sense of achievement. But there’s a nervousness there still because:

  1. There are still a couple of proof and index stages to complete before the book will be printed
  2. We are still awaiting permissions for my preferred front cover image before it can be designed
  3. Only three other people have ever read the whole thing so far

Baudelaire in Song’s online presence nonetheless marks a key milestone. And it is worth a mini-celebration. The book had a lengthy genesis, as many do. It has always been the book I wanted to write. The first words were written in 2014. I submitted the full typescript in September 2016. It is 94,000 words long. The meaty analysis sections were enhanced because I got an AHRC grant which started in 2015 and meant that I had a team of researchers around me to discuss ideas and findings with. The book has data tables, full (raw data) versions of which will soon be up online at baudelairesong.org. Other researchers are encouraged to analyse and critique that data, and to review my findings in the book. It may be that not everyone agrees with me. But whatever other people think, I will have advanced our thinking about what really goes on when poetry is set to music.

Before it appears in print, though, I want to reflect a bit on the writing process. I have colleagues and friends who are currently in the early stages of writing, and I sympathise. It is hard work. If there’s one thing I learnt writing this book, it was remembering to regularly celebrate the small successes along the way. The day I got through a really tricky patch of the argument. The day I finished a full chapter draft (even though I knew it would still need a heavy dose of self-editing). The day I put the whole typescript together in one document and printed it out for editing. (Editing the full typescript was the most painful thing I’ve ever done – some of it was a lot worse than I thought it would be! It took me about 5 weeks longer than planned).

There are a couple of things that affected writing this book in particular. When I wrote the first 3 chapters we were in the middle of a massive building project at home. That wasn’t easy (I was able to borrow a friend’s flat round the corner to do some of the writing, thankfully!). As I was finishing off the analysis chapters, we moved house, city, and jobs. That was hugely disruptive to maintaining the mental flow. And I had some challenging health issues in the middle of it all.

But I got it done. And I’m proud of it, perhaps all the more so because it wasn’t smooth sailing! I found it helpful to blog about key bits of the process during my study leave in 2015, sharing top tips and reflecting on disappointments/challenges that cropped up. The interaction I got from others in the academic community and beyond was really helpful for my motivation.

I’m almost ready to crack on with the next book. In fact, I’ve got two planned. I’ve planned out the chapter structure for one (this one will be co-authored – my first co-written book). And I have written one sentence of the other. That’s my next ‘big idea’. The idea isn’t fully formed yet, but it’s taking shape – and I’m enjoying some lively and open-ended discussions with colleagues from around the world about those ideas. I plan to blog about the process again next year when I have a period of research leave.

But before then, I am gearing up for the autumn and a whole series of events around the launch of Baudelaire in Song, all open to the public. So get these dates in your diaries and book tickets as soon as you can… My book release happens to coincide with the release of a fantastic new album of Baudelaire songs on the Signum label sung by Mary Bevan with Joseph Middleton at the piano. The book and the disc are fitting ways to commemorate 150 years since Baudelaire’s death on 31 August 1867. Join me in conversations about why Baudelaire still attracts so much interest still today…

19 October 2017 11:30 – 15:30
Baudelaire from the Depths of Beauty
Oxford Lieder Festival

17 November 2017  13:00 – 14:00
Songs from Baudelaire
Inaugural lecture-recital: Prof. Helen Abbott + Mary Bevan and Joe Middleton
Barber Concerts, University of Birmingham [full autumn programme to be announced soon]

22 November 2017 19:00 – 21:00
Baudelaire: Botanist of the Sidewalk
Commemorating 150 years since Baudelaire’s death
Poet in the City + Rimbaud and Verlaine foundation, King’s Place (Hall One)

And finally… for those of you who want a little preview, and who speak French, you might want to get your hands on a copy of Le Point special issue on Baudelaire released this month.

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Setting up The Baudelaire Song Project

IMG_7939LowResWhen I was awarded £594,000 from the AHRC for The Baudelaire Song Project to research all the song settings of Baudelaire’s poetry, I was naturally over the moon. But I was also very aware of how much there is to do to get the project fully off the ground and running exactly as I want it to. With the project kicking off this month, the focus for now is mostly the logistical planning side. I’ll be heading up a small team of 4-6 researchers, working with Co-Investigator Dr Mylène Dubiau from Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès and HRI Digital, plus a yet-to-be-recruited post-doctoral Research Associate, and it’s important all the right elements of the project are in place.

That also means getting the project website up and running, with logo and images that capture why we’re researching Baudelaire songs right now, and how important the project’s findings promise to be. So this blog post is mostly about acknowledging the behind-the-scenes work of a group of brilliant designers, photographers, web designers and site builders, branding experts, and advisors on programming, performance, video and audio capture, and more besides who have been integral to getting this project off on the right foot. Special mention here is needed for Stewart Campbell who advised on branding and contacts, Gareth Widdowson who’s worked on our logo for usBaudelaire Logo GREY-ORANGE-small, and photography by Craig Fleming. These contributions are the ‘unseen’ parts of a big research project, but investing in them from the get-go means that we’ll be able to connect properly with people around the globe who have things to tell us about Baudelaire and song.

If you’re a composer, a songwriter, a translator, a curator/festival director, or simply a Baudelaire fan, we want to hear from you. Tweet us on @BaudelaireProj, and as soon as the website is live, we’ll share as much as we can with you all.

It’s electrifying…!

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”…!

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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Languages, art song, and the supposed “elitist barrier”: “You might not like this much, but it will be good for you”…

A few weeks ago, I was reading a Yorkshire Life article about Leeds Lieder founder and former Opera North soprano Jane Anthony. It was a preview of the 2013 Leeds Lieder festival, whose artistic director this year was Graham Johnson (whose work I use a lot for my research). Something struck me in the article, however. The journalist talks about the perceived “elitist barrier” of listening to (art) song in a foreign language. Jane Anthony rightly says that it is “all wrong” to think that singing in a foreign language has an “elitist tag”, and this struck a chord with me. I’ve been starting to think more and more about this outmoded view of languages and art song being supposedly difficult and off-putting, and about what is being done to change perceptions.

In my 2012 book Parisian Intersections, I talk about the supposed “difficulty” of art song. In my conclusion, I write:

“Perceptions of art song on today’s recital stage frequently consider it to be a specialist, niche genre only accessible by an elite audience of cognoscenti. Music critic Adam Sweeting, for example, has recently written that art song is ‘a term that often seems to mean “you might not like this much, but it will be good for you”’.[1] Tellingly, Sweeting makes this comment in an interview with mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter following the release of a CD recording which sees her performing both classical art song and more contemporary popular song. Breaking down the perceived boundary between art song and popular song opens up new ways of understanding the function of song and how poetry and music interact across genre boundaries, but it requires careful negotiation of those boundaries.”

Anne-Sofie von Otter’s drive to include contemporary popular song in her repertoire is revealing of a classical music industry which is trying to engage new audiences. For me, as my research takes me increasingly across the boundaries of “classical” vs. “popular” song, I’m finding new ways of interacting with both (new) performers and (new) audiences about singing and listening to challenging music in a foreign language, often using more “accessible” versions of the same poetic text set to a more popular melody. We can find numerous examples of recordings which use the same text in a recital programme, but as a framing device. I’m thinking, for example, of John Mark Ainsley’s L’Invitation au voyage recording with Graham Johnson on the Hyperion label. It uses four different versions of the same Baudelaire poem (‘L’Invitation au voyage’) as tracks 1, 11, 17 and 24 of a 24-track CD of French mélodie from the Belle époque. Only one of the settings is famous – the last track with Henri Duparc’s gloriously lush version of the poem. The others – by Jules Cressonnois (the only song setting of Baudelaire that we know for certain to have been written and published during Baudelaire’s lifetime), by Benjamin Godard, and by the Hillemacher brothers. I’ve published a chapter about these different L’Invitation au voyage settings in a book called Words & Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century (published by Boydell & Brewer in 2013, edited by Phyllis Weliver and Katharine Ellis). In it, I examine how the more lighthearted, earlier song settings interact both with Baudelaire’s poem and with the later versions, including Duparc’s more highbrow “art song” setting. But I also use this poem as a key example in my undergraduate teaching at the University of Sheffield, where I ask students to go and listen to contemporary pop song versions of the poem, moving back through the 1960s and 70s chansonnier versions, through then to the nineteenth-century settings. It allows students who have had little or no contact with classical music to find a way through to it, often via versions that they thought they would like more but end up finding less satisfying once they’ve encountered the Duparc setting. Having access to many different versions of an important Baudelaire poem set to music in so many different ways is quite a rare scenario, however, and it certainly isn’t the only way to open up art song to new audiences (whether undergraduate students or otherwise).

Placing different versions alongside each other of the same poem set to music isn’t the only way of breaking down the “elitist barrier”, however, and in fact, programming experience tells me that audiences often find it boring to sit and listen to different versions of the same text, especially if they are simply paired alongside each other (I’m indebted to Sholto Kynoch for his invaluable programming advice over the years!). Another way to tackle the “elitist tag” is to develop training for professional singers, so that their own mode of access to poetry in a foreign language is enhanced through a whole range of skills which will enable them to engage more openly with their audiences. I’ve been working closely with the creative team at Pro North Voices on a new project which draws together early-career professional singers based in the north to focus on challenging repertoire in a foreign language. The first programme centers around the French language, and includes settings of Eluard poems by Poulenc, for example. The whole process that we are going through – collectively – is to work from day one on the text and the music together as part of the creative development of the programme, so that we’re not just focusing on the poet’s voice, nor on just the composer’s voice, nor indeed on just the singer’s voice, but on all three of these elements together, examining what needs to take priority, how we can overcome technical challenges, and how we can arrive at an interpretative consensus as a vocal ensemble. This offers a much deeper level of engagement with the foreign language than is often possible within the time constraints and pressures of a singer’s career. It’s not just a question of producing the right sounds (diction) – though of course the notion of “right” in the context of different accents is quite another issue – but also a question of producing something that sounds French, both in terms of its technical elements and its emotive and interpretative facets. With our first performance coming up on 16 February 2014 at Firth Hall, University of Sheffield, we’re getting stuck into the work already (I’m preparing audio recordings of the French texts for singers to use as a guide as they prepare the music, text, and their voices in advance of the rehearsal period). Integral to the whole process is also how we engage with the audience, and so we’re also working alongside specialists in stagecraft – those who have had long, successful careers on the international opera house circuit, for example – to offer our singers and our audiences a fresh way of interacting with music in a language that is supposedly so foreign that it tips over into being only accessible to the happy few. Instead, we’re looking forward to embracing a different way of working together, with all of us coming from quite different backgrounds, to produce something that is refreshingly open to all.

A final word should be reserved for translation. In the Yorkshire Life article, it states how at Leeds Lieder “translations are provided so the audience know what’s being sung and to further break down the elitist barrier.” But my experiences of performing art song, and of being an audience member for art song concerts, in fact makes me think that translations can be more, not less, of a barrier. This is because as an audience member there is so much text to absorb if you don’t speak the language that is being sung that you risk spending most of the recital with your head buried in the programme booklet which, in turn, is disheartening for a performer who sees barely one face looking up at him/her. Reading the programme with texts and translations, you try on the one hand to observe roughly where the singer is by listening to the sounds you’re hearing, and then you try to cross-check that with the translation on the page. So often translations used in programme booklets are not the best translations – either because they are too literal, word-for-word (typically something more useful for a singer in the preparation phase of a song), or because they are too poetic, transposed into an English poetic form, and so quite far in mood and tone from the original language poem. Some professional translators do an amazing job at striking the right balance (Richard Stokes’ translations are regularly used, for example, by the Oxford Lieder Festival). But what is interesting is that the translator is rarely acknowledged (this is, indeed, an issue frequently addressed in the field of translation studies[2]), often perhaps because programmers have simply found a translation on the internet (the REC Music Foundation website is an invaluable user-contributor wiki-style resource we all use). The time has come to start looking at different ways of allowing audiences access to a “translation” of the foreign text that is being sung. One way in which I do this with my French song recitals is to have people read out the poem in French before I sing them. I’ve seen this on the recital stage with the singer doing this themselves before performing the song (for example, by the French soprano Magali Arnault Stanczak sometimes does this), or I’ve instigated it myself (for example, by getting my final year students of French at the University of Sheffield to read the poem out loud before I perform it). What this does is enable the audience to have a first listen to the poem, and read the translation before hearing the song setting. But it can break the ‘magic’ of the concert atmosphere, especially if the spoken text interrupts a song cycle, for example. Another way is to use “plot summaries” rather than full translations, or project surtitles. I’m researching using these techniques in performances planned for 2014, garnering examples from other ensembles and recitals that I’ve encountered to date. And crucially, rather than looking for a ready-made translation, I am working with my students for performances in Feburary 2014 to produce a range of possible translations of texts by Gautier (for Berlioz’s Nuits d’été) and Baudelaire (for Vierne’s Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire) which can be made available online in advance of a recital planned for 24 Feburary 2014 (again at Firth Hall, University of Sheffield).

So, like Jane Anthony, I also think that “getting the message across that art song is for all can be frustrating and difficult”, but I’m actively engaging with different ways of addressing this challenge. Where Leeds Lieder, Oxford Lieder, and many of the professional opera houses have been addressing the “elitist barrier” through education and outreach projects, I’m doing it from the perspective of a researcher, academic, and lecturer, who works closely with undergraduate and postgraduate students, and with early-career professional singers. Let’s hope that through this range of approaches, we’ll manage to achieve our goal of making such wonderful music more widely available to all.


[1] Adam Sweeting, interview with mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter, Daily Telegraph, 21 October 2010, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/8077726/Anne-Sophie-von-Otter-interview.html> [accessed 21 October 2010].

[2] See, for example, Lawrence Venuti’s field-defining work The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (1995)