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Reviewed by:
  • Baudelaire in Song: 1880–1930 by Helen Abbott
  • Seán Hand
Baudelaire in Song: 1880–1930. By Helen Abbott. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. xiv + 197 pp., ill., music.

This absorbing study of several sets of song arrangements that use poems by Baudelaire has two immediately striking characteristics which alone make valuable contributions to any study of the relationships between poetry and music, especially from the Second Empire. The first is that, rather than offer us new readings of already familiar settings by Fauré, Debussy and Duparc, author Helen Abbott offers up much more intriguing if less generally recognizable sets of songs from France, Russia, and Austria that span a fifty-year period of intense and broad social and technical change. Of themselves, then, these settings—by Maurice Rollinat, Gustave Charpentier, Alexander Gretchaninov, Louis Vierne, and Alban Berg—bring out the effect of Baudelaire's poetry on widely differing types of music, its reception in several contrastive social settings—ranging from cabarets through to highbrow mélodie performances—, and the levels of plasticity and adaptability that it can offer even within its own poetic forms and precise musical realizations. The second valuable contribution goes to the heart of the author's methodological and technical approach, which is to begin with the fundamentally performative nature of a poem rendered into song, and the way in which close comparative appreciation of different settings confirms how the meaning and value of the sung poem, as an artefact and an event, are the result of a constant re-assembling and repackaging, to which, crucially, the performer technically and artistically also contributes. To this end, Abbott reviews a number of historical approaches to analysing poetry's relationship with music, which run from inter-art aesthetics and metaphoricity through to translation theory and cognitive neuroscience, before proposing and deploying a deliberately defined set of variables that constitute a working model of analysis and judgement. Crucial to this set is the central place given to performativity and the tasks and concerns of the actual performer. The performer is therefore viewed as an essential part of the proposed song-as-assemblage, and as a key actor in the moment of assessment and adjustment that can realize the poem as song. The attempts made by each composer to render Baudelaire's poems are therefore successively judged in part by the degrees of adhesion to the poem's various technical, structural, and semantic features, and the relative accretion or dilution of the poem generated by the musical accommodation of the material. The main aesthetic conclusion, which any performer will readily appreciate, is that no musical fixing of the poem can be forever definitive. Parallel to this basic understanding run several other convincing demonstrations of the embedded and enacted nature of poetry, whether because its meaning is connected to the significant changes taking place in society, at the time of its creation or re-enactment, or because performers themselves continue to explore and interpret the song setting, and in so doing transform the poem's significance.

Seán Hand
University of Warwick
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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-2931
Print ISSN
0016-1128
Pages
p. 299
Launched on MUSE
2019-05-17
Open Access
No
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