Singing the real Baudelaire

A while ago, I talked about a lieder recital, at which I thought gentility stifled all meaning. My key example was a group of songs based on Baudelaire poems — the uneasy meaning of Baudelaire didn’t come through at all.

For an antidote, try Gerard Souzay’s performance of Duparc’s song “L’invitation au voyage,” which sets one of Baudelaire’s most famous poems. (Dalton Baldwin is the pianist.) It’s one of the art songs I love best — no, one of the classical pieces of any kind I love most. And this performance defines it for me. Souzay goes deep into the mingled sensuality and regret of the original, so that once you listen past his dignity, his conviction, and the uncomplicated but very subtle nuances in the way he makes music, the song is troubling, full of longing, sensuality, and regret.

Follow this link, and you can read the French text of “Linvitation au voyage,” along with a not quite adequate English translation. The translation just doesn’t go deep enough. Not that this is easy, especially if anyone tries to render the poem with words as direct and simple as Baudelaire’s. I’m especially sad about the translation of the refrain:

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,

Luxe, calme et volupté.

There all is order and beauty,

Luxury, peace, and pleasure.

That second line of the English doesn’t ring out with the sonorous and uncontradictable simplicity of the French. And the French is far more specific. “Calme” isn’t as generic as “peace” (think of the obvious English cognate), and “volupté” (think again of the cognate) suggests something far more sensual than generic pleasure.

One deep and troubling moment in the performance comes at these lines, about ships the singer says sit sleeping in some canals, waiting to travel anywhere to serve the woman he loves:

C’est pour assouvir

Ton moindre désir

Qu’ils viennent du bout du monde.

To satisfy

Your slightest wish

They’ve come from the ends of the earth.

(That’s my translation, not the one on the website. It’s not so precisely accurate, but closer, I think to the directness of the original.) I choke up a little at these words. Part of me wants to have ships like this for the woman I love. Souzay, too, seems to think the words are important (and certainly Duparc makes them so). Without doing anything dramatic, almost without doing anything explicit at all (except only a portamento at “viennent”), he grows more passionate. But at the end, the ends of the earth, his voice closes, The passion is much less clear. The doors are shut. Maybe she didn’t like what the ships brought. Maybe there are no ships. Maybe there’s no woman.

The poem raises all those questions, in every line, I think. Does it have even a hint of reality in it, or is it fantasy? And whether it’s real or imagined, would the woman accept it? After placing his heart and his body — his trembling body, full of unnumbered desires — in every word, is the poet (the singer) calm, spent, hopeful, full of longing, or full of regret? That’s what Baudelaire’s landscape is like — along with the most sensual and austere dignity — and Souzay inhabits it completely.

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  1. Jean Gollay says

    Trouble is that Baudelaire is essentially untranslatable into English. In Baudelaire there is not just the poetry, but also the perfume of the poetry and the sigh of the wind passing by as the words are spoken.

    Nicely put. I agree. The perfume and sonority of the French can’t be rendered in English.

  2. Suzanne Derringer says

    To translate is always to interpret; one should never be too literal, especially in translating poetry.

    The larger problem is – as your wife discussed in her SHOWBOAT review – this pretentiousness, this rather prissy approach to both “classical” music and when “classical” musicians condescend to perform “popular” music. The gentleman who commented on Verdi’s GIORNO DI REGNO at Wolftrap, really got it: in Verdi’s time, people went to the theater to enjoy themselves – they would eat and talk through the performances, which were very likely much less technically “correct” than most of today’s professional performances. But the music was of the moment – of their moment! – and nobody mistook an opera performance for a religious ceremony.

  3. says

    The poetry of Charles Baudelaire reflects the mind of the wretched genius, one of the most interesting characters in the world of literature. From Marlowe to Poe to Dostoyevsky, the wretched geniuses of every age provide a unique vision of the world, a world stripped of pretense and pomp, revealing the darker side of man’s nature, the ugly and the perverse and the dissolute. The wretched genius suffers, suffers intensely, and through his suffering the world is somehow brought into crystal clarity, a focus achieved by no other means than that of the experience of pain.