My First Art of Song column in The Wholenote

Sapphic February

There was a time when men loved lesbians and considered them essential for their own artistic output. No, stay with me, it’s is true: that time is the latter half of the nineteenth century, the place is France, and the men are the poets of emerging modernism.

Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs de mal’s working title was Les lesbiennes and the section that got him censored and fined includes poems “Lesbos” and “Delpine et Hippolyte” (“Femmes damnée”, somehow, got away, in spite its cries of solidarity: Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a pursuivies / Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains). Paul Verlaine’s series of sonnets around amorous encounters between young women Les amies is more specific, more explicitly visual and sensual. His “Ariette oubliée” IV from the later Romances sans paroles is a poetic embrace of the care-free female same-sex coupledom that, some critics argue, masks poet’s own embrace of male homoeroticism. Soyons deux jeunes filles / Éprises de rien et de tout étonnées, says the poem to the reader of either sex.

Sappho was mythologized and loomed large for male poets of the era, and Théodore de Banville and Henri de Régnier were just two of the poets who wrote lesbian poems set in some version of ancient Greece. In the words of Gretchen Schultz who wrote an entire book about this era of literary cross-sex fascination (Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth Century France), male poets’ quest for selfhood took detours through lesbian personae.

Best known in the classical world of all the lesbophile song cycles of this era remains Pierre Louÿs’s 1894 Chansons de Bilitis, an elaborate pseudotranslation of an ‘ancient Greek’ Sappho-like figure Bilitis—in fact, entirely concocted by Louÿs–whose biography of the senses the song cycle follows, from heterosexual beginnings through lesbian blossoming to the reminiscing old age. Louÿs’ friend Claude Debussy set three of the poems to music in 1897 to create the lush piano and voice opus now known as Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Debussy then worked on another, longer cycle titled Musique de scène pour les Chansons de Bilitis with twelve of Louÿs’s poems, but the text there is recited within the tableaux vivants with musical interludes scored for a small orchestra of flutes, harps and celesta. Recorded only a modest number of times—there’s a Deutsche Grammophon recording with Catherine Deneuve as the recitant—this other version of Chansons is extremely rarely performed.

The three-song cycle to piano is another story: it is widely claimed by both mezzos and sopranos and has been recorded frequently. At the February 9th noon Ensemble Studio concert at the COC, it will be sung by the young mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo accompanied by Hyejin Kwon at the piano. Both piano and vocal writing are of great richness, both of heightened sensuality of the Anaïs Nin kind. The well-curated program that abounds in literary references will also include…

Full piece here [PDF]– or even better, pick up a free copy of the magazine.

gustave_courbet_-_le_sommeil_1866_paris_petit_palais
Painter Gustave Courbet was one of the many French lesbophile artists from the mid to latter half of the nineteenth century. This painting is called Le Sommeil (1866).
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2 thoughts on “My First Art of Song column in The Wholenote

  1. This entire article is a delight! I had not, I confess, picked up on the C19 French fascination with Sappho as a trend (but my copy of Les Fleurs du Mal has a detail of that painting on the cover, so someone at Le Livre de Poche in the 1970s got it.)

    Also, I love the term “Winterreise women.” I trust you’ll be reporting on Pieczonka?

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