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Poem, Music and Ballet

I have a strange relationship with the French Classical composers (Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Gounod) I find I can only take short, intense bursts of them. Sorry French composers, but an evening of French composition leaves me quickly sat(i)ed.

They serve me, perhaps, as a kind of divertissement between the more extreme fare of German, Slavonic, Russian and Nordic composers which the bulk of my preferred dead composers seem to be. You understand, I hope, I do not prefer my composers to be dead; it just so happens many of them are, but I wish longevity to the American trio of Glass, Adams and Reich (who are all ‘preferred’ in my book), and of course to the Estonian, Arvo Part.

However, every now and again I am reminded of Debussy’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faune and then have an extreme need to hear it.

So here is Bernstein a year before his death


Claude Debussy

The piece was originally composed by Debussy almost as a musical Impressionist painting version of a poem, with the same name, by Stéphane Mallarmé. It doesn’t follow the poem (which is a long one) line by line, but is an encapsulation of it – a faun/satyr awakes in a glade, pursues nymphs, has a pretty ravishing afternoon, and then sinks into post-coital exhaustion.

Unfortunately, though I have a book of Mallarmé poems in French, which I bought hoping to be able to simultaneously read the original from/with the translation, the version I have only has an extremely ugly, literal, prose translation which neither makes linguistic, nor impressionistic/kinaesthetic, sense


Stéphane Mallarmé

Even I know, and can hear the sonorous, languorous, exotic quality of :

                                            Si clair,
Leur incarnat léger qu’il voltige dans l’air
Assoupi de sommeils touffus.

                               Aimai-je un rêve ?
Mon doute, amas de nuit ancienne,

In fact, I think reading something in another language where you don’t know the precise meaning can often make you more aware of the music of poetry, the rhythms and percussions of consonants and the different qualities of open and closed vowel sounds.

I’m sure there has to be a better translation of ‘amas de nuit ancienne’ than the nonsensical ‘heap of old night’ which the translator of my version gives!

Come on, all you WordPressers who are bilingual French and English poets, do Mallarme justice!

Set design by Bakst

Set design by Bakst

The poem and of course Debussy’s music, then found another outing as a ballet piece, choreographed, and danced by Nijinsky, with designs by Bakst

Here is Nureyev, dancing Nijinsky’s choreography. Amazingly graphic, that choreography, I would have thought, for 1912!

Indeed a review of Nijinsky’s choreography and performance in Le Figaro clearly reflected outrage : Wikipedia article, Gaston Calmette editorial, Le Figaro 1912

Anyone who mentions the words ‘art’ and ‘imagination’ in the same breath as this production must be laughing at us. This is neither a pretty pastoral nor a work of profound meaning. We are shown a lecherous faun, whose movements are filthy and bestial in their eroticism, and whose gestures are as crude as they are indecent. That is all. And the over explicit miming of this mis-shapen beast, loathsome when seen full on, but even more loathsome in profile, was greeted with the booing it deserved

I believe the – ahem – loathsome profile had some kind of nod towards what is implied in the wonderful line in the Cole Porter song, bewitched, bothered and bewildered which occurs at 3 : 50 in this gorgeously torchy Ella version

And here,  (back to Debussy) hopefully not overkill, is a third musical version conducted by Claudio Abbado

I find the shorter, clearly studio recording, conducted by Abbado is my preference. This may be partly to do with better acoustics in the studio, but the opening flute makes me picture and smell the dappled green forest glade, the damp aroma of earth, the juiciness of the leaves, as that faun, rippling through light and shade, delicately steps into the clearing. Not to mention the swells and subsidences of the full orchestral passages, seem both more erotic and more satiated and exhausted.

Vaslav Nijinsky : l'Après-midi d'un faune 1912 Jean-Pierre Dalbéra Photstream Flicr, Commons

Vaslav Nijinsky : l’Après-midi d’un faune 1912
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra Photostream Flicr, Commons

This is a marvellously erotic, filled with yearning desire piece of music. One that properly belongs to the heat of summer

I’m all afternooned out now, with three versions of this swoony music, the gorgeous images of Bakst’s designs, and of course, Rudi being really, remarkably rude!

As it is clearly art, it escapes a ‘For Adults Only’ rating. Though had I watched this at an impressionable age I’m sure it would have sent me quickly on my way to wait in the nearest forest in the hope that high cheekboned Russians, muscular and graceful, accompanied by flautists, harpists and oboists, not to mention a scrumptious picnic hamper, would arrive some time soon.

And finally…..the astute may notice there are no links to a particular recording, CD or mp3. This is because the version I had (shows how long ago) was cassette! And the equipment for playing, with reasonable sound, in a ‘music centre’ (remember those?) has long departed. Along with everything on cassette.

I wouldn’t normally be reviewing music except music from my collection, specific version. And then….I stumbled across a wonderful blog, The Classical Novice, which I immediately started following, excited to find the posts in my reader. Classical Novice may be ‘a novice’ about classical music, but explains, demystifies, educates, celebrates and enthuses about one of my life passions (classical music) with a generous, open and curious pair of ears (!)This is musical analysis I understand and engage with. As I’m NOT a musician, some of the very erudite music analysis in sleeve notes leaves me with a puckered brow and a quivering lip, taken far away from the music I love. I don’t particularly want to deconstruct it, I do want to engage with it more, through being guided into increased understanding. Classical Novice does this, and is worth many visits!