Exquisite Decadence

La lune blanche luit dans les bois.
De chaque branche part une voix
sous la ramée…
O bien aimée.
L’étang reflète, profond miroir,
la silhouette du saule noir
où le vent pleure…
Rêvons, c’est l’heure.
Un vaste et tendre apaisement
semble descendre du firmament
que l’astre irise.
C’est l’heure exquise.
– Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)
When a friend and colleague suggested we program a song recital together based not on a particular composer or period, but on a particular poet, I was intrigued. We chose Paul Verlaine, not only because there is a lot of song repertoire to choose from, but because his poems are particularly beautiful as well.
 In 1870, he married 17-year-old Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville in the hope that her purity and innocent love would cure both his alcoholism and his attraction to other men…
While researching his life, I came to realise that there is a dichotomy in the life of many (if not all) great artists in that exquisite beauty can often be created in an environment of extreme ugliness, moral and physical. Paul Verlaine is a case in point.
…Unfortunately, Mathilde’s love did not have the desired effect. Barely a year into his marriage, Verlaine encountered the then 16-year-old poet Arthur Rimbaud. Verlaine abandoned his wife and baby, both of whom had suffered from his violent rages, and he and Rimbaud began a highly volatile relationship that destroyed Verlaine’s marriage, estranged him from his family (Verlaine’s brother-in-law described Rimbaud as “a vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy”, but Verlaine found him an “exquisite creature”), and hastened his descent into poverty, alcoholism and addiction…
How many beginning voice students, genteel ladies at Thursday Musicales, and dignified Song Recital audiences realise what kind of man really wrote those ‘pretty’ poems? Verlaine was variously a: wife-beater, drug user, alcoholic, child abuser, and above all, a truly tortured soul.
…Their heavy drinking, however, took its toll on their relationship: one day as Verlaine came home with a fish and a bottle of oil, Rimbaud ridiculed him. Furious, Verlaine slapped him with the fish, then ran back to Brussels and threatened suicide. Rimbaud followed him and, in a Brussels hotel, they had their final row. With the gun he’d planned to use to kill himself, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the arm, and was jailed for two years. ‘Romances sans paroles,’ which looks back nostalgically on his relationships with both his wife and his lover, was published while he was serving his sentence …
He spent time in prison, lived with prostitutes, left his wife for a teenage boy, and died prematurely of various ailments brought on by prolonged drug and alcohol abuse. His lover, Rimbaud, has become more famous in popular culture, but Verlaine’s poems predominate in the world of classical art song.
…He taught English for a while, fell in love with a pupil, Lucien Létinois, who later died of typhus, made two dismal attempts at life as a gentleman farmer, and finally settled in Paris, where he survived by living alternately with two female prostitutes, who would charge visitors a modest fee for an audience with the great poet. Although the last ten years of his life were spent suffering from multiple health problems, not least alcoholism and drug addiction, his fame and popularity were growing. In 1894 he was elected ‘Prince of Poets’ by his peers, who had once shunned him and prevented some of his ‘obscene’ poetry from being published. He never forgot Rimbaud, and is quoted as saying ‘For me, Rimbaud is an ever-living reality, a sun that burns inside me that does not want to be put out.’ Verlaine died at the age of 52, on January 8, 1896. His funeral was a public event, and thousands of Parisians followed his casket to the Batignolles cemetery.
Our goal is to perform these songs with vocal and musical beauty, while at the same time making our audience (and ourselves) aware of the raw, messy, destructive passions that helped to create them. Above are some extracts from the programme notes, arranged the way they are in the programme, in between the translations of the poems, so that the audience will be more likely to read them, and imagine the life and struggles of the poet while they listen to his poems.
Verlaine is dead. The last shred of that ruined soul which has for years been rotting away in chance Parisian brasseries, has loosened its hold upon life and slipped into the unknown; but the poetry he has left behind him, with its sighs and bitter sobbings, and its few gleams of beauty and of joy, contains the essence of his strange nature. Half faun, half satyr, his nature was allied to baseness and brutal animalism, but possessed a strange and childish naïveté which remained with him to the last, and a spirit remotely intact in the chaos of his wayward senses, whence issued songs of matchless purity and inimitable music.
– Verlaine: A Feminine Appreciation, by Mrs. Reginald de Koven (1896)
We are performing Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson and Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées, among individual Verlaine settings by six other composers, including a total of four settings of ‘L’Heure Exquise.’ Interspersed with the music, we are reading extracts of essays and article written by Verlaine enthusiasts of his own time, and translations of letters between Verlaine and Rimbaud.
At the end of his life hardly anything but the naïveté was left, and the poems become mere outcries and gestures. There is no part of his work which is not the expression of some form of love, human or divine, grotesque or heroic, but always insatiable.
– Some Unpublished Letters of Verlaine, by Arthur Symons
Myself, Philip Eve, and Christopher Gould perform Exquisite Decadence, Verlaine’s Absinthe-Tinted Songs, at the Canterbury Festival on 15 October at 7:30 p.m. www.canterburyfestival.co.uk

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