CORRESPONDANCES

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
—Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.
—Charles Baudelaire


—literal translation
of Correspondances, Charles Baudelaire

Nature is a a temple whose columns are living trees
From which disguised words sometimes pour;
Man walks there in a forest of metaphor
Which watches him with a conspiratorial breeze.

Like long shadows which mix over time
Into dark, deep and fuliginous,
Vast as night, clear as rhyme:
Scents, colors, sounds imitate us.

Scents like a child’s skin, ingenuous,
Soft as oboes, green as any open place
—And others, corrupt, lush, victorious—

Expand into infinite space,
—Like amber, musk, aloe, and incense,
They ring the changes of spirit into sense.


Noam Chomsky, in his Language and Mind, has developed
the principle that there is a mental system which
enables us to verbalize what we feel. Leonard Bernstein,
in his Norton Lectures, The Unanswered Question, has
extended that “universal grammar” to include music.
There are underpinnings in music that tell a story, whether
or not the piece is purely structural, such as a Bach fugue,
or has a romantic “program,” that is, a hidden story which
notes imitate onomatopoetically, such as a Legend by Liszt.

Baudelaire wrote his poem, Correspondances, around
1845, the same time Liszt was writing his musical poems.
Baudelaire felt that nature was a forest of symbols, which
we traverse through poetry, or words which expand on
already infinite objects. Mallarmé’s Afternoon of a Faun
of 1876 stressed as well the similarities between language
and music, to the point that certain lines are there only
for their music, not their sense. I deal with this in my 1975
paper, Music and Poetry Coupled, which discusses
the similarities of Debussy’s 1892 musical version to
Mallarme’s original poem.

The abuse of free-association in describing music linguistically
led to austere German theories of pure form,
such as Goethe’s novella, Elective Affinities, in which all
judgmental descriptions were removed, leading to the
French noveau roman. We have in this way eviscerated the
emotional roots of music, and developed performance
practices which are quite bowdlerized, censored of their
compositional inspirations, a great loss. As Mallarmé said,
writers must take music away from the musicians and bring
it back to its true source, the intellect. As someone said
of Schnabel’s playing, music was just the start of it. In my
word fugues, I try to use the musical advantages of repetition,
inversion, and so on, so that words make their own
music, while maintaining the layer of sense. As Claudius
says, words without thoughts never to heaven go.

December 30th, 2001