(Image of Vaslav Nijinsky by Léon Bakst)
CHRISTOPHER RICKS (President): Good afternoon. May I just introduce our two speakers for the day? Joe Armstrong is somebody whose strength of thinking is closely related to his gentleness as a person—and they’re very valuably there together. He has translated André Pirro’s book on Bach, and I had the pleasure of reading it . . . Is that right?
JOE ARMSTRONG: . . . Just a few chapters.
CR: . . . just a few chapters. It seemed an entire work—but that wasn’t because I’d lost interest in it. And we had a very interesting conversation about the main thesis of this book from 1907—an important work in musicology, which is about to be published. Rosanna Warren needs no introduction at a meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics and Writers, and you’ll remember that the addition of “W” precipitated the question “Women?” . . . but the association has always done very well by women, and women by us. So, Rosanna and Joe will be talking about Mallarmé and Debussy in relation to “fauns.”
ROSANNA WARREN: Thank you, Christopher. It’s delightful to see so many of you here today. I’ll say a few words of introduction to the poem, Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune, and Debussy’s composition, which Joe will play. Obviously, he’s not a whole orchestra . . . he’s going to play a transcription for solo flute.
To rehearse a little of where the poem came from: Mallarmé wrote about it in a letter in June, 1865, and one of the things that interests me about this poem is that he agonized over its composition for eleven years. It was his “summer” poem. In the winter he agonized over “Hérodiade,” which was a poem of winter sterility . . . and jewels, and a sterile princess. And in the summer he agonized over the “Faun” . . . and the eroticism of the “Faun,” and bursting purple grapes. All along he intended the poem to be, at first, a fight with theatre, and he wrote to his friend, Cazalis, that he wanted the poem to be “absolument scénique, non possible au théâtre, mais exigeant le théâtre”—“not possible in the theatre, but requiring the theatre.” And later, when Debussy set it to music . . . in fact, in the conception of the poem as it evolved, it’s all about playing the flute. It’s about Pan and the flute. But it’s also about taking poetry back from music—about taking the poetic music back from music-music. It wasn’t published until 1876, and it was turned down by his sort-of friend, Théodore de Banville, for a production at the Comédie Française. And then it was turned down by Banville, François Coppée, and Anatole France for publication in Le Parnasse Contemporain. So, it was a much rejected poem, which, I would say, came to dominate the end of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. And Debussy, a generation younger than Malarmé, composes this “Prélude” in 1894. And it goes on—especially with the intervention of ballet, Nijinsky, and Diaghilev—to have a whole other extraordinary “career,” to use that tainted word. I would like to say that my love for this poem stems partly from my conviction that it is, along with Racine, the highest development of the alexandrine line. It is the late, decadent development of the line, like a huge, over-ripe rose, whose petals are so heavy that they’re about to blow off in the wind. I hope you hear in these twelve-syllable lines the inner disarticulation that Mallarmé is introducing by strained enjambments and by using the prohibited hiatus—letting vowel meet vowel—and a very complex syntax, which is almost taking the line apart in our ears. Et voilà.
Oh, I should say a word about the handouts. It may be better not to look at them at all and just listen. But they are, I think, curious artifacts: there’s the French text; there’s the translation by Aldous Huxley in rhymed verse; and there is, I think, a quite awful translation cobbled together from Roger Fry and Huxley by the editor of the Norton Critical Scores. And, afterwards, if people feel like quarreling about translation, that too could be a subject.
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Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer. I would immortalize these nymphs:
Mon doute, amas de nuit ancienne, s'achève My doubts, born of oblivious darkness, seem
En maint rameau subtil, qui, demeuré les vrais A subtle tracery of branches grown
Bois même, prouve, hélas! que bien seul je m'offrais The tree’s true self – proving that I have known
Pour triomphe la faute idéale de roses – No triumph, but the shadow of a rose.
Réfléchissons… But think.
Couple, adieu; je vais voir l'ombre que tu devins. Nymphs, I shall see the shade that now you are.
RW: There are two other little things I wanted to tell you: on the front page of the translation by Aldous Huxley, there’s a quatrain that Mallarmé inscribed on the copy of the poem he gave Debussy. It’s a tribute to Debussy:
And the other thing I wanted to tell you—perhaps this will help initiate some arguments about music and poetry—is that Mallarmé was contentious about music and wrote a lot about stealing back, “pour reprendre notre bien” . . . taking back the property of musicality from music for poetry. When writing about this poem and the alexandrines in it, he wrote that he wanted to “mettre, à côté de l'alexandrin dans toute sa tenue, une sorte de jeu courant pianoté autour . . .”—“a kind of game with a little piano-playing around it,” which was just allegorical piano-playing. “. . . comme qui dirait d'un accompagnement musical fait par le poète lui-même”—“like a poet playing his own musical accompaniment for himself” through the tension within his verse. Voilà.
CR: Thank you very much. It makes words difficult. And it is, in a way, meant to. Isn’t that right? And then we won’t have anything to say. Or we’ll have less to say because of the simple beauty of the poem and your reading and the music. But all I mean is: I haven’t much to say.
QUESTIONER 1: Rosanna, why do you think Mallarmé chose piano-playing in that part you quoted? Did he play the piano?
RW: No, but he was friends with lots of musicians, and he had the Wagner fever that everybody had in the 1880s, and he was talking about the poem. He wrote that in a letter before Debussy composed the orchestral piece, which featured the flute.
Q 1: Right. He wrote it about poetry in general, and not this poem?
RW: He wrote it about this poem . . .
Q 1: Oh, did he?
RW: . . . and what he was trying to do with the alexandrine line, which was to try to disarticulate what he called “le verbe official,” (“the official alexandrine”), as if the poet himself were a musical accompanist to himself so that there was another melody and strain going under the official Racinian twelve syllables with a central caesura. He’s subtly breaking all those rules, but unless you really hear the Racine, you won’t hear that he’s breaking the rules. But he’s enjambing in ways that Racine would never do. He’s putting vowel against vowel . . . and he’s creating a subtle internal disorder.
QUESTIONER 2: Well, I come to this subject through Rudolph Nureyev performing “Nijinsky,” so I’m kind of coming at it from a strange angle. But I’m very curious to know about the history of this kind of performance—which was so splendid, I can’t tell you how moved I was by it. Was this something that was done frequently? Was this the intent when Debussy composed it? Or was it considered a separate musical piece that now people mesh?
RW: Joe, you might speak to that . . .
JA: Well, Debussy later wrote a piece for solo flute—Syrinx—that was to be played at the beginning of the third act of a play. And I think that there might have been an idea at that time that there would be pieces that would go with poetry . . . for single instruments and small ensembles.
Q 2: But their coming together was after the poem was written?
RW & JA: Yes.
RW: Debussy didn’t compose this until twenty years after the poem was written. Debussy was a generation younger than Mallarmé. And by that time, Mallarmé was “le prince des poètes” and having his famous Tuesday gatherings where painters like his great friend Manet, and Degas, and Berthe Morisot would come, and musicians would come. The Mallarmé “salon” was the crucible of all modern art, and there was constant interplay between music, the visual arts, and poetry.
JA: Another thing about the quatrain that Rosanna read that Mallarmé inscribed on the copy of the music for Debussy after its first performance. . . Debussy had invited him over to play through the score for him, and, after a long silence, Mallarmé said to him: “I was not expecting anything of this kind! This music prolongs the emotion of my poem, and sets its scene more vividly than color.” So there was a really close connection between the two works.
QUESTIONER 3: And the dance . . . when did the dance come?
RW: That comes in 1912. So that’s another generation later. That’s the Ballet Russe. That’s Diaghilev and Nijinsky. And Nijinsky was both the choreographer and dancer.
Q 3: OK. So you have these various translations going on . . .
RW: Right. “Medium to medium.”
Q 3: . . . and, in fact, we’re looking at two here. There were four, right?
Q 3: Just here, we’re looking at the music and the French and the two English versions.
RW: Right. Yes: poem to music, French to English, music to ballet—orchestral music to ballet. Yes, you’re right. It’s a “multi-translational” enterprise.
JA: It’s also interesting from the musician’s point of view. For professional musicians, this piece is standard in the orchestral repertoire, and they may know that there was a ballet based on it, but I think they may not realize that it was based on Mallarmé’s poem.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Interesting.
QUESTIONER 4: I don’t know if you would know the answer to this, but was Mallarmé’s interest in the relationship between music and poetry based at all on the conversation in France about “lyric”?
RW: . . . as in singing? You mean technically: “lyric” as in “song”?
Q 4: No, I mean “lyric” as a genre of poetry. In the United States—maybe twenty years earlier, so in the late 1850s, 1860s—there was at least some writing about what it means to write a lyric, which is not about how to write a poem that is set to music, but to write a poem that has in itself the music. So the music is the lines, not in accompaniment . . .
Q 4: . . . which sounds similar to the kind of concern that Mallarmé’s playing with, and I’m wondering if that is also concerned with a genre question in any way in France.
RW: I think so. He uses the word “poésie” more . . .
Q 4: . . . which they also did in the United States.
RW: Yes. . . . rather than “lyric.” He wrote the famous essay “La Musique et les Lettres” and a number of other essays, which he kept re-writing, re-publishing, and pastiching together in different combinations. He wrote a lot of intense theoretical texts in which he evoked the ideal of music, and often it’s been said that, for Symbolist poetry, music was the model art, whereas with Cubism it becomes graphic, and visual art becomes the model art for poetry. But in the 1880s and 90s it was music, and there was the Wagner fever, and then a kind of reaction against Wagner. Debussy’s criticism of Wagner is interesting because Debussy listened really hard to Wagner and then had a complex quarrel with Wagner. He rejected the grandiosity of it and certainly the mythology, but he tried to keep some of the melodic freedom and fluidity of cadence. And, at any rate, Mallarmé’s “La Musique et les Lettres” is a key text in late nineteenth-century French aesthetics, where he evokes the metaphysical music . . . in the woodwinds and the brass and the strings, and says that he wants the poetry to “reprendre notre bien”—“take back our property” from the musicians. He speaks in quite militant terms sometimes, while loving music intensely.
QUESTIONER 5: Well, let’s accept the question of translation then, because music is a genre that they like so much, because, in a way, it needs to happen . . .
RW: . . . between languages?
Q 5: Yes. . . . translation between languages, or cultures. So, thinking about Mallarmé trying to do this in poetry—in some way to re-take music for poetry—but having to work so much with the history of his language, the translatability of music doesn’t seem to work as well. I’m not an expert in the poem or in having looked very carefully at the translation, but it seems that the translations here don’t succeed at all . . . in doing what he’s doing what he’s doing in French, so . . .
RW: By “translatability” you mean: “to get out of French . . . into another language”?
Q 5: Right.
RW: . . . into English, in this case?
Q 5: Right. The text doesn’t seem to lend itself to translation ends, as it would somehow, perhaps, in music?
RW: Well, Mallarmé, who was, by the way, an English teacher, thought a lot and wrote a lot about the weights of vowels and consonants in English. He had a whole private mythology about English sounds versus French sounds—an amazing Cratylus-like mythology about the meanings of phonetics. I’ve never seen in his letters—he wrote a lot of letters about the composition, the agonizing composition, of this poem that he worked on, as I said, for eleven years—and he’s never thinking about it in terms of English, or translating to another language, or even really imagining that someone’s going to come along and turn it into music. He was hoping that it would be theatre, but it was turned down by the Comédie Française. But I think . . . it would be a bitch to translate, because he’s so conscious of every vowel, and there are so many amazing, internal little . . . All poetry is conscious of vowels, but this poem is intensely conscious of vowels. For instance, the little joke in the line ending with “détala” and the next line ending in “le la”—“la” is the note “A.” It’s so incarnate in the phonetics and the multiple semantic vibrations . . . I would never try to translate this . . .
QUESTIONER 6: Could you take that a step further, though, and show us a line or stanza and look at the two English translations and comment on where they fail and why they fail in a close textual comparison?
RW: Sure. Let’s see. Well, I have an idea . . . Bonnie, do you . . .
BONNIE: Oh, no, no, no . . . I don’t know French well enough.
Q. 6: I’ve been jarred by my libido!
RW: Well, let’s look at the last line, because I absolutely hate what Austin put together for the last line. And that’s a wonderful line in the French. The last couplet, which is a couplet that’s beautifully interrupted by a white space—and already that’s a lovely vibration:
. . . with a little joke on “divin”—“divinity”—in there. And then a space, and:
“Couple, adieu; je vais voir l’ombre que tu devins.”
. . . that beautiful “passé simple”—the verb “that you became.” And I just can’t believe that anyone could write:
“Couple, good-bye; . . . to see the shadow you become I’m going” “I’m outa here!” Whoever wrote this has absolutely no ear. Maybe for music, but certainly not for words. It’s fascinating to me as a historical artifact that Huxley worked so hard to make rhyming couplets—in pentameter couplets—and I think that, by itself, is marvelous: “
Nymphs, I shall see the shade that now you are.”
Huxley invents a lot to get his meter and his rhymes, but at least it’s not . . .
Q. 6: . . . it has its own beauty.
RW: . . . it has some kind of aesthetic logic. There’s something else I wanted to say: I think this is one of the most erotic poems I’ve ever read, and when I teach it, the students—the undergraduate French students . . .
QUESTIONER 7: . . . turn red.
RW: Well, no. They don’t, at first, turn red, because the syntax is too hard for them. So they don’t get the “choreography.” They don’t actually know what’s happening to the two nymphs . . . and the faun. I try to be delicate so that I don’t get fired. I say, “Have you noticed where his . . . fingers are?” And then, when they look at the word “replis”—that famous word, “the fold,” where the fingers are . . . and what’s happening—then they really turn red! And it’s amazing that American students can turn red at . . . certainly at Symbolist poetry . . . And then they go, “Two nymphs and one faun?”
Q. 6: “What a faun!”
RW: “What a faun!”
QUESTIONER 7: I just have a question about the music. I just don’t know of anything else quite like this. It’s so familiar, but you can’t think of any other pieces like it. What is it about this piece—the mood, the length, and the pace—which is so . . . really magnetic . . . kind of like . . .
JA: . . . what makes it that way?
Q. 7: Yes. Why does it work?
JA: I don’t know for sure, but the main theme keeps coming back again and again, and he writes it in different ways each time. It probably sounds the same when you’re listening, but it’s written rather differently in notes and rhythms, and sometimes that first note is held much longer, and sometimes the theme returns in different keys. It just creates this sort of trance-like spell.
QUESTIONER 8: But then it’s disrupted once in a while . . .
Q. 8: . . . where you open up. And this happens in the poem as well . . .
RW: Yes. When the flutter of the white swans, or whatever they are . . . explodes.
JA: It’s interesting, too, that in the Norton Critical Scores, Debussy: Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, Austin points out that Debussy had some idea of actually writing two or three more movements and that this is just a “prelude”—Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is the title of this piece that you hear played all the time. It was even advertised before publication that it would be entitled Prélude, interludes et paraphrase finale pour l’Après-midi d’un faune. But later, in 1916, the last piece he wrote was a most remarkable trio for flute, viola, and harp whose movements are entitled: “Pastorale, Interlude, et Final,” so there’s something of a similarity there in the movement titles. The trio is also a most extraordinary piece, and there seems to me to be a line of continuity from the Faun—especially through the flute part—to this final sonata that he wrote when he was dying of cancer. I’ve always thought that there may be a connection there . . . but I haven’t answered your question very well.
QUESTIONER 9: Can you explain a little bit more about how it was a prelude . . . if it was designed to follow the verses, or to intersperse the verses?
JA: Oh, it wasn’t meant to be performed as a prelude to a recitation of the poem or to be interspersed with a reading of it . . . Rosanna and I only chose to perform it this way . . .
Q. 9: Oh, I see. So it was simply Debussy’s response to the Mallarmé?
Q. 9: OK. I’m sorry.
QUESTIONER 10: Question about mood-setting in the music, and also in the poetry: if we’re talking about “taking back” those elements from music and giving them back to poetry . . . if we break it down into rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic components, which is what you’re usually thinking of in terms of music . . . the poem, because it’s metric, has got a rhythmic ground against which you can create tensions. The sound of the words allows you to use some musical devices that we’re used to hearing in poetry. They’re not exactly the same as melodic devices in music, because they’re also wedded to words that have meaning . . . I’m struck that we happen to hear this—I mean this is an orchestral setting we heard with unaccompanied flute, and I’m trying to remember the orchestral setting—but it seems to me that the orchestral setting, like the flute part, is not nailed down to a rhythmic framework. So, for me, it’s peculiar that Debussy doesn’t use all of the musical resources that he might have, because he could have worked against a rhythm, which would have been closer to what Mallarmé is doing in the poem, but he chose not to do that. Now, I think that, if you’re talking about mood-setting, what brings the two works as close as they’re going to get, is the fact that the melodic bursts out of time—or is not against a specific time, and it allows this kind of emotional quality to come through—even in just the flute part, because normally we’re used to hearing the colors of the orchestra against it. And one other thing I wanted to say about the translations: it’s the nature of the language that, to me, if you’re going to translate this into English, to me, you’ve got to do several different translations with several different objectives and choose what you want to salvage in each case. In other words, if you want to keep to the sound of things, you’ve got to permit yourself not to stick to some of the other elements. If you want to stick as much as you can to the rhythm of it, then you’ve got to let the words go to where they need to in order to make that work. I’d have to see a literal translation against several of these other specifically targeted translations in order to piece together in my own mind some kind of integrated synthesis that would be the parallel to the French, given that I don’t know French. Now, nobody’s going to go that far for me . . . but all I’m saying is that the task of translation is hopeless if you’re only planning on doing it once . . .
RW: . . . kaleidoscopic.
JA: I’d like to say something in relation to what this gentleman just said: actually, the music is very rhythmically distributed. And I think that probably answers this gentleman’s question more, because Debussy has worked this miracle of making it seem like it’s not so rhythmic when you actually hear it. For instance, when you start that opening solo, it’s actually [singing the first measure and the exact counts of its note’s values]: “one-two-three-four-five-and-six-and-a-seven-eight-and-nine-and” . . .
Q. 10: Right.
JA: . . . then he later has all kinds of retards and accelerandos, so it has this wonderful sort of flow . . .
Q. 10. Well, this is it. It’s fluid . . . Even if it’s against a rhythmic background, it’s still very fluid.
Q. 10: So, there’s the parallel when you’re reading the poem, because you’re not constrained to think about “time” . . . as a musician thinks about time.
Q. 10: You’re not counting beats. You’re not deciding how to work the phrase against the counting of the beats. For Rosanna reading the poem the rhythm is implied, and she may phrase against it, but without feeling constrained. In other words, Joe’s playing the music at a particular disadvantage in that regard . . . while Rosanna’s at another disadvantage in another regard, because she doesn’t have the melodic resources that Joe does.
JA: Although, I have to make a confession here that, today, there were some places where—if you were following the score very carefully—you’d see that I allowed for more time for breath to come in, because I just couldn’t play the whole thing without doing that. And I think it was easier to get away with taking more breath in this piece, whereas you couldn’t get away with doing that in Bach.
Q. 10. But the Debussy is so elastic, anyway, that you can do it.
QUESTIONER 11: What do we mean when we say “taking music back from poetry”?
RW: Well, it’s always dangerous to try to paraphrase Mallarmé. You’ll find his explanation in that essay of his, “La Musique et les Lettres”—“Music and Literature.” But I think what he meant was that he was trying to push French poetry to a higher degree of abstraction, and his favorite word was “rien”—“nothing”—and, to the extent that he made a collection of his poems before he died, he placed a little sonnet called Salut at the head of it, which means “salvation” and also “cheers!” and it starts:
“Rien, cette écume, vièrge vers
À ne désigner que la coupe;” . . .
“Nothing . . . virgin verse” . . .
. . . and the image of virginity comes in here too. He loved . . . he was obsessed by virginity:
“Nothing . . . virgin verse” . . .
“Rien, cette écume, vièrge vers” . . .
. . . “cette écume”—“this foam”
“À ne désigner que la coupe;” . . .
. . . “Nothing, virgin verse, this foam”—which is the foam of the champagne and also the foam of the sea behind the boat . . . “to designate, to point to” . . . “que la coupe”—which is the champagne glass, and it’s the “cut” of the verse. It’s a pure formalism—an absolutely pure formalism. And that was his notion of poetry aspiring to the condition of music. It is that your soul would be more shaped by the play of, in the case of the “Faun,” the twelve syllables, and their pauses, and you would be shaped more by the play of vowels and consonants and diphthongs. This poem is an ars poetica. On the surface it seems to be about a faun and two nymphs, but it’s really about . . . this marvelous line:
“Une sonore, vaine et monotone ligne”. . .
“O, a sonorous, vain, empty, and monotonous line”. . .
It’s about the possibility of making something out of nothing . . . or making a grander nothing out of nothing.
I’m sorry to go on like this, but I think that the image of the flute is important for the poem, because it’s “Pan and Syrinx.” It’s both Ovid and Virgil’s Eclogue—Mallarmé calls this an “eclogue”—because he calls the flute “l’instrument des fuites”—“the instrument of flights”—because the flute is empty inside, and its sound is made by breath, which in some sense is “nothing.” The poem is full off words for “nothingness” and “vacancy”: “parôles vacantes, vides, vaines.” The breath is all there is.
Q. 11: So he was aspiring to bring qualities of music to poetry, but not necessarily to take something back that had been lost?
RW: Well, he phrased it as “reprendre notre bien de la musique”—“take back our property from music”—which I think would address, perhaps in a material way, the whole expressive possibility of melody and sound-patterning to shape our listening souls. It was not just the “lowly brass and strings” that were going to be allowed to do this.
JA: Do you know if he thought that it was Wagner who stole the “bien”
RW: Well, I think that was part of it!
QUESTIONER 10: There’s another part to this, though, because the flute produces monody. It’s one tone at a time. So, what’s Mallarmé going to do with harmony? How’s he going to take that back?
RW: Well, you’d have to ask him.
Q. 10: You see what I’m saying?
RW: I do.
CR [to questioner 12]: You were going to say something?
QUESTIONER 12: I was just going to observe that in this connection between Debussy and Wagner, you hear how Debussy took the yearning chromaticism of Wagner, and yet there’s this reduction and this less martial quality. In other words, we’re taken back more from the “epic” to the “eclogue,” and it’s recapturing this very “reedy” quality—especially connected to the poem, it’s a whole new dimension.
RW: That’s lovely, because it makes a parallel between what Debussy as a composer was trying to take back from Wagner and what Mallarmé as a poet was trying to take back from grand orchestral music—about which he wrote a lot. He went to Germany to listen to Wagner, and he wrote a lot about Wagner—thought a lot about Wagner . . .
JA: There’s another point that might fit in there too: I don’t know enough music history to say for sure, but this might have been the first—or one of the first—pieces in which Debussy introduced the whole-tone scale, which is the hallmark of impressionist music. But he also started out with a lot of the chromaticism of Wagner . . .
QUESTIONER 13: It’s interesting that there’s no dodecaphonic, or twelve-tone system used by Debussy . . .
Q. 10: . . . but Liszt had been using it before.
JA: The whole tone scale?
Q. 10: Oh yes. In the 1880s.
JA: Oh, I didn’t know that.
CR: I’m going to ask about the two lines that are, for me, the two most beautiful lines that I know in English poetry about Pan and Syrinx. And it’s Marvell of course, saying what he really wanted was a flute:
We’ve got the story wrong.
We’ve got it all wrong. Now, this has a funny relation to the eroticism, because the music seems to me to be not erotic at all. Or, if it is, it’s sort of “post-coital.” Or if it is “post-coital,” it’s a sort of “happy post-coital.” It’s just . . . you know, you remember. So, it’s very strange. For instance, there are these lovely “urgencies” in the Faun when somebody’s wondering if she needs a cigarette. But what you were saying about the poem is very convincing and touching and funny, but it’s a very different relation in the music, because the music is actually Spenserian and Tennysonian . . .
CR: And we want you to think that the music is not Marvellian—it doesn’t work through wit. It works through:
And it’s actually lovely, but it’s either a seduction—if it’s dangerous—or it’s an absolutely lovely reminiscence.
CR: . . . a very reminiscent sort of music, I think. Now, can you blush for me, Rosanna?
RW: I’m already blushing.
CR: I’m wondering, Joe, what you think about the music’s relation to what Rosanna said about the poem?
JA: Well, it especially connects for me with what you’ve just said . . . because Debussy calls it a “prelude”—it’s “from before”—and in my thinking it through as Rosanna and I have been working on it together, it’s more like a dream to me of what might happen that’s infused a lot of my image of the beauty of the nymphs and the feelings and actions of the faun. And then the fact that it’s a prelude also connects with the idea that I referred to in the Norton book that Debussy originally intended for other movements to come along later. But when we thought of how to intersperse the music with the text, it seemed like there were elements of each passage of poetry that I felt could somehow be either related to or dreamt about beforehand . . .
RW: . . . and the word “souvenir” comes up. It is both “dream” of a possible pleasure and a “souvenir” of a pleasure that he imagined but didn’t get. So it’s going both ways. It’s going forward and back. And I think the mention of “souvenir”—of memory—is operating in the music by so much repetition, because you keep hearing the same line . . . as if you were remembering an experience that you never even had.
QUESTIONER 13: And the time switches. There’s sunset, there’s noon, and you’re bouncing . . . around
RW: Yes. Yes, yes.
QUESTIONER 14: You said that Mallarmé had wanted this to be theatre and had tried to get the Comédie Française to produce it, and I’m wondering what you think would have actually happened on the stage . . .
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Now we’re all blushing!
Q. 14: I’m just thinking about the things people are saying, and the music . . .
RW: Well, Nijinsky figured that out . . . put all the eroticism back into the music!
JA: There was a scandal, wasn’t there?
RW: Oh, yes. Yes. Mallarmé also tried to make a play out of it. He has notes for three scenes. There would have been the monologue of the faun—which is what we have now—and then a dialogue of the nymphs. And I really would like to know what those nymphs were saying . . . and then “le réveil du faune”—the waking up of the faun . . . but they’re just little scattered notes.
QUESTIONER 15: It’s a strange project for someone who wants abstraction . . .
Q. 15: . . . because theatre’s so “embodied.”
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes.
RW: Yes, but I think Racine is key here, because it’s both passion and a high degree of stylization and abstraction . . .
Q. 15: Yes.
RW: . . . and most of the action in Racine happens in one syllable shifting to another syllable, and that’s where you can make a terrible revelation about incest or potential murder. It’s already so abstracted in the versification of Racine, and so “purified” of what we would think of as “stage action,” that I think that’s Mallarmé’s model.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Interesting.
RW: It’s a “high poetic theatre” of utmost stylization.
Q. 15: Very ritualized.
RW: Yes. And the Comédie Française will still do Racine—and they were doing Racine in 1875—but this new form of “symboliste” theatre, which would have required the same kind of incantatory and abstracted acting . . . they just couldn’t imagine it.
QUESTIONER 16: Rosanna, can you say something about the bits of direct speech in the poem? What, exactly, is happening between the faun’s own account of his dream circumstances and the accounts embodied in direct speech?
RW: Yes. Well, it’s pretty complicated when you start trying to analyze it, and some of his speeches are in italics, where he addresses the the Sicilian marshes—“Au bords siciliens.” He gives them an order: “CONTEZ”—“tell the story.” And the story is about him—that he was cutting the reeds.
Q. 16. Yes.
RW: And then sometimes he interrupts himself with an exclamation, like “Que non!” or “Tant pis!” I love that—“Tant pis!” But it is a monologue. Fundamentally, it’s a monologue . . . with a lot of internal elasticity and potential for exclamation. But it’s fundamentally auto-erotic. We never know whether these nymphs ever existed. We’re not meant to know. The time-shifts—that you’ve all been pointing out—increase this dream-like trance state that Joe’s been describing. And, finally, what he lifts up to the sun is essentially “la grappe”—the bunch of grapes—and they contain the light. They’re empty.
Q. 16: The whole question we’ve been asking is “Is this post-coital?”—but it can’t be. Surely this is a “wet dream.” I mean . . . there’s no polite way of saying that, but surely that’s why the music is as it is. And why he’s holding up empty grape skins. I mean, the whole thing is . . .
Q. 17: . . . “effulgent” . . .
Q. 16: Yes. I agree.
RW: And that’s why the word “vièrge”—“virginity”—is so important. He has a “vièrge morsure.” He has a “virgin bite”—“a mysterious bite.” We don’t know where it comes from, and it is a sign of “election.” It is a sign in the sense of having been “bitten by art”—by “dream.” And he calls it “vièrge,” and I think it’s very tied to the “vièrge vers” in the Salut that I started to quote: “Rien, cette écume, vièrge vers / À ne désigner que la coupe.” I think of Mallarmé as an intensely erotic, but always a poet of foreplay . . . because “consummation” would mean that you meant something . . . and he absolutely refuses to mean something.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Great!
QUESTIONER 18: That’s in Wagner too: Tristan and Isolde.
RW: Every word means too many things for you to possibly settle on a mere, barbaric, vulgar meaning. So that “coupe” is the “cup”—the champagne glass—and it’s the “cut” of the verse. Every word flips.
QUESTIONER. 19: And that might answer your question, sir—the writer-musician . . .
CR: Al Basile?
AL BASILE: About “harmony”?
Q. 19: I think, in some ways, that’s the “harmony” you find in Mallarmé’s poetry—sort of like you can listen to a piece of music a few different times and concentrate on a different instrument or voice each time—I feel like you can read Mallarmé a few times, and first you’re looking at a glass with champagne foam, and then you’re looking at a seascape, and then you’re looking at poetry as a form; so the harmony could be sort of like that . . .
AB: So you’re talking about a superimposition of sense layers and that you remember the other reading as you’re reading “this way”? And that that’s “chordal”?
Q. 19: Yes.
AB: Not “coital”—“chordal”! I’ll buy that.
CR: Thank you. Let me say three things: first of all, thank you very much. You’re more than critics . . . you’re creative critics today. And: I meant to say “Couple, au revoir” instead of “Adieu.”
And on October the 20th, Al Basile will actually be talking about words and music. It’s not our next meeting, so you might want to enter that in your books, but it’ll go out to everybody. And that talk will relate to his own work as a poet, songwriter, and performer. He’s a musician, and he’s about to receive an award, and so . . .
AB: Maybe not!
CR: Well, I think you’ll win. I’ve got faith in the stars. And third: I’m sorry I didn’t think to get champagne today . . . but please have a drink, and even if it doesn’t foam, you’re allowed to.
CR (To Rosanna and Joe): Thank you very much.
RW and JA: Thank you.
Christopher Ricks, British literary critic and scholar, is Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University where he is also co-director of the Editorial Institute. He was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford from 2004 to 2009, and was president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics at the time of the meeting that is transcribed here. He has written and edited many works, including Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003) and The Oxford Book of English Verse (1999).
Rosanna Warren is an American poet and scholar who was Emma Maclachlan Professor of the Humanities and a University Professor at Boston University until July 2012 and is currently the Hannah Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She has published numerous works of poetry and literary criticism, including Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry (2008).
Joe Armstrong is a flutist and teacher of the Alexander Technique who has specialized in teaching professional musicians in the greater Boston area since 1972. He has also published several books and numerous articles on the Alexander Technique and music-related subjects, including a translation of French musicologist André Pirro’s The Aesthetic of Johann Sebastian Bach (2014).