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Verlaine Variations


The musical work entitled "Verlaine Variations" is # 4 of the Deus Ex Machina cycle, Part I, by Elodie Lauten. The text is Paul Verlaine’s "Claire de lune," the opening poem of Fêtes galantes, his second volume of verse. The Deus Ex Machina cycle, Part I, was premiered in Merkin Concert Hall in 1997 and featured Mary Hurlbut and Meredith Borden, sopranos; Andrew Bolotowsky, baroque flute; and Elaine Comparone, harpsichord. The music used here is from a live recording of that performance.

In 2000, I designed images for it electronically, which were generated as color slides and programmed to the music by means of a 4-track recorder and a dissolve unit. The resulting work, consisting of music with "rhythmically dancing" slides, was performed live as a Lark Ascending presentation that year and again in 2001.


The Music

Elodie Lauten composed the music for "Verlaine Variations"
while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1996. "Experiencing a kind of unexplained melancholy," she remembered Verlaine’s "Clair de lune" from her preteens, when she had to memorize it for school. She perceived the poem to be a "flashback to the 18th century decadence of a Watteau painting with a sense of the uselessness of pleasure." Concerning this work, Ms. Lauten added

One of the key musical concepts in the Deus Ex Machina cycle is the combination of two leading melodic lines, and the "Verlaine Variations" is an example of this, with the flute and soprano interactive melodies moving together in unison or harmony. I think I may have gotten the idea from watching my two cats running around in my studio, interacting in all different ways. The metaphor is two energies working together through the unfolding of time, connecting or coming further apart, in an evolving relationship, but with the added feline playfulness in the interaction—like adding a second soprano line in one variation. The A minor natural mode—the "minor mode" referred to by Verlaine in the poem—which occurs throughout the piece with no modulation, sets the mood as rather dark, while the brightness of the tessitura of flute and soprano contrasts with the mode and creates a balance between melancholy and lightness. The short poem is repeated in variation form in a cyclic pattern, like a memory that keeps coming back, bringing slightly different impressions each time.


The Poem

“Clair de lune”

Votre âme est un paysage
Que vont charmant masques
et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant
et quasi
Tristes sous leurs
déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le
mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire
à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au
clair de lune.

Au calme clair de lune
triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux
dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les
jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes
parmi les marbres.

Your soul is a chosen
Where charming masked and
costumed figures stroll
Playing the lute and dancing
and almost
Sad under their fantastic

While they sing in the minor
The victory of love and the
opportunities of life,
They do not seem to believe
in their happiness
And their song blends with
the moonlight.

The quiet moonlight, sad
and beautiful,
Which gives dreams to the birds
in the trees
And makes the fountain sprays
sob in ecstasy,
The tall willowy fountain sprays
among the marble statues.

Translated by Elodie Lauten

This poem, which opens Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes, is an extended metaphor on the order of William Blake’s "Garden of Love," except that Verlaine was characterizing or defining a person’s soul or innermost being there, whereas Blake was telling a story about an unhappy encounter with someone. From the second to the third stanza, Verlaine elaborated on the metaphor by means of incremental repetitions, the "clair de lune" becoming the "calme clair de lune triste et beau," and "les jets d’eau" becoming "les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres." These incremental repetitions are anticipated by the repetition of "masques" in "bergamasques" in the first stanza.

In terms of sound, the second and third stanzas are mirror images by virtue of the repeating r’s at the ends of lines 5 and 7 ("mineur" and "bonheur") and lines 10 and 12 ("arbres" and "marbres") and the closely related sounds of "une" and "eau" at the ends of lines 6 and 8, and 9 and 11, respectively. These "reflections" of sound are a fitting verbal counterpart to the reflected light of the moon.


The Slides and Choreography

The slides and their sequencing function like any choreography for live dancers—i.e., they are not meaningful without the music and would have no independent existence.

As a graphic designer, I tried to incorporate in the visuals, their placement, and the rhythm of their sequencing a total experience of Elodie Lauten’s "Verlaine Variations," including her vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, her inexplicable melancholy, her memory of Verlaine’s "Clair de lune" from her preteens, and her perception of the poem as a "flashback to the 18th-century decadence of a Watteau painting with a sense of the uselessness of pleasure." I also brought to my share of the work my participation in Ms. Lauten’s music as a listener, my own encounter with Verlaine’s poem, and my own fresh discovery of Watteau, that is, of the subdued or filtered eroticism that I perceived in the paintings belonging to the fêtes galantes subgenre. I used as design elements an early portrait of Verlaine and excerpts from many of Wateau’s paintings, as well as my photographs, many of which I refashioned digitally.


Elodie Lauten (b. 1950)

Born in Paris, Ms. Lauten began studying piano and harmony privately with Paris Conservatory teachers at age 7, and dates her first composition to her twelfth year. Following her graduation from the prestigious Institute d'etudes politiques, a rare opportunity came her way to compose and perform background music for a play by Dashiell Heyadat to be given at the Musée d'art moderne. With this, she abandoned plans to pursue an advanced degree in Economics and decided to give her life over entirely to music.

Shortly thereafter, Ms. Lauten came to New York City—indeed as to a cultural mecca—and by the greatest good fortune she was befriended by American poet Allen Ginsberg, whose purchase of a Farfisa organ for her exposed her to a keyboard quite different from that of the piano, and at the same time to the possibilities of music produced electronically.

The 1980s turned into a period of intense study, which included the basics of Indian music with Lamont Young; meditation with Sri Chinmoy, in which she also acquired a taste for the music of southern India; composition with Dinu Ghezzo; and northern Indian music with Akhmal Parwez. In 1987, Ms. Lauten was awarded an M.A. in Electronic Composition from New York University.

Besides Indian music, Ms. Lauten numbers among the influences on her work Bach, Monteverdi, Clement Janequin, Buxtehude, Handel, Purcell, Charles Ives, John Cage, and Lamont Young, as well as the tradition of the French chanson, jazz, and rock. She is especially fascinated by the possibilities of improvisation that jazz brings with it, influenced no doubt by her father, jazz pianist and drummer Errol Parker.

Ms. Lauten's mature works include chamber music, songs, dance music, multimedia operas, sound tracks, and music for the trine (a microtonal lyre designed by her), and are featured on over a dozen CDs on a variety of labels. Her Deus Ex Machina, "Part 2: Akasha or the Realm of the Unknowable" was performed in Merkin Concert Hall a year after the premiere of Part I and broadcast over WNYC's New Sounds Live. A chamber opera entitled Waking in New York, with libretto by Allen Ginsberg, was premiered in New York in 1997 and has been performed several times since.


Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

Verlaine was born in Metz to an army officer and his wife. His earliest known poem, "La Mort," dates from his fourteenth year. Graduating from the Lycée Bonaparte in Paris in 1862 with a distinction in Latin, he worked as a clerk in an insurance company and then at the Paris city hall. At the same time, he began frequenting literary cafes and drawing rooms, where he met many of the leading poets of the day, particularly of the Parnassian group; almost at once, poems of Verlaine’s began appearing in reviews.

In 1866 came his first volume, Poèmes saturniens, many of which were virtuoso imitations of Baudelaire and Leconte de Lisle. This was followed three years later by Fêtes galantes, his first mature work. Largely using the world of 18th-century painter Antoine Watteau, particularly the painter’s depiction of the commedia dell’arte, Verlaine created a private universe where among groves, marble pools, and fountains lit by moonlight—i.e., reflected rather than direct light—beings who are essentially melancholy put on a mask of gaiety.

After the publication of several more volumes—La Bonne Chanson (1870) and Romances sans paroles (1874)—came Sagesse (1880), which included expressions of a simple Christian faith and brought with it literary recognition. Other volumes of note followed in succeeding years, among them Jadis et naguère (1884), Amour (1888), and Parallèlement (1889).

Verlaine’s life was for the most part given over to drinking and debauchery. He was imprisoned for beating his mother and again for shooting Arthur Rimbaud, his lover, during their stormy relationship.

To be numbered among his accomplishments was, despite all, his recognition of Rimbaud’s enormous talent.


Some Useful References

Adam, Antoine. The Art of Paul Verlaine.
__New York: New York UP, 1963.

Richardson, Joanna. Verlaine. New York:
__Viking, 1971.

Verlaine, Paul. Oeuvres poétiques. Ed.
__Jacques Robichez. Paris: Editions Messein, 1995.

Vidal, Mary. Watteau's Painted Conversations.
__New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.

Nancy Bogen