Saturday, 17 April 2010

Moonstruck Pierrot...

A poem Poet in Residence posted on his blog got me thinking about a piece of music I first fell in love with years ago.

In 1884, the Symbolist poet, Albert Giraud, published a cycle of poems, Pierrot Lunaire: Rondels Bergamasques. The character of Pierrot was taken from the commedia dell'arte. Traditionally, Pierrot, the sad clown, is in love with Columbine, who usually leaves him for Harlequin. In the hands of the Symbolist poets, he became psychologically detatched from reality: the "moonstruck Pierrot" of Giraud's title.

Here's a free-ish translation of one of the poems I've made from the French:

Black Butterflies

The sinister black butterflies
extinguish the sun:
the skyline resembles a book of shadows
that flows with ink each evening.

Perfume from occult censers
disturbs the memory.
The sinister black butterflies
extinguish the sun.

Monsters with sticky suction-pads
Seek out blood to drink
While, from the sky, like black dust,
the sinister black butterflies
descend on our despair.

Shortly after they were written they were translated into German -very freely, I think- by one Otto Erich Hartleben and came to the attention of the composer, Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg set a selection of the poems as a melodramatic song-cycle for voice and chamber ensemble. The result was an expressionist masterpiece. The singer has to adopt a tone half way between singing and talking. Here's Christine Schafer singing an excerpt from it - in the German translation, Black Butterflies became Night:


tony said...

Black interesting image.Dark Angels I Guess? Who Knows, when it finally rains + the volcanic ash falls.maybe we shall see many!

Rachel Fenton said...

Like the new look blog! Very clean.

I like your translation too - and the German interpretation. Isn;t it fascinating and stimulating how one idea morphs into another? Butterly into night - what a beautiful image. Almost like a creation myth. Thanks for this - and for stopping by to remind me I still have a blog!

John Hayes said...

Beautiful translation--I'll have to make a point of looking up the Giraud originals. I especially liked: "the skyline resembles a book of shadows
that flows with ink each evening."

Anonymous said...

I've not read the original, but this is a fine poem. How far in advance of us the French literary avant garde was at that time. And what an extraordinary rendering of the Schonberg. Thanks for both of these, Dominic.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Love that black butterfly image for night. I reminded me of Yeat's imagery for late evening - when white moths were on the wing and moth-like stars were flickering out.
It also reminded me of an incident many years ago when, standing by a stream running through a gulley, I saw a cloud of what looked like black butterflies (I later decided they had probably been damsel flies) - the cloud was so dense that the little area they were in suddenly became quite dark and it was quite an eerie sight.
As regards the music - I would imagine that that half way between talking and singing must be quite difficult for a singer to achieve, particularly if they have spent their life to that point making sure that they hit the note (or rather sing just under it, which I think is the thing to do.)

Incidentally I love your panorama of North Wales in your previous post.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments everyone. A couple of specifics:

tony: I've no idea. I can't say I thought past the imagery very much.

RF: Good point about the morphing. I'll bear it in mind when reading the other poems in the cycle.

John Hayes: Re "The book of shadows". The Giraud original says grimoire. This is a French word which has crossed over into English, for a handbook of magic. (One of the most famous being HP Lovecraft's fictional Necronomicon). The English for grimoire is, well, grimoire.
It struck me as a great word, but obscure: to use it would send readers scrabbling for a dictionary (if they could be bothered to do so). When I discovered that another famous grimoire was called The Book of Shadows, I used that instead, as it fitted in with the evening idea.



De sinistres papillons noirs
Du soleil ont éteint la gloire,
Et l'horizon semble un grimoire
Barbouillé d'encre tous les soirs.

Il sort d'occultes encensoirs
Un parfum troublant la mémoire;
De sinistres papillons noirs
Du soleil ont éteint la gloire.

Des monstres aux gluants suçoirs
Recherchent du sang pour le boire,
Et du ciel, en poussière noire,
Descendent sur nos désespoirs.
De sinistres papillons noirs.

WG: Yes. I think some singers make the mistake of singing it too "nicely". It grates when they do.

Titus said...

Fantastic post, Dominic. You've expanded my mind. And sent me all "Les Enfants du Paradis".

BwcaBrownie said...

all beautiful, thank you for the pleasure DR, and for the lovely and new-to-me word 'grimoire'.

Enchanted Oak said...

So beautifully grim. I too love this opening stanza:
The sinister black butterflies
extinguish the sun:
the skyline resembles a book of shadows
that flows with ink each evening.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments, everybody.