Louÿs the poet

Pierre Louÿs

Poet & novelist Pierre Louÿs

I am following up yesterday’s post on Aphrodite and Mary Garden because of something I found via Google books.  I made an assertion yesterday off the top of my head; upon further reflection i realized i had no idea, but was functioning entirely on instinct.  Having said Aphrodite was no longer being produced (and that assertion appears to be correct), I looked for someone to back me up OR to perhaps contradict me.

God Bless Richard Langham Smith and Caroline Potter, for more or less confirming my blind assertion in their book French Music Since Berlioz.  But when I looked at what they’d said, I was somewhat surprised.   Here I was, worrying about my accuracy, and BOOM, one of the authors of that book(Smith or Potter) confused two different works by Louÿs. Does anyone care? perhaps not.   Okay I am a nerd, guilty as charged. But I thought it’s a great departure point to speak about musical adaptations of the works of Pierre Louÿs.

Yesterday we looked at Aphrodite, admittedly giving it short shrift(but also a link to the score if you want to read through it).  Here’s the quote from Smith/Potter, which serves both to address Erlanger’s operatic adaptation of the novel, as well as a segue to another work.

Camille Erlanger’s Le juif polonais had enjoyed some success at its premiere in 1900 but his Aphrodite, based on a series of gently pornographic prose poems by Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs became a lavish and celebrated spectacle as had his teacher Delibes’s Lakme with which it shares at least exoticism. (Smith/Potter)

Of course the error is especially ironic considering the reference to Debussy, the friend to Louÿs.  The poems by Louÿs were the Chansons de Bilitis, a remarkable piece of literary fraud.  Louÿs claimed that he had found antique writings that he purportedly translated; but of course he’d written it all himself, using the framing story to lend his poetry an additional aura.  Debussy would set three of the Chansons de Bilitis, and later write chamber music for the songs.   Potter/Smith accidentally conflated the poems with Aphrodite, which is a novel, rather than a series of poems.

While we’re at it, let’s hear one. Here’s the text followed by a translation:

La Flûte de Pan

Pour le jour des Hyacinthies,
il m’a donné une syrinx faite
de roseaux bien taillés,
unis avec la blanche cire
qui est douce à mes lèvres comme le miel.

Il m’apprend à jouer, assise sur ses genoux ;
mais je suis un peu tremblante.
il en joue après moi,
si doucement que je l’entends à peine.

Nous n’avons rien à nous dire,
tant nous sommes près l’un de l’autre;
mais nos chansons veulent se répondre,
et tour à tour nos bouches
s’unissent sur la flûte.

Il est tard,
voici le chant des grenouilles vertes
qui commence avec la nuit.
Ma mère ne croira jamais
que je suis restée si longtemps
à chercher ma ceinture perdue.

The flute of Pan

For Hyacinth Day
he gave me a syrinx, pipes made
from well-cut reeds joined
with the white wax
as sweet to my lips as honey.

He is teaching me to play, as I sit on his knee;
but I am shaking.
He plays it after me, so softly
that it’s an effort to hear.

We have nothing to say to one another
being so close to each other.
but our songs want to answer,
and turn after turn our mouths
meet on the flute.

It is late:
here’s the song of the green frogs,
that begins at twilight.
My mother will never believe
I spent so long
searching for my lost waistband.

And so we’ve distinguished between the Chansons de Bilitis, which are poems –set by Debussy, not Erlanger– and the novel Aphrodite, set notoriously by Erlanger, and largely forgotten in our own time.  Here’s a bit of an epitaph for the opera from Smith/Potter:

Despite its success, Aphrodite seems to have been written out of operatic history relatively early on: Henry Malherbe, in his important survey of the repertoire of the Opera-Comique, gives it scant attention alongside works which enjoyed considerably less success, although he does give us one picture of an empty set.  He attributes its popularity largely to the basis of its libretto, which fantasises upon female goings-on around the temple of Aphrodite. (Smith/Potter)

Now I feel better.

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