Benjamin BrittenLes Illuminations op. 18
French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) was one of the founders of modern poetry but also a deeply perplexing and conflicted person. He arrived in Paris at the age of 16 and soon made a name for himself in the Symbolist salons of the city. He became involved with a fellow Bohemian, poet Paul Verlaine, and documented their time together in Une saison en enfer [A Season in Hell]. He then stopped writing poetry at the age of 20 or so and began to travel around the world. In Africa in the 1870s, upon learning that his poems were becoming famous in Paris, he remarked: “Absurd, ridiculous, disgusting.” He later described his poetry as “dishwater, mere dishwater”.
Rimbaud’s prose poem Les Illuminations was published posthumously. In the 1930s, it was picked up by Benjamin Britten, living in the USA at the time. His setting of extracts from the poem, likewise titled Les Illuminations, for high voice (soprano or tenor) and strings was completed in October 1939.
Rimbaud’s startling poetic imagery is opaque and ambiguous, and it cannot have been an easy task to reflect it in music. Britten, however, did a superb job. Compared with some of his earlier works, Les Illuminations is written with a lighter touch, but the music deftly parallels the multiple dimensions and sensitive irony of the text. The work is structured as a song cycle in nine movements, although it is noted in the score that the pauses between the movements should be as short as possible. The work opens with a fanfare whose motif recurs throughout. Having passed through a variety of shifting moods, the cycle comes to a sombre and subsiding close.
3a and 3b. Phrase and Antique
7. Being beauteous