Category Archives: Literature, Lyrics & Poetry

Lalla Rookh

Sheet music cover 'Lalla Rookh' by George L'Estrange, illustrated by W. George
Lalla Rookh‘ by George L’Estrange, published by Cramer & C° Ltd (London, 1913) and illustrated by W. George.

In 1817 the Irish writer Thomas Moore published his bestselling epic book: Lalla Rookh. Hundred years later George L’Estrange —a now totally forgotten composer wrote a sentimental and unremarkable waltz of the same name. This L’Estrange was not the first who got inspired by Moore’s Oriental romance. From the start Lalla Rookh roused the romantic imaginations of several artists.

Illustration by John Tenniel, from the book ‘Lalla Rookh, An Oriental Romance’ by Thomas Moore, published by Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green (London, 1862).

Moore’s tale narrates how the beautiful Lalla Rookh, daughter of the Mughal Emperor, travels from Delhi to meet —for the first time— her fiancé, the king of Bukhara (in what is now Uzbekistan). She is accompanied by Fadladeen, a self-righteous, obnoxious chamberlain and also by the handsome minstrel Feramorz, who distracts her from the long journey by telling her charming stories. Predictably, the princess falls in love with the young poet and dreads the moment she will have to face her royal betrothed. In the end the amiable storyteller appears to be none other than the king who had wanted to know if Lalla Rookh would love him for his own merit rather than for his wealth. All’s well that ends well.

Sheet music cover for 'Maid of Athens'
Maid of Athens‘ by Edward J. Loder & Lord Byron, published by Jefferys & C° (London, s.d.)

It was Lord Byron who had advised his very good friend and literary rival Thomas Moore to try Orientalism. He in turn was tipped off by Madame de Staël, a French-Swiss writer and influencer avant la lettre. Byron wrote to Moore in 1813: “Stick to the East. The oracle, Staël, told me it was the only poetic policy. The North, South, and West have all been exhausted…”.

Moore had never travelled to the East and thus spent six years of extensive research to come up with his armchair traveller’s view of the Orient. But it was time well spent —and sound advice from Byron— that earned Moore a princely sum of money.
Byron also had orientalist ambitions and had by then already travelled to the east. In 1810, while in Greece, Byron wrote the poem Maid of Athens, which has been set to music by numerous composers. On the cover above we recognise Byron and Theresa Makri, the daughter of his landlord in Athens. Theresa was twelve years old when Byron (he was twenty-two at the time) fell head over heels in love with her. Reportedly he offered £500 for her hand in marriage. The offer was rejected. Byron wrote the girl a poem, and set to his new destination, Constantinople.

Lalla-Roukh‘ by Félicien David, arranged by H. Marx, published by F. Girod (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Célestin Nanteuil.

Félicien David, a French pioneer of musical Orientalism, was another composer excited by Lalla Rookh‘s fairy-tale plot. In his opéra comique Lalla Roukh the heroin kept her phonetic name, but the poet/king Feramorz became Noureddin. Lalla-Roukh is also accompanied by her servant Mirza and by Baskir (Fadladeen in Moore’s version), the pompous, critical and conniving chamberlain.

Emma Calvé, Eustase Thomas-Salignac and Hippolyte Belhomme in the opéra comique ‘Lalla-Roukh’. Photographs by Nadar. source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Contrary to Thomas Moore, Félicien David did travel to the Orient. He even had a specially reinforced piano built to withstand the heat and long journeys. With this small piano that could almost be slung over the shoulder, he travelled to the Middle-East, Algeria and Egypt. He stayed for two years in Cairo where he gave music lessons and explored the desert. These years were decisive for the Orientalist character of his musical work.

Felicien David by A. Lemot. source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

David returned to France where his Lalla Roukh was first performed to huge acclaim in 1862 and would remain popular till the end of the century. It was the catalyst for an explosion of operas set in the ‘Exotic East’.

David’s Lalla Roukh was almost forgotten, but was revived in 2014 by Opera Lafayette in Washington DC. Enjoy an excerpt of their production with a classical Indian dance.

The story of Lalla Rookh also found its way in popular culture. Kate Vaughan, allegedly the first woman to flash her petticoats, also inventor of the skirt dance, had a vaudeville act as Lalla Rookh in the London Novelty Theatre during the 1880s.

Kate Vaughan als Lalla Rookh, Novelty Theatre London

In the United States showman Adam Forepaugh presented in 1880 a street pageant Lalla Rookh’s departure from Delhi. Atop of an elephant sat the most beautiful woman in the world, for which title she had been awarded ten thousand dollars. Curiously, it was not the beauty queen who was named Lalla Rookh but the elephant.

Summer is leaving: Autumn Leaves

Chanson d’Automne‘ composed by Giovanni Bertuccio on a poem by Paul Verlaine. Published by G. Mignani & Figlio (Firenze, s.d.)

Yesterday was that dreadful date, September 21st, the start of the autumn season. For the occasion let’s listen to Charles Trenet’s jazzy version of Paul Verlaine’s famous Chanson d’automne (Autumn Song). In 1944, three years after Charles Trenet’s song was first recorded, the Allies used the first lines of Verlaine’s poem to warn the French Resistance that D-Day was imminent.

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent (bercent) mon cœur
D’une langueur
Monotone.
Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;
Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

What a perfect start to dig into our collection and unearth a few appropriate sheet music covers to illustrate the melancholic and languorous season.

Valse Septembre‘ by Felix Godin. Publisher: Hawkes & Son (London, 1909). Unknown illustrator.

Septemberrosor‘ by Jules Sylvain and Sverker Ahde. Published by Edition Sylvain (Stockholm, 1931). Illustration by Gelotte.

September Song‘ by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, published by Chappell (Paris, 1938) and illustrated by Raymond Erny.

Herbstgedanken‘ by Ludwig Siede, publ. by Anton J. Benjamin (Hamburg, 1919) and illustrated by Paul Telemann.

Herbst, Du kamst ins Land‘ by Béla Zerkovitz & Gustav Beer. Publisher: Roszavölgyi & Co (Budapest, 1910). Unknown illustrator.

Entschwundenes Glück – Zwiegespräch‘ by Max Formanowski. Published by Seelig & Co. (Stockholm, 1919). Uknown illustrator.

Mélopée d’Automne’ by Casimir Renard & Sélénio. Publisher: Rouart, Lerolle & Cie (Paris, s.d.). Illustrator: Clérice frères.

Dernière Serenata‘ by Enrico Toselli, published by Delrieu Frères (Nice, 1929). Illustr.: G. Mossa

The ultimate september song though was written (1946) by Jacques Prévert and it’s music composed by Joseph Kosma. The title was inspired by the last words of Verlaine’s poem: Les feuilles mortes. Originally, the tune was created for a ballet but later ‘remastered’ for the film of Marcel Carné Les Portes de la nuit.

Sung by many artists, the song became really notorious the moment that Yves Montand recorded it. We also know it as the worldwide jazz standard Autumn Leaves.

Les feuilles mortes‘ by Joseph Kosma & Jacques Prévert. Published by Altona Muziekuitgeverij (Amsterdam, 1947), unknown illustrator.

To close our post we selected a slightly more poppy version of the bewitching song that so bizarrely marries desolation and yearning. Bye-bye summer.

Marie Krysinska: composer, poet and alas forgotten

Cover for the sheet music 'Le Hibou' by Paul Bergon & Marie Krysinska, published by A. Quinzard (Paris, 1897) and illustrated by Georges Bellenger.
Le Hibou‘ by Paul Bergon & Marie Krysinska, published by A. Quinzard (Paris, 1897) and illustrated by Georges Bellenger.

This drawing of a crucified owl illustrates a gruesome tradition. Not so long ago it was still practised in rural France. With a wingspan of nearly one meter and its nightly eerie shrieks (listen for yourself), the barn owl was thought to be a bad omen. To keep evil at bay superstitious farmers used to trap the bird and nail it, sometimes still alive, above their barn’s door.

The cover is by lithographer Georges Bellenger, the husband of Marie Krysinska who wrote the poem Le Hibou. As a young woman of the Polish upper middle class Marie Krysinska (1857-1908) entered the Parisian conservatoire where she studied composition and harmony. Soon however she would abandon her classes to follow a more offbeat course of life. Krysinska discarded the conventional musical forms in favour of a freer form of expression. She started to experiment with a new artistic form in which she would mix music, theatre and poetry.

‘Célebres poetisas y grandes escritoras’ – cardboard phototype, 4.3 x 3.2 cm, for a Spanish factory of matchboxes. (1905-1908)

She mingled with other free spirits and was the only female founding member of the literary circle Les Hydropathes (meaning those who are afraid of water and prefer alcohol). She participated in similar nonconformist gatherings: the Zutistes, Jemenfoutistes and Hirsutes. They all came together at Le Chat Noir, the famous cabaret in bohemian Montmartre that embodied the spirit of the Belle Epoque.

‘L’Argent’ by Marie Krysinska & Pierre Trimouillat, published by Bathlot-Joubert (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Ibels. source: Van Gogh Museum

At Le Chat Noir Marie Krysinska became the house pianist for a while. It was an exciting place to be for a young artist. Moreover, as a woman her role was unique: she accompanied singers, composed songs, and also performed her own poetry on stage. At that time, interpreting romances by accompanying oneself was customary in intimate or mundane settings such as salons, but quite unusual in front of a large audience.

‘Ceux d’la Côte’ by Marie Krysinska & L. Durocher, published by Bathlot-Joubert (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Ibels. source: Gallica.bnf.fr

Le Chat Noir published a weekly magazine which would regularly print Marie Krysinska’s poems. Most of the poems of her poetry collections Les Rythmes Pittoresques were first published in Le Chat Noir. Many were dedicated to artists or personalities of the cabaret. Her verse would also appear in other literary magazines like Gil Blas, La Vie Moderne, and in the French feminist newspaper La Fronde.

Gil Blas, October 1893 with the publication of ‘Danse Slave‘ by Marie Krysinska, illustrated by Steinlen.

Marie Krysinska was at the centre of the debate surrounding the birth of French vers libre or free-verse poetry in the 1880s. Free verse does not use the basic rhythmic structure, rhyme, nor any musical pattern but more or less follows the rhythm of natural speech. In the quarrels over the origin of free verse, Krysinska and Gustave Kahn, a male symbolist poet, vied for the title.
It was in fact Krysinska’s poem Le Hibou, published in La Vie Moderne in 1883, that triggered this debate. According to his own writings, Kahn came to see this poem, by accident, when he was serving his country in Tunisia. To his great surprise Le Hibou was written in free verse, looking precisely like his own try-outs. He claimed that it was signed by a person who knew him very well and who used his aesthetics during his forced absence. Thus Kahn christened himself father of the free verse while accusing Krysinska of plagiarism. Krysinska had to counter this if she wanted to stand up for her contribution to literature. She managed to prove that her free-verse poems had been published five years earlier than those of Kahn (*).

La Leçon d’Epinette‘ by Marie Krysinska & Marthe Lys, published by Ondet (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Falco.

In the ensuing public debate it became bon ton to mock Krysinska. The French essayist Laurent Tailhade, attacked her and other female performers virulently:

I never have encountered a more deplorable gathering of ugliness, or a more unpleasant version of feminine clothing. One or two pretty women, lost in the midst of these crooks, gave the eyes a needful rest. Meanwhile the other ones performed their show. Among these ladies was a poetess with some fame between Boulevard Saint-Michel and Montparnasse, the Polish Jew Marie Krysinska. She was seeking the attention of young men by childish airs and advances of an ape-like ingenuity. Big, fat and already far from morning glory, she undulated melodramas on a piano which had lost it sharps.”

Affiche pour La Fronde ; Clémentine Hélène-Dufau ; 1898 - source Gallica BnF
Poster for La Fronde, by Clémentine Hélène-Dufau (1898) – source Gallica BnF

The same writer further ridiculed Krysinska in a poem in which he named her Marpha Bableuska, making allusions to the Blue Stockings that had already become a pejorative term by the late eighteenth century.

Breaking up of the Blue Stocking Club by Thomas Rowlandson, 1815.

Apart from this female gender bashing, Marie Krysinska had to endure criticism and rejection by the symbolist movement. At the time of her dead, an obituary didn’t even acknowledge her poetry. Only her heydays at Le Chat Noir were remembered. Because of her beautiful and musical poetry Marie Krysinska though —in my humble opinion— deserves a better place in literary history.

Le hibou

Il agonise, l’oiseau crucifié, l’oiseau crucifié sur la porte.
Ses ailes ouvertes sont clouées, et de ses blessures, de grandes perles de sang tombent lentement comme des larmes.
Il agonise, l’oiseau crucifié!
Un paysan à l’oeil gai l’a pris ce matin, tout effaré de soleil cruel, et l’a cloué sur la porte.
Il agonise, l’oiseau crucifié.
Et maintenant, sur une flûte de bois, il joue, le paysan à l’oeil gai.
Il joue assis sous la porte, sous la grande porte, où, les ailes ouvertes, agonise l’oiseau crucifié.
Le soleil se couche, majestueux et mélancolique, – comme un martyr dans sa pourpre funèbre;
Et la flûte chante le soleil qui se couche, majestueux et mélancolique.
Les grands arbres balancent leurs têtes chevelues, chuchotant d’obscures paroles;
Et la flûte chante les grands arbres qui balancent leurs têtes chevelues.
La terre semble conter ses douleurs au ciel, qui la console avec une bleue et douce lumière, la douce lumière du crépuscule;
Il lui porte d’un pays meilleur, sans ténèbres mortelles et sans soleils cruels, d’un pays bleu et doux comme la bleue et douce lumière du crépuscule;
Et la flûte sanglote d’angoisse vers le ciel, – qui lui parle d’un pays meilleur.
Et l’oiseau crucifié entend ce chant,
Et oubliant sa torture et son agonie,
Agrandissant ses blessures, –ses saignantes blessures,–
Il se penche pour mieux entendre.

Ainsi es-tu crucifié, ô mon cœur!
Et malgré les clous féroces qui te déchirent,
Agrandissant tes blessures, tes saignantes blessures,
Tu t’élances vers l’Idéal,
A la fois ton bourreau et ton consolateur.
Le soleil se couche majestueux et mélancolique.
Sur la grande porte, les ailes ouvertes, agonise l’oiseau crucifié.


(*) The debate on the vers libre authenticity is still going on. While some scholars attribute its original creation to Marie Krysinska, according to other researchers the ‘real’ first free verse was not written by Krysinska nor by Kahn, but by Arthur Rimbaud.