By Peter Halstead

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
—Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.
—Charles Baudelaire

—literal translation of Correspondances, Charles Baudelaire

Nature is a temple whose columns are living trees
From which disguised words sometimes pour;
Man walks there in a forest of metaphor
Which cools him with a conspiring breeze.

Like long shadows which mix over time
Into dark—deep and fuliginous—
Vast as night, clear as rhyme:
Scents, colors, sounds imitate us.

Scents like a child’s skin, ingenuous,
Soft as oboes, green as any open place
—And others, corrupt, lush, victorious—

Expand into an infinite space,
—Like amber, musk, aloe, and incense,
They ring the changes of the spirit into sense.


Noam Chomsky, in his Language and Mind, has developed the principle that there is a mental system that enables us to verbalize what we feel. Leonard Bernstein, in his Norton Lecture “The Unanswered Question,” has extended that “universal grammar” to include music. There are underpinnings in music that tell a story, whether or not the piece is purely structural, such as a Bach fugue, or has a romantic “program,” that is, a hidden story that notes imitate onomatopoetically, such as a legend by Liszt.
Baudelaire wrote his poem “Correspondances” around 1845, the same time Liszt was writing his musical poems. Baudelaire felt that nature was a forest of symbols, which we traverse through poetry, or words which expand on already infinite objects. Mallarmé’s “Afternoon of a Faun” of 1876 stressed as well the similarities between language and music, to the point that certain lines are there only for their music, not their sense. I deal with this in my 1975 paper, “Music and Poetry Coupled,” which discusses the similarities of Debussy’s 1894 musical version to Mallarmé’s original poem.
The abuse of free association in describing music linguistically led to austere German theories of pure form, such as Goethe’s novella Elective Affinities, in which all judgmental descriptions were removed, leading to the French nouveau roman. We have in this way eviscerated the emotional roots of music and developed performance practices that are quite bowdlerized, censored of their compositional inspirations: a great loss. As Mallarmé said, writers must take music away from the musicians and bring it back to its true source, the intellect. As someone said of Schnabel’s playing, music was just the start of it. In my word fugues, I try to use the musical advantages of repetition, inversion, and so on, so that words make their own music, while maintaining the layer of sense. As Claudius says, words without thoughts never to heaven go.

December 30th, 2001