Sheffield project finds out how writer has added poetry to pop

Dr Helen Abbott, of University of Sheffield, will be heading up The Baudelaire Song Project
Dr Helen Abbott, of University of Sheffield, will be heading up The Baudelaire Song Project
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From the psychedelic swing of ’60s pop, to the pomp and swagger of ’80s rock, an unlikely thread runs through the music – the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire.

His poems have inspired and influenced generations of musicians and songwriters over almost two centuries, with his words popping up in rock, reggae, hip hop, folk, classical and electronic music across the globe.

And now Dr Helen Abbott, senior lecturer at Sheffield University’s French department, has launched a new research project, exploring the reasons why Baudelaire’s work has stood the test of time and crossed boundaries of genre with ease.

Dr Abbott’s four-year programme, which is called The Baudelaire Song Project and has been awarded £600,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, will pull together every song setting of Baudelaire’s poetry for the very first time.

At the end of the project, Helen and the project team will have produced a full data set of songs inspired by Baudelaire’s poetry, in the form of a searchable digital resource.

“My love of Baudelaire began when I was younger and training as a classical singer,” said Helen.

“There was one famous classical song I always loved to sing and, one day I realised, it was a Baudelaire poem. I started researching and began finding his lyrics everywhere – in pop, rock, rap, reggae, and everything in between!”

Baudelaire is distinctive in French literature in that his skills as a prose writer virtually equal his ability as a poet.

His body of work includes a novella, influential translations of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, highly perceptive criticism of contemporary art, provocative journal entries, and critical essays on a variety of subjects.

But why does Helen believe his words are as relevant today as when they were written more than 160 years ago?

“He had a lot to say about society,” she said. “He was very good about talking about juxtapositions – poor, rich, good, evil – he lived in a time of major change, of urban regeneration and social upheaval that mirrors our own.”

Some of Baudelaire’s most well-known tributes include Serge Gainsbourg’s 1962 track Baudelaire, The Cure’s How Beautiful You Are – an English version of the prose poem Les Yeux des pauvres – and The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.

David Bowie also borrowed lyrics for his song Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide and Louis Vuitton borrows the title of Baudelaire’s poem L’invitation au voyagefor its series of adverts.

Helen said: “We’ve had a French rap group contact us, an American theatre collective, and an Italian composer. “

Workshops and public concerts will also form part of the project. Sheffield University will work with Oxford Lieder, Toulouse Mélodie-Française, and Sheffield Sing.

Helen said: “We want people to make new music using his works. We think it would be really cool if people compose something.”

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