Thursday, June 14, 2012

Melanging Poetry, Music & Painting

Plaque commemorating the birth of Petrach in 1304
Novelist Deborah Lawrenson said it best in her blog post yesterday: "The trouble with being endlessly curious is that there is always something else you'd like to know."  She was talking about the trail she'd been following as she researched a cookbook author, Elizabeth David, who spent some time in the Provencal village of Menerbes living in a wonderful hilltop house called Le Castellet. Finding Elizabeth David led Lawrenson to Nicolas de Stael, a famous Russian painter who also lived at Le Castellet at one time. Click through to the blog post links to read the whole tragic story of de Stael's life and to see photos of his exciting paintings. Lawrenson's endless curiosity to learn 'the rest of the story' provided me with some fascinating reading...and a bit of endless curiosity of my own!

As I read Wednesday's post about de Stael's last week of life before committing suicide, I learned that just prior to that week of frenzied painting, he had been in Paris and had attended two concerts. Lawrenson provides a YouTube video of the work that supposedly prompted this manic episode of creativity and perhaps even contributed to de Stael's decision to leap to his death from the window of his atelier. Legend hints at a disparaging remark by a critic as having influenced him. Or perhaps it was a failed love affair that made him despondent? As I watched and listened to the Schonberg's 'Serenade Opus 24, I have to's not music that would inspire me to either creativity or death! The Muse moves us all in different ways, though, and de Stael was clearly moved by the piece. Listening to the music, I read the commentary that accompanies it and was surprised to see that the central portion of the work is a sonnet by Petrarch.

Well, that piqued my curiosity! You might remember that I blogged about Petrarch this spring when I stayed in Fontaine de Vaucluse and visited the museum there dedicated to his life and work and strolled in his garden. Which sonnet was it? Could there be a clue to why this particular piece of music 'sang' to de Stael? I spent most of the morning doing the Google thing and found that the sonnet of Shonberg's 'Serenade' is Sonnet 217, part of Petrarch's Cantoniziere to Laura, his life-long love and Muse. It took a bit of digging, but here is the sonnet in English:
Sonnetto 217
Once I hoped, lamenting so justly
making such fervent verses heard,
that pity's warmth might be felt
in that hard heart that freezes in mid-summer:

and that the cruel cloud, that chills 
and veils it, might disperse with the breeze
of my ardent voice, or others might hate her
for hiding those eyes that destroy me.

Yet I seek no pity for myself, nor hatred
for her: I do not wish it, nor is it possible
(such are my stars, and my cruel fate):

but I sing her heavenly beauty, so 
that, when I'm free of this flesh, the world
will know the sweetness of my death 

It's one of Petrarch's later sonnets that speaks more of unrequited love and the reality that hope is gone.Laura barely knows he exists and will never love him. I think the last stanza is very telling. The poet almost looks forward to the 'sweetness of my death.' Is this what compelled de Stael to take his own life? Was he following Petrarch's advice? Certainly it was well-known that de Stael suffered from bouts of despair and depression, but could the music with its core of unrequited love and death have tipped him over the edge? We'll never know for sure, of course. All this is pure speculation driven by that endless curiosity to know more of the story. But isn't it intriguing how poetry, music and great paintings melange into a story of love, life and death?
Sculpture in Petrarch's garden representing his unrequited love for Laura.


  1. Enjoyed this post,also Deborah's too!

  2. Good bit of detective work finding the Petrarch sonnet. I have to admit that Schonberg is not my favourite composer but music is a very subjective thing.

  3. While I love some more modern music, like Erik Satie, I found Schonberg a bit strident for my taste. I've been intrigued with Petrarch since my visit to Fontaine de Vaucluse...I've never read him before, but his sonnets are quite nice.

  4. Well done on your detective work, Evelyn - now we are the Secret Two!! I'd like to do a Fontaine/Petrarch post linking back here, if that's OK with you?

    1. I'd love you to link back! It will be interesting to see where you go with this. I love when we make all these connections. I was thrilled to be introduced to Petrarch in Fontaine de Vaucluse...and to see that the museum there was spearheaded by Rene Char. I first learned about Char through a book I read by Mary Ann Caws who wrote about Provence. She's the American professor who translated Char into English. Her book, "Provencal Cooking: Savoring the Simple Life in France" is excellent if you haven't read it. She has quite an impressive CV and, I see as I re-visit her website, has also written some other books about about Dora Maar looks especially intriguing. Don't you love how one thing leads to another?

  5. Hello Evelyn! Just to let you know that I have done a linking post and it's up now here:

    And also, in the way of the world, I am very much aware of Mary Ann Caws and her work! You might like this:

    All the best - and thanks again for the great detective work.

    1. Mary Ann Caws' review was fabulous...weren't you thrilled?? And now I have a new painter to explore:Julian Merrow-Smith and a new book to read by Ruth. These connections continue to intrigue me!