ELAINE SIVERSEN PROBES THE SATIRE
Despite this lifestyle, or perhaps because of it, Arthur Rimbaud wrote poetry and prose, which was ground-breaking. His prose work Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), based on his time with Verlaine, is still widely regarded as an early example of modern Symbolist writing. While he was living with the poet Germain Nouveau, he worked on his unconventional prose-poem Les Illuminations, which includes the poem Démocratie. Nine of the poems from this collection were strikingly set as a work for solo voice and orchestra by Benjamin Britten. Australian composer Christopher Bowen, Director of the Sydney University Graduate Choir, has made a choral setting of Démocratie which was not included in Britten’s work. Démocratie was premiered
by the choir in 2002 and has been repeated in a 2017 concert along with significant works by French composers. This concert is being broadcast this month on Fine Music.
John Bowan, who prepares the concert program notes for the Sydney University Graduate Choir, writes that, “Rimbaud is justly
celebrated for his break with the bounds of conventional writing which yielded a series of surreal experiments in visionary and brilliant poetry. This writing came out of a lived experience that was as rambunctious as it was transgressive.” Yet this brilliant career was over by the time that Rimbaud was 21. He stopped writing, began to travel, took up gunrunning and was a pioneer in the international coffee business. He died aged 39 after a fast and dissolute life, not knowing that Verlaine had published Les Illuminations in book form. It consists of 42 acclaimed poems (40 prose poems and two of free verse) which have been studied extensively. Rimbaud’s poems in Les Illuminations are written in a style which significantly influenced the development of
surrealism and Dadaism.
The texts of the poems express a ‘ruthless and take-no-prisoners class-consciousness’, says John Bowan, and Rimbaud also writes about the exploitation of the working class and attitudes which are, ‘ferocious, ignorant of science and only self- interested’. John Bowan goes on to say, “The extraordinary text of Démocratie is about the persistent failure, in Rimbaud’s time, of French democracy and bourgeois hegemony. Its themes, however, are universal and could be applied to any populist dissent from prevailing political and economic authority”. He remarks that this is relevant to our current age where ‘ignorant populism’ has surged on the political scene.
Always in search of interesting material for his vocal compositions, Christopher Bowen found that Rimbaud’s words appealed to his sense of justice and of the satirical. His music is characterised by frequent changes in tempo and syncopation while whispered injunctions give way to shouts of defiance in the choral writing.
Fifteen years ago, Christopher Bowen wrote about his then new composition, Démocratie. “It is not my intention to make a political statement with this work, as politics from my perspective have become a rather futile and impotent means by which to implement positive change for society as a whole. Democracy in its most ideal form is fast diminishing, hi-jacked by those whose only concern is to increase their own power to the exclusion of others. One can rationalise any change in many ways and justify it, but if the mechanisms of change demeans humanity and its most basic and fundamental qualities, then I would question its motives.”
Now, on this second performance of his work, he says that ‘democracies throughout the world are now more fragile than ever’. He says that it is a time when facts are described as ‘alternative’ and when people cry ‘fake news’ when what they are hearing or reading is really objective journalism. Amongst a certain part of the population, there is an acceptance of the most outrageous prejudice and bigotry.
He also wonders now how we should view all of those who have fought inequality, discrimination and injustice, including those
now-revered protestors Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela when, in our country, some denounce the right to protest against injustice.
While he says that Démocratie is not political, Christopher Bowen’s wish is that his composition proves to be provocative and challenging for the listeners, causing them to reflect on the state of democracy today. Although Arthur Rimbaud wrote in a
satirical vein, he was not trying to make fun of the democratic system. His message was that democracy was failing to protect the vulnerable at the expense of the powerful. The message of Les Illuminations lives on!
Démocratie will be heard in Showcasing Australian Artists on Thursday 22 February at 8pm.
This article appeared in the February issue of the Fine Music Magazine. Read the full magazine online here.