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Musical Collaborations

Historical Background of Stage Productions

Claudel quickly understood the advantage and benefits of linking drama with music. His very first plays often contain stage directions that make specific reference to sound effects and musical accompaniment. From 1912—the year in which for the first time one of his plays (L’Annonce faite à Marie) was staged—his viewpoint changes. That same year he had got to know Darius Milhaud, barely 20 years old at the time. He had also begun to discover the resources of the stage, notably via the innovative Hellerau Theatre in Dresden, Germany. Thus he now feels the need to combine the two art forms more closely. Accordingly, he asks Milhaud to compose incidental music for his translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which he had begun in the early1890s, and also decides to continue translating the whole of Aeschylus’ trilogy. He suggests that Milhaud should use a new type of declamation, midway between the spoken word and song. This the composer would accomplish for Les Choéphores (1915) by using a form of declamation that was notated rhythmically, supported by percussion instruments and the exclamations of the chorus. Thus a first period is launched, which is also noteworthy for the incidental music for Protée (of which there would be three successive versions between 1913 and 1919) and the ballet L’Homme et son désir(1917), again with the faithful and amicable collaboration of Milhaud. In 1922–23, stationed in Tokyo at the time, Claudel collaborated with a Japanese composer called Kineya Sakichi for a mimodrama, La Femme et son ombre, which was translated into Japanese.

In 1927 there begins a new period. This time, the collaborations originate in specific commissions or projects to stage certain pieces. In early 1927, for example, when Philippe Berthelot asked Claudel to write a short text in memory of his father, the chemist Marcellin Berthelot, the dramatist entrusted Germaine Tailleferre with the task of composing music for his Sous le rempart d’Athènes. The same year, the German theatre director Max Reinhardt commissioned a grand spectacle about Christopher Columbus and in the end it was Milhaud again who was asked to compose the music for the Livre de Christophe Colomb. In 1934, it was the turn of Ida Rubinstein; she requested from Claudel two works: La Sagesse, with music by Milhaud, and Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, with music by Honegger. Finally, in 1938 Paul Sacher asked him to collaborate with Honegger for La Danse des morts.

Often Claudel used the occasion of the performance of one or other of his works to oversee the musical accompaniment personally. In 1932, Milhaud composed incidental music for L’Annonce faite à Marie. In 1934, Paul Collaer wrote an original score for L’Otage, for a speaking chorus. In 1941, Louise Vetch composed new incidental music for L’Annonce. In 1943, Honegger took on the task of writing incidental music for the production of the Soulier de satinat the Comédie-Française. In 1946, Louise Vetch was commissioned to compose a score for Le Père humilié. New versions of Le Livre de Christophe Colombwere produced. For example, in 1947 Claudel adapted his text for a radio broadcast that was accompanied by original music by André Jolivet. When Barrault staged the work in 1952, Milhaud composed a new score for it, just incidental music this time. However, two years later Milhaud took up again the operatic version of 1927, inverting the two Parts and making cuts here and there. Mention should also be made of the new incidental music composed by Milhaud in 1955 for the productions of Protée by Jany Holt. However, the dramatist became progressively less involved in the decision-making regarding musical accompaniment, letting the director have the main say.

Claudel’s Musical Approach

It is of course difficult to give an overall characterisation of the above collaborations, since they range from simple, short pieces of incidental music toworks that are virtuallyoperatic in scope. Nevertheless, the originality of the majority of these musical creations stems from the role that the dramatist assigned to himself. Contrary to the normal procedure in an operatic context—where the librettist is at the service of the composer—Claudel wished to make music the servant of the drama. Accordingly, he himself very often set the parameters of the type of music he wanted, and lavished extensive advice and numerous suggestions on his musical collaborators. In effect, he was adapting the model of ancient Greek theatre, in which the dramatist was his own musician. This assumption of power by the dramatist in an area which is not his OWN may come as a surprise. Nevertheless, Claudel always showed great adaptability, and the musicians who worked with him paid glowing tribute to the quality, precision, and appropriateness of his comments to an extent that makes him seem not just a writer but a kind of musician.

His overall approach can perhaps best be summed up by a concept which he himself defined as “music in the nascent stage”. It is no longer a question of immersing the whole of a drama in music, but of exploiting the convergence and complementarity of these two constituents. Thus a consistency between words, exclamations, noises, rhythms, and music is the aim. Jeanne d’Arc au bûcheris the work most representative of this notion, mingling as it does spoken text, sound effects, orchestral music, vocal music, and choral music. The success which this work has enjoyed testifies to the validity of Claudel’s ideas in this area.

Poetry and Music

To this large body of collaborative creations that bring together stage and music, we must add a further, more modest, group; namely, poetic works specifically conceived with a musical setting in mind. It is indicative, for example, that in 1905 Claudel published in L’Occident three poems—“Le Sombre Mai”, “Ce qui n’est plus,” and “Le Sommeil dans le chagrin” —whose general title was “Paroles pour de la Musique”. Subsequently, he would regularly write, translate or adapt poetic texts with a view to entrusting them to musicians. Thus Darius Milhaud set to music Psaume 136 (1918) and Psaume 129 (1919), as translated by Claudel; the cantata Pan et Syrinx,which Claudel wrote on the basis of a text by de Piis (1934); Cantate de la paix (1937); Les Deux Cités (1937); and Cantate de la guerre (1940). As for Louise Vetch, she composed two collections of mélodies (art songs) with lyrics taken from Dodoitzu and Poèmes d’après le chinois.

Pascal Lécroart


Pascal Lécroart, Paul Claudel et la rénovation du drame musical, Liège, Mardaga, 2004.

Pascal Lécroart et Huguette Calmel, Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher de Paul Claudel et Arthur

Honegger, Paris, Publimuses, 1993; réédition revue et complétée: Genève, Papillon,