Poetical and Critical Perspective


It is precisely this art of listening that I hope you will pardon a poet for coming to talk to you about today, taking as his text that remarkable verse from Ecclesiasticus that he has so often had occasion to quote and which in itself contains an entire moral and ascetic treatise: Non impedias musicam. Hinder not the music. Which music? First of all, the concert of human life itself in which we have no choice other than to take up our place, be it large or small. We are not like cicadas clinging to the bark of some pine tree in summer, each screaming its head off all day long. We are to pay attention to what is going on around us, and a goodly part of our own destiny depends on the sharpness of our sense of hearing, on the quality of our understanding, and the virtuosity of our reflexes. To follow the metaphor through, I would say that in any human music there are three things to be considered. The first is the score, which is, as it were, our book of destiny and one that we have to sight-read at a quick glance page by page. The second is the conductor’s baton, which indicates the tempo and the feeling. I can do no better than compare this to those great moral laws that, despite individual initiatives, by general consent cause a common rhythm to prevail. Lastly, there is the attention we must pay, not just to our neighbours at the music stands closest to us, but to the double-bass player, to the distant percussionist who for the last seventy bars, as we know, has been thinking of nothing but the climax of the entire piece and with it the clash of his cymbals. To our cost, we learn only too well that any wrong note, any self-indulgent shrillness is immediately punished. Punished first of all by our own personal humiliation and suffering, then by the disarray that we spread around us in the orchestral company and that will justify a penalty. (…)

Les Aventures de Sophie. Œuvres Complètes XIX. Gallimard, p. 169 – D.R.

Translation from Paul Claudel: Poet of the Sacred Cosmos and Prophet of a Christian Ecology by Michael Donley (Leominster, UK: Gracewing, 2016), 65–66.

Claudel not only wrote a number of texts that deal specifically with music, but also frequently referred to this art form more generally in his writings—whether dramatic, poetic, critical, or exegetical. He developed a conception of music that was metaphysical in nature and in which one can detect the influence of Plato and Aristotle, seen through the prism of Saint Augustine or Boethius. In Claudel’s case, this way of understanding music is enhanced by a perception of the universe and man as being in a perpetual state of vibration, as he explained in the early text entitled Art poétique. Accordingly, he turned a certain verse from Ecclesiasticus—Non impedias musicam (32.5) —into his personal motto. Do not hinder the music: man must find and keep to his part in the symphony that the universe constitutes under the aegis of God, its Creator.

In an approach inherited from Mallarmé—which consisted in a poet’s “taking back” from music what was his—Claudel draws on music in defining his own distinctive version of the vers libre, modelling it on man’s respiration and heartbeat as well as using the rhythms and sounds of the French language. In short, music can be seen to be the preferred metaphorical medium for expressing his poetic and dramatic vision. Thus the prose poem “Le Promeneur” in Connaissance de l’Est ends with the following question: “I understand the harmony of the world ; when will I discern its melody ?” To which, in Le Soulier de satin, Rodrigue replies: “How I love these millions of things that exist together! There is no soul so stricken in which the sight of this vast concord can fail to awaken a faint melody!” This musical model can also be seen in the very title of La Cantate à trois voix, a work which is on the borderline between the poetic and the dramatic and which by its very nature is made up of different “cantatas”. The poet wished to rival the musician, then, which didn’t prevent him from providing Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger or his daughter Louise Vetch with numerous poetic texts that will become mélodies (art songs), choruses, or cantatas.

It is clear, then, that Claudel’s critical articles on music are of a more than trivial interest. Although they are lacking in strictly musicological value, for want of the necessary technical competence on his part, they provide him with the opportunity to construct a dialogue between one type of creative artist and another, over and above the differences in artistic language. The most important of these articles are devoted to Wagner. For example, the brilliant dialogue entitled “Richard Wagner, Rêverie d’un poète français” (1927) allows us to discover Claudel’s own interpretation of the German composer’s life and works. In “Le drame et la musique” (1930), in which Claudel outlines his own dramatic and musical aesthetics, it is again Wagner who remains the principal reference. A later article—“Le Poison wagnérien” (1938)—is more polemical. There are also articles on Berlioz and Honegger, among others. All of these can be found in Œuvres en prose (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade).

Pascal Lécroart


Timothée Picard, “« Comme le mi a besoin du do » : le modèle musical de Claudel”, Bulletin de l’Association pour la Recherche Claudélienne, n°6, 2007, pp. 3–56.

Michel Plourde, Paul Claudel, une musique du silence, Université de Montréal, 1970.

Joseph Samson, Paul Claudel, poète-musicien, Genève, Milieu du monde, 1947.