Composed: 1971; 1978
Length: c. 8 minutes
John Corigliano’s Voyage represents the confluence of three artistic minds. It began life in 1971 as an unaccompanied choral work, setting Richard Wilbur’s English translation of Charles Baudelaire’s “L’invitation au voyage”; the composer’s 1978 reworking of the piece for string orchestra omits the text, but preserves its color and cadence.
Baudelaire published his poem in 1857 as part of the famous symbolist collection Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), which raised eyebrows and ire with its rich, frank evocations of sex and death. The decadence and debauchery of the work – and the fact that it was not, in all honesty, an inaccurate representation of the poet’s lifestyle – led to the criminal prosecution, on grounds of public immorality, of Baudelaire, his publisher, and his printer, and has cemented the book’s place in history. “L’invitation au voyage” is one of the most subdued and lovely poems in the collection, a sleep-drunk meditation on love that feels simultaneously urgent and languorous. Though a number of people have translated the poem into English, Wilbur – former Poet Laureate, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and chief lyricist of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide – most successfully captures the mesmerizing sensuality of the original.
That sensuality informs Corigliano’s approach to the text and the music. The shifting harmonies reflect the dreaminess of the lonely lover; as the poem skirts the blurred boundary between reality and imagination, so does the music nudge at the boundary between tonality and atonality. The lushness of the string sonorities (reminiscent of the works of Vaughan Williams) conjures a place somewhere between desire and realization, between the invitation and the voyage itself.
The composer – who has also been honored with a Pulitzer Prize, as well as an Academy Award and two Grammys – has written of this work: “Wilbur’s poignant setting pictures a world of obsessive imagination – a drugged version of heaven full of sensual imagery. The music echoes the quality of the repeated refrain found in this lush translation: ‘There, there is nothing else but grace and measure, richness, calm and pleasure.’ ”
Notes provided by the Colburn School.