Art often turns to itself for inspiration. An interdisciplinary approach to creating art has been used for ages, be it paintings of Ophelia drowned or Mussorgsky’s musical rendering of Pictures at an Exhibition. From the first operas written on the story of Orpheus to Stephen Sondheim’s depiction of the life of painter Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George, no artists seem so fascinated with the works of their brethren as musicians.
In Here/After: Songs of Lost Voices (a two-CD set recently released by PentaTone Classics), American composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer explore a number of artists and artworks through music. The album is composed mostly of song cycles interspersed with a few purely instrumental pieces. One cycle examines the works of Francis Poulenc through his friendships; another describes a woman’s life through pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The notable exception to this focus on art and artists is Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston. Commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera for the tenth anniversary of the attacks, the cycle takes its text primarily from interviews with Houston natives, and is the emotional account of one city’s reaction to the national tragedy.
The first song cycle of the album, entitled Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, takes as its subject the enigmatic and elusive French sculptress Camille Claudel (portrayed in this recording by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato accompanied by the Alexander String Quartet). Known primarily for her amorous association with Auguste Rodin, she was a fine artist in her own right and a pioneer for women in the art world. Her relationship and subsequent break with Rodin had a great impact on Claudel’s life and work, and she enjoyed a moderate amount of success until she began showing signs of mental illness. There is some disagreement as to whether her confinement to a psychiatric hospital in 1913 was a justifiable act of care or a spiteful punishment perpetrated by a family who disapproved of her profession and lifestyle. In either case, Claudel remained in an asylum until her death 30 years later.
Heggie, an acclaimed operatic composer (Moby Dick; Dead Man Walking), has produced a theatrical song cycle, and the text (written primarily by Scheer, but incorporating some of Claudel’s own words) creates vivid imagery of the woman’s broken life. The cycle explores Claudel’s thoughts and memories on the day she is committed to the asylum. She wakens in the early morning and speaks to six of her sculptures, each representing a significant aspect of her relationship with Rodin. In homage to the movement and incredible fluidity of her sculptures, Heggie has written each song with an undercurrent of dance. Even the melancholy “La Petite Chatelaine,” in which Claudel addresses a sculpture depicting her own, aborted child by Rodin, dances a sad waltz.
“Thank you for remembering me,” Claudel says to her friend Jessie Lipscomb in the “Epilogue” of the cycle. Heggie and Scheer have not only remembered her, but given her a voice again. Perhaps therein lies the reason artists so often turn to their own kind for inspiration: to preserve the artistic voices of the past in new forms.