Initiated by Isidore Isou (born Jean-Isidore Goldstein), a young refugee from Romania, lettrism was a multidisciplinary creative movement that began in Paris in 1946 but soon expanded by attracting numerous creative people. Lettrist work was inspired by calligraphy, initially for books but also for visual art. In the age of print, it was quite innovative, although it may not have fared as well in preprint times. One recurring device is letters that resemble verses, even though they are devoid of words. Prominent writers and artists based in France such as Jean-Louis Brau, Gil J. Wolman, Maurice Lemaître, Roberto Altmann, Roland Sabatier, and Jean-Paul Curtay were among those associated with the group at various times.
The movement was named Lettrism because historically it was first and foremost interested in rethinking poetry, which at the time was judged to be exhausted when conveyed simply through words and concepts. Poetic lettrism clearly and systematically for the first time (taking inspiration from Dada) proposed a new conception of poetry entirely reduced to letters and eliminating all semantics. Not unlike other self-conscious agglomerations, lettrism was particularly skilled at producing manifestos which can be read with varying degrees of sense. By discounting semantic and syntactical coherence for language art, some lettrist works are considered the precursors of concrete poetry. Among the alumni are Guy Debord (1931–94), who is commonly credited with initiating the Situationist International (1958–72), which, according to some, represents art’s most profound, courageous, and successful involvement in radical politics. While Situationist writings have been translated into English, lettrist texts largely have been left out.
Find out more about lettrism in A dictionary of the avant-gardes. Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME).
The first image above was created by Roberto Altmann, and the second by Maurice Lemaître–both were artists associated with the lettrist movement.
Below is a video of Orson Welles interviewing Isidore Isou about lettrism and sound poetry in 1955. Be sure to turn up your volume when watching it.
Liszt and his parents first arrived in Paris on 11 December 1823, 190 years ago today.
He was refused admittance to the Conservatoire because he was a foreigner, but within a few months the 12-year-old prodigy was the darling of Parisian musical circles.
After his father’s death in 1827 Liszt taught piano lessons to the titled and socially connected, and several of his female students fell in love with him; when he was thwarted in his wish to marry one of them he fell so ill with despair that the newspapers published his obituary.
Liszt cultivated friendships with Hugo and Berlioz, but when his illicit relationship with Marie d’Agoult threatened to ignite a scandal in 1835 the couple eloped to Switzerland. Although he made many subsequent trips to France to perform, Liszt never lived there again.
This according to “Liszt in France” by Julien Tiersot (The musical quarterly XXII/3 [July 1936] pp. 255–361).
Above, Liszt in 1824, not long after he moved to Paris (click to enlarge). Below, his variations on a theme by Paganini from 1831, two years before his relationship with d’Agoult began.
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which was first performed on 5 December 1830, was originally slated for a concert on 20 May of that year. Musicologists have been trying to piece together the circumstances of the cancelled premiere, but until now two factors have eluded them: the size of the orchestra and the number of rehearsals that were held.
Recently discovered documents shed light on both questions. A prior advertisement from the performance venue called for a specific number of additional string players, settling the first question.
Also, the 1830 register of the Gand instrument firm has been found to include entries for several string instruments rented to one “Mr Berlioz” on 18 and 22 May, establishing these as the dates of the two rehearsals that the work received.
Taken together, these sources indicate that the aborted premiere would have included at least 22 violins, 10 violas, 9 or 10 violoncellos, and four or five double basses.
Below, Charles Munch conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1962 for Marche au supplice, the work’s fourth movement.
Besides his training as a graphic artist, Jean Paucton, the prop man at the Palais Garnier in Paris, studied beekeeping at the Jardin du Luxemboug. In the mid-1980s he ordered his first hive, which was delivered to him at the Opéra, sealed and full of bees. He had intended to take it to his country house north of Paris, but when his plans changed the building’s fireman—who had been raising trout in a huge firefighting cistern under the building—advised him to place them on the seventh-floor roof at the back of the Palais Garnier.
Paucton gradually increased the number of hives to five, and from approximately 75,000 bees he annually collects about 1000 pounds of honey, which he packages in tiny jars, each with the label “Miel récolté sur les toits de l’Opéra de Paris, Jean Paucton”.
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