Camille Claudel: Into the Fire

Composer: Jake Heggie (b. 1961)
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Composer: Jake Heggie (b. 1961)

Performance date: 01/07/2023

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 2012

Duration: 00:35:58

Recording Engineer: Gar Duffy, RTÉ

Instrumentation: mez-solo, 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:Accompanied Voice

Artists: Lotte Betts-Dean - [Mezzo]
Armida Quartet - [String Quartet]

Camille Claudel: Into the Fire [2012] 

1. Prelude; Rodin

2. La Valse

3. Shakuntala

4. La Petite Châteleine

5. The Gossips

6. L’Age Mûr

7. Epilogue: Jessie Lipscomb visits Camille Claudel, Montdevergues Asylum 1929

The tragic story of the artist, Camille Claudel, locked up for 30 years in an asylum, has caught the imagination of many contemporary composers, writers, dramatists and film makers. She was an outstanding sculptor in an age where very few female artists were taken seriously. Her creative life was built around her relationship with Auguste Rodin, who was her teacher, mentor and lover. He first became her teacher when she was only nineteen and she resisted his advances for several years before commencing their stormy romance, blighted from the beginning by Rodin’s refusal to give up his long-term mistress, Rose Beuret. Camille was not even thirty when she moved out of Rodin’s studio and broke off all contact with him five years later. Living on her own she became increasingly depressed with self-destructive fits of ungovernable rage, gradually giving up on her work. On her father’s death in 1913, when Camille was not quite fifty, her brother Paul, horrified by the scandals Camille caused, had her committed to an asylum, where she remained until her death in 1943. 

Camille Claudel; Into the Fire is imaginatively set on the day she is to be taken to the asylum. As dawn breaks, she sings to each of six of her most famous sculptures, giving voice to parts of her story. Gene Scheer’s text is drawn from Camille’s letters and journals including the first line of the cycle. The hints of Debussy’s style in the Prelude may refer to their brief relationship when she was trying to break away from Rodin. Debussy always kept a copy of her sculpture La Valse on his mantelpiece. 

One of Camille’s most famous pieces was her Bust of Auguste Rodin. The song’s text reaches into the sculptor’s everlasting search with their fingers in the clay to uncover something true. But the overwhelming experience of the first song is the sound of her desperate cries of her lover’s name Rodin! Rodin!

La Valse is one of Camille’s early masterpieces, a glorious vision of two dancers, completely immersed in the dance and each other with a sensual but graceful, flowing sense of movement, no wonder Debussy had a copy. The text flows with the music. Console my eyes with beauty, allow me to forget, that every dance of love, is mingled with regret, until it bursts out with her ecstatic cry Take me, take me to the place for unrepentant lovers.

Shakuntala was her sculpture of two lovers, the male kneeling begging for forgiveness, the female head bowed in acceptance, an eternal story here based on an Indian legend dating from the 5th century. Shakuntala was a maiden who was adopted by a hermit. Prince Dushyanta meets her when out hunting. They fall in love and are united. The prince departs leaving her his ring as a pledge. Shakuntala offends a visiting sage, who puts a curse on the Prince that he will not recognise her without his ring. The ring is lost, the Prince fails to recognise her and she has to give birth alone in the forest. In true folk tale lore the ring is found in a fish and presented to the Prince, who awakens from the spell, searches for and finds Shakuntala and begs her forgiveness. This then is the moment of her sculpture, composed many years after her final parting from Rodin. The vocal text shows how Shakuntala’s story melds with Camille’s, the broken promise, the abandonment to give birth alone, for Rodin forced her to abort their child, before I was denied, all that I adored.

 La Petite Châteleine was a marble bust she sculpted in 1892 of the six-year-old granddaughter of the owner of the Château de l’Islette where Camille and Rodin often stayed. The little girl posed for almost 62 hours in total. The song takes the form of a minuet and trio beginning as a story told to the child – they say I leave at night, by the window of the tower, hanging from a red umbrella, with which I set fire to the forest. But the Trio turns dark as the child she is addressing is the child she lost – I did as he said and returned you to clay, Oh, how could I bleed such a blessing away. 

The Gossips was a late work, a miniature objet d’art in its final version. Four delicately modelled naked women sit in a circle in front of a marble screen that highlights the secretive nature of their conversation. The vocal text ignores the four gossips, the conversation is internal – What is in my hands? What is in my head? ….. The halo rusts, the light is dim, into the fire!

L’Age Mûr (The age of maturity) is a devastating sculpture of the eternal triangle that Camille lived with; it depicts an older man being dragged away by an old woman while a youthful female figure kneels imploringly with arms outstretched towards the man. Heggie represents this work without the singer, just the quartet. The Epilogue tells of her friend, Jessie Lipscomb, visiting her in the asylum. Jessie had also been in Rodin’s studio and had been Rodin’s advocate when Camille was still trying to resist him. The music is quietly conversational until one last outcry from the doomed prisoner – Every dream I ever had was of movement, Touching, Breathing, Reaching, Hovering. Something always about to change.

Francis Humphrys