Quoth the raven – The Endless Appeal of Edgar Allan Poe

Posted on Fri, 2014-06-13 12:10 by Opera Explorer

Edgar Allan Poe has an extraordinary legacy in pop and rock music, with artists such as Queen, The Beatles, The White Stripes, and heavy metal singer Marilyn Manson, all citing Poe in their work. Check out the Alan Parsons Project 1976 album Songs of Mystery and Imagination here. At 21.11 it moves from the psychedelic realm of 1970s synthesiers to a full-blown orchestral suite, actually quoting 5 minutes of the Debussy music you will hear this evening, in all its luscious, shifting harmony.

Lou Reed’s 2003 concept album The Raven is a fantastic indicator of Poe’s cult status: the title track is a mesmeric version of the poem performed by a brooding, volatile Willem Dafoe over a desolate string drone. It is scarcely possibly to imagine a more achingly cool combination of artists, all unified by Edgar Allan Poe’s ghoulish stories! 

But how has Poe had such enduring appeal? Only last year the Musée d’Orsay in Paris hosted an exhibition of Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst under the title L’ange du Bizarre, translated by Baudelaire from Poe’s 1844 short story ‘The Angel of the Odd.’ I could have happily wandered around in its motley company of ghoulish witches, serpent-haired femmes fatales, and winged grim reapers for days. From medieval demons to gargoyles, and the surrealism of Dali and macabre silent movies, the contents of the exhibition were gathered together under the auspices of Poe’s distinctive world.

His stories and poems are filled with unsettling accounts of crumbling castles, premature burial, wandering narrators, pale, wilting young women, and morbid obsession, illuminated by a narrative voice of addictive oddity and intensity, as embodied in The Fall of the House of Usher. The narrator of this grim describes the decaying castle of the title thus: 

‘I looked... upon the mere house... with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium – the bitter lapse into everyday life – the hideous dropping off of the veil.’ 

In Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven, a gradual sense of horror is built up with the deliciously gothic refrain of ‘Quoth the raven, “Nevermore”’, while its sinister world takes ever darker shape, word by word. In addition to the thrilling chill Poe’s stories administer, there is also something inherently musical in Poe’s writing, which, when added to the raging sound-world of the stories themselves, provides a combination which is still proving irresistible to musicians today.

In the 19th century, Poe’s mysterious and disturbing tales struck a chord with the Symbolist poets, and it was in Baudelaire’s French translations of Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher that Debussy became acquainted with The Fall of the House of Usher, which he would undertake to set to music, and never complete. Pre-empting the Symbolists’ predilection for the world of the senses, the tale’s title hero, Roderick Usher, suffers from ‘excessive nervous agitation’, and a ‘morbid acuteness of the senses’ which renders him incapable of leaving his house, inspired with horror from all sounds except from stringed instruments. It is an ironic condition, given how many instruments Roderick’s predicament, and The House of Usher, will set in motion tomorrow evening! As WNO prepares to stage The House of Usher, it is clear that Poe’s influence is set to continue, to paraphrase his raven, ‘evermore’.

Sophie Rashbrook