Alfred de Musset (1810-1857)
How glorious it is – and also how painful – to be an exception.
Alfred Louis Charles de Musset-Pathay was a French dramatist, poet, and novelist. Along with his poetry, he is known for writing the autobiographical novel La Confession d'un enfant du siècle (The Confession of a Child of the Century).
Musset was born in Paris. His family was upper-class but poor and his father worked in various key government positions, but never gave his son any money. His mother came from similar circumstances, and her role as a society hostess – for example her drawing-room parties, luncheons and dinners held in the Musset residence – left a lasting impression on young Alfred.
Early indications of Musset's boyhood talents were seen by his fondness for acting impromptu mini-plays based upon episodes from old romance stories he had read. Years later, elder brother Paul de Musset would preserve these, and many other details, for posterity, in a biography on his famous younger brother.
Alfred de Musset entered the lycée Henri-IV at the age of nine, where in 1827 he won the Latin essay prize in the Concours général. With the help of Paul Foucher, Victor Hugo's brother-in-law, he began to attend, at the age of 17, the Cénacle, the literary salon of Charles Nodier at the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal. After attempts at careers in medicine (which he gave up owing to a distaste for dissections), law, drawing, English and piano, he became one of the first Romantic writers, with his first collection of poems, Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie (1829, Tales of Spain and Italy). By the time he reached the age of 20, his rising literary fame was already accompanied by a sulphurous reputation fed by his dandy side.
He was the librarian of the French Ministry of the Interior under the July Monarchy. His politics were of a Liberal stamp and he was on good terms with the family of Louis Philippe I. During this time he also involved himself in polemics during the Rhine crisis of 1840, caused by the French prime minister Adolphe Thiers, who as Minister of the Interior had been Musset's superior. Thiers had demanded that France should own the left bank of the Rhine (described as France's "natural boundary"), as it had under Napoleon, despite the territory's German population. These demands were rejected by German songs and poems, including Nikolaus Becker's Rheinlied, which contained the verse: "Sie sollen ihn nicht haben, den freien, deutschen Rhein ..." (They shall not have it, the free, German Rhine). Musset answered to this with a poem of his own: "Nous l'avons eu, votre Rhin allemand" (We've had it, your German Rhine).
The tale of his celebrated love affair with George Sand in 1833–1835 is told from his point of view in his autobiographical novel La Confession d'un Enfant du Siècle (The Confession of a Child of the Century) (1836), which was made into a 1999 film, Children of the Century, and a 2012 film, Confession of a Child of the Century, and is told from her point of view in her Elle et lui (1859). Musset's Nuits (Nights) (1835–1837) traces the emotional upheaval of his love for Sand from early despair to final resignation. He is also believed to be the anonymous author of Gamiani, or Two Nights of Excess (1833), a lesbian erotic novel also believed to be modeled on Sand.
Outside of his relationship to Sand, he was a well-known figure in brothels and is widely accepted to be the anonymous author-client who beat and humiliated the author and courtesan Céleste de Chabrillan, also known as La Mogador.
Musset was dismissed from his post as librarian by the new minister Ledru-Rollin after the revolution of 1848. He was, however, appointed librarian of the Ministry of Public Instruction in 1853.
On 24 April 1845 Musset received the Légion d'honneur at the same time as Balzac, and was elected to the Académie française in 1852 after two failed attempts in 1848 and 1850.
Alfred de Musset died in his sleep in Paris in 1857. The cause was heart failure, the combination of alcoholism and a longstanding aortic insufficiency. One symptom that had been noticed by his brother was a bobbing of the head as a result of the amplification of the pulse; this was later called de Musset's sign. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
The French poet Arthur Rimbaud was highly critical of Musset's work. Rimbaud wrote in his Letters of a Seer (Lettres du Voyant) that Musset did not accomplish anything because he "closed his eyes" before the visions (Letter to Paul Demeny, May 1871).
Director Jean Renoir's La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) was inspired by Musset's play Les Caprices de Marianne.
Henri Gervex's 1878 painting Rolla was based on a poem by De Musset. It was rejected by the jury of the Salon de Paris for immorality, since it features suggestive metaphors in a scene from the poem, with a naked prostitute after having sex with her client, but the controversy helped Gervex's career.
Numerous (often French) composers wrote works using Musset's poetry during the 19th and early 20th century.
Georges Bizet's opera Djamileh (1871, with a libretto by Louis Gallet) is based on Musset's story Namouna. The play La Coupe et les lèvres was the basis of Giacomo Puccini's opera Edgar (1889). Dame Ethel Smyth composed an opera based on Fantasio that premiered in Weimar in 1898. The opera Andrea del Sarto (1968) by French composer Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur (1908–2002) was based on Musset's play André del Sarto. Lorenzaccio, which takes place in Medici's Florence, was set to music by the musician Sylvano Bussotti in 1972.
Bizet set Musset's poem "A Une Fleur" for voice and piano. Pauline Viardot set Musset's poem "Madrid" for voice and piano as part of her 6 Mélodies (1884). The Welsh composer Morfydd Llwyn Owen wrote song settings for Musset's "La Tristesse" and "Chanson de Fortunio". Lili Boulanger's Pour les funérailles d'un soldat for baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra is a setting of several lines from Act IV of Musset's play La Coupe et les lèvres.
Ruggero Leoncavallo's symphonic poem "La Nuit de Mai" (1886) was based on Musset's poetry. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Cielo di settembre, op. 1 for solo piano (1910) takes its name from a line of Musset's poem "A quoi rêvent les jeunes filles". The score, in the original publication, is preceded by that line, "Mais vois donc quel beau ciel de septembre…" Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata (1919) is prefaced by two lines from Musset's La Nuit de Mai.
Shane Briant plays Alfred de Musset in a Masterpiece Theatre production of "Notorious Woman" in 1974.
In 2007, Céline Dion recorded a song called "Lettre de George Sand à Alfred de Musset" for her album D'elles.