Two academics from the University of Birmingham have developed ‘Songs without Borders’, a workshop programme to get Year 9/Key Stage 3 pupils interested in French, poetry and music, and combining all three to produce an original piece of art.

The workshop programme, developed by Professor Helen Abbott and Dr Nina Rolland, is one of the outcomes of the Baudelaire Song Project, a four-year research project based at the University and led by Professor Abbott. It examines how the French poetry of Charles Baudelaire has been set to music, from the nineteenth-century until now, across different musical genres, from classical music to death metal.

Taking the approach that bringing text and music together is a great springboard to develop language skills, the workshops are designed to consolidate French learning through music-based activities. The first set of workshops are currently being run at the University of Birmingham School in Selly Oak.

Starting with the Baudelaire poem ‘A une Malabaraise’ in French and a song setting of it by the band Exsangue, the students are working in small groups and, with the help of language assistants and a professional musician, are exploring a variety of topics.

These include their own musical identity, using the singing voice as an instrument, the concept of multiculturalism, French pronunciation and grammar, describing music, and understanding a song in context. The workshops’ ultimate aim is to have the students compose their own songs, using French and English, creating their own melody and song structure, and finding their own musical style.

‘Songs without Borders’ is being run as one of the many different enrichment sessions that pupils participate in three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. These are run to expand pupils’ skills, understanding and experience and include subjects as varied as community work, gardening, archaeology and photography.

Professor Abbott says, “The ‘Songs without Borders’ workshops are designed to develop the participants’ linguistic, musical, and cultural competences, and to give students the chance to have fun with their creativity. By engaging with music and words, and exploring the ideas and questions they stimulate, the students get the chance to develop new perspectives and skills as well as a better understanding of French and the poetry of Baudelaire. We’re all really looking forward to hearing the results of the students’ hard work.”

Clare Haley, the UoB School French Teacher who supervises the workshops, says, “The workshop programme is a new experience for many of the pupils who are all studying French and Music at Key Stage 3, from Year 7 to Year 9. It is giving them the opportunity to be curious and inventive about subjects, and make them more relevant to them and their world.”

Pupil Xena Begum says, “’I chose to take part in the project because I love Music and French. I was inspired to work on both together!”

Further information

The Baudelaire Song Project

This project is researching and bringing together for the first time all the song settings ever of Baudelaire’s poetry, looking at classical music and popular music settings, in French original and in translation, with music scores and in audio format. Hosted by The University of Birmingham with HRI Digital at The University of Sheffield, it is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) from 2015-2019.

The project aims to answer two key research questions:

  • How many song settings of Baudelaire’s poetry are there?
  • What is a song setting?

The core objectives pertaining to these research questions are to:

  • Bring together a full dataset of all the song settings of Baudelaire’s poetry into one, fully searchable digital resource, enriched by digital tools that will enable extensive search and visualisation of the core dataset of the different types and genres of song that Baudelaire’s poetry has inspired.
  • Extract from that data a deeper understanding of what happens to a poetic text when it enters the realm of song, in order to contest the commonly-held assumptions that songwriters and composers necessarily ‘disrupt’ or ‘distort’ a poetic text when setting it to music.
  • Tackle the belief that Baudelaire’s poetry is somehow ‘difficult’ or ‘highbrow’, seeking instead to demonstrate the widespread appeal of his poetry particularly in the form of popular song, and,
  • Address the elitism that surrounds classical song as an art form, both in listening and performance contexts, finding new ways to open up this rich material to new audiences via fresh and engaging approaches to Baudelaire’s poetry.

To find out more about the project, please click here.