As Sontag observes, it is ‘the romantic disease which cuts off a young life’, allowing them to transcend the trappings of the mortal body and ascend into the realms of the spiritual.
After many decades, during which mythology surrounding the disease snowballed and became almost independent of the horrors in which it originated, the ‘consumptive appearance’ found its way into mainstream fashion.
Saint-Saëns orchestrated 23 of his songs, remaining fastidiously true, it would seem, to his dictum that the poem should be displayed in a musical context in the way a jeweller uses a setting to show off a precious stone. Strings often support the vocal line alone, while woodwind, brass and harp supply splashes of colour that speak volumes.
‘Extase’, in which the voice hovers in suggestive rapture over slowly shifting chords and arpeggios, is a notably beautiful example.
Saint-Saëns also clearly associated voice types and ranges with particular moods and emotions: the tenor is an elegant, if at times witty dreamer; the baritone is more worldly, active, sexual and anguished.
The signs of the illness, which could render the sufferer both drained of blood and flushed with it, were identified with signs of sexual arousal, and slowly, tuberculosis became symbolic of romance and passion, utilised in literature, theatre, and opera.
Associated with the lungs, despite the damaging effect it had on many other parts of the body, it remained synonymous with ‘breath, life’, and the soul.
In some instances, trends have veered to other end of the spectrum, promoting a suntan so drastic and unnaturally orange that skin looks ready to bubble and fry.