Category Archives: music

Profit from abuse

It occurs to me that my last blog entry re: singing the Creation tomorrow is the third time I’ve complained here of “new translations” of great German works (the previous times being the St John’s Passion and St Matthew’s Passion).

Perhaps I should also offer some brief explanation of what is wrong with them – apart from the obvious spuriousness of the reasons offered for having “new” translations.

  1. These are not new translations.  They are very minor tweaks of the well-known translations choirs have long been performing.  They are at the level of the variations one routinely dreams up at idle moments in rehearsal.
  2. They are less singable than the original translations.  The worst (by far) here was the St Johns Passion, but all of them have made things worse.

OK, let’s find some examples from the Creation while I still have the score.  Just to show it’s not all bad, let’s start at the beginning with one tweak that is actually a trivial improvement on the original.  The very first chorus entry

and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters

becomes

and the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters

A trivial change, to a line that comes directly from the King James Bible as well as being a literal translation from the German.  Removing one syllable brings it into line with the German, and the calm and tranquillity of Haydn’s music immediately before God’s most famous utterance, יְהִי אוֹר.

Sadly that’s the exception.  Let’s turn now to the example our conductor gave in motivating the “new” translation to the choir.  The original source for this is Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

The German line is pretty faithful to that:

Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes,
und seine Hände Werk zeigt an das Firmament.

The familiar translation takes a little licence to fit the words to the notes – this kind of creativity is of course at the heart of translating lyrics to music:

The Heavens are telling the glory of God,
the wonder of his work displays the firmament.

The “new” translation here takes exactly the same licence, but rearranges the words:

The Heavens are telling the glory of God,
the firmament displays the wonder of his work.

The justification is that it makes the grammar more everyday, less archaic.  As against that, the old translation aligns the prominent words “work” and “firmament” directly with the German, thereby better fitting Haydn’s music.  In this instance the differences are so minor I find it hard to say either version is better or worse than the other.  What really stretches credulity is to claim it as a different translation – a new piece of work[1].

Where it really makes things worse is where some gratuitous change makes it altogether less singable.  The most egregious examples of this are in the St Johns Passion, but the Creation has a few cases in point.  As I write I’m struggling to bring them to mind, but one minor instance I can recollect:

and to th’ethereal vaults resound

becomes

on high th’ethereal vault resounds

Neither of these is remotely similar to the german:

und laut ertönt aus ihren Kehlen

(literally “and loudly rings out from their throats” – which would even fit the music!)[2]

But this change introduces ugliness and difficulty.  Any phrase ending in “s” can tend to be a hazard for choirs, as the “s” sound can be untidy – it only takes one singer to do a Corporal Jones and it sounds a complete mess.  To end a fast phrase in “ds” – still worse “nds” – is positively ugly and rather difficult even in the most accurate and disciplined performance.

This is not the worst example: there are one or two so bad we are reverting to the “old” words.  It’s just one that came to mind as I write.

As I said the first time I encountered one of these “new” translations (the St Johns Passion):  I can only conclude that the sole reason for the “new” translation is to assert copyright on a score that would otherwise soon be out of it.

I wonder what would happen if anyone were to challenge this copyright in court?  I hope it gets struck down for the gross abuse that it is!

[1] To be honest, neither translation is a satisfactory fit to the music here.  There’s a longer note in the middle to which both the syllable dis[plays] (original translation) or the (new translation) are very poor fits.  Beckmesser rules!  A potential solution to this is to make every occurrence a dotted rhythm, extending the preceding word – this works best with the old translation where it’s “work” being extended.  But that impoverishes the music  – Haydn gives us instances of both variants for a bit of variety.

[2] OK, in context it makes a little more sense: it’s praise of God that rings out or resounds.  There’s nothing in the German that could translate to vaults, singular or plural, ethereal or otherwise.

A new-created world

Our next concert it Haydn’s Creation, this Sunday (December 1st) at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  A work so well-known it should need no introduction.  Should be a decent concert for those in the area.

After the two great Bach Passions, this is a third piece we’re singing in a new translation.  Again, there’s no new value, but this time there’s another rationale: supposedly the German text isn’t authoritative either.  The original text should be the Bible (Genesis) – which gives more-or-less unlimited scope to pick-a-translation – and Paradise Lost.

My view: while it’s true that the German text leaves something to be desired, this translation isn’t it any more than the well-known translation – which is more singable.  But there’s very little change: this is again a long way from new.

Summer Concert

A week today, Saturday July 6th, we’re performing Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle at Plymouth’s Catholic Cathedral.  A work that’s lots of fun and should be worth coming to if you’re in the area.  Though also one I’m feeling I’ve done rather too often in recent years, and I might even make this the third major work in the concert repertoire I’ve sung from memory without the score (after the Messiah and Carmina Burana).

This is a summer concert, with interval cheese-and-wine (or somesuch) included in the ticket price.

Passion

Time to mention our next concert: one of the greatest of all Easter works.  Bach’s St Matthew Passion, at the Guildhall, Plymouth, a week today (Sunday April 14th).

This work should need no introduction, and I have no hesitation recommending it to readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.  I’m looking forward to it.

Just one downside.  As with our performance of the St John’s Passion three years ago, this is a “new” Novello translation.  I think if I’d come to these (translations) in reverse order my criticisms might have been a little different, but the underlying point remains: these are about money.  A rentier publisher contemptuously saying screw the art.  And I can now answer the question I posed then: with ISIS no longer having the earthly power to destroy more great heritage, Novello score a clear victory in the cultural vandalism stakes.

The Dream of Gerontius

For our next concert, the Plymouth Philharmonic Choir and Plymouth Symphony Orchestra join forces for a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, one of the biggest and most complex works in the concert repertoire.  We will be under the baton of the orchestra’s conductor Anne Kimber, and I’m much looking forward to it.

The performance is next Sunday, November 25th, at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  I think the work is sufficiently well known to need no introduction for music lovers, and I have no hesitation recommending it to readers in the area.

Great War Symphony

Our next concert[1] features a new work, written for the centenary of the Armistice of November 1918.  We will be performing Patrick Hawes’s Great War Symphony at St Andrews Church, Plymouth, on November the 3rd.  This is a symphony in a conventional four movements, for two soloists, chorus and orchestra, and is just under an hour (half a full concert programme).

The texts are primarily poetry from the Great War, encompassing big names of the era such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and other scribes who don’t spring to mind just now but probably should.  Also featured are the soldier’s oath of allegiance, the Last Post, and the latin Dies Irae.

A major new work on this subject inevitably suggests comparisons.  This is not a work to threaten the War Requiem’s crown as the towering masterpiece of war commemoration, but in any other comparison I’d say it holds up pretty creditably.  I’ve enjoyed learning it and look forward to the performance, which I expect will also be well worth attending for readers local to the area.

For readers not in the area, performances are also taking place elsewhere.  The premiere was a couple of weeks ago at the Royal Albert Hall.  Another big-name venue is Carnegie Hall where it’ll be performed on November 11th, with some of my fellow-performers flying to New York to take part in that too.

[1] Or rather, the next concert I’m performing in.  “Our” doesn’t really fit when it’s a group I’ve joined for the first time for this concert, being a sucker for opportunities to perform in a major new work.

Concert

Our next concert is a week tomorrow: Sunday July 1st at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  This concert presents three works, all of them new to me and one of them to all of us.  Overall an exciting programme of some lovely works, and firmly recommended to those readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.

The least-novel and least-exciting work is Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise.  This is in a similar idiom to his much more famous oratorio Elijah, though less bloodthirsty (and less of an actual story).  The music is similarly lovely, and if you enjoy Elijah you’ll like this.  However, it’s not so well-written for singers, and is physically exhausting.

Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, Coleridge-Taylor’s setting of Longfellow’s epic poem, is a middling-level bucket-list work for me to sing in, and I’m thrilled to be doing it now.  This is a long poem in trochaic tetrameter, which has always seemed to me fiendishly difficult to set to music.  And though you couldn’t call the Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s 9th symphony boring, it is undoubtedly very four-square, pushed into that mould by the shoehorn of a rhythmically-similar but much shorter poem.  Yet there’s no hint of that in this piece: it flows effortlessly.  That Coleridge-Taylor’s creative imagination with such a rhythm outshines mine is of course unremarkable, but that he should do the same to Beethoven is indeed impressive!

Tonally it’s also interesting.  Premiered in 1898, it’s on the cusp of the 20th century.  There’s no hint of C20 dissonance, but the tonality is constantly on the move, and seems to me to carry hints of what was to come, both in the English Pastoral and the Verismo movements.  If you enjoy the gorgeous-yet-dramatic harmonic language of a Puccini opera or a Vaughan-Williams symphony, this foreshadows them both.

Finally, Bob Chilcott’s Dances of Time.  Published only in 2015, I had never heard of this until scores were handed out.  These five songs are pure pleasure.  And if you ever thought modern music can’t be easy both to sing and to listen to without being trite “crossover”, this is a perfect counterexample: gorgeous yet always fresh.  Though having said that, I think the virtue of brevity is essential to its appeal: it’s the perfect length for what it is.

Concerts

Dammit, I should have blogged this a week ago!

I have three concerts coming up.

First, one with Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, tomorrow evening (Saturday, March 10th) at St Andrews – Plymouth’s main church.  I can do no better than repeat what I wrote here when I last sang in it – with a different choir:

a lovely and startlingly unique piece. Perhaps it takes a septuagenarian Old Master – as Rossini was in 1863 – to have the confidence to write something quite so cheekily uncharacteristic of its time. It certainly shows the complete mastery of a lifetime’s experience, together with a creative imagination undulled by age!

Second, next Sunday, March 18th, with my most regular choir at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  This is a concert of several shorter works from the English repertoire, amongst which Vaughan Williams’ Five Spiritual Songs are the highlight.  Also worth hearing are Rutter’s Gloria, and Stamford’s Songs of the Fleet.  Sadly there’s also some dreary muzak from Karl Jenkins.  This is with the band of the Royal Marines in place of our usual orchestra, and the podium will be shared by both their and our regular conductors.

The third concert is a programme on the theme of the Christian death and resurrection, to be given at Buckfast Abbey on Saturday, March 24th.  The pick of this chamber concert is probably some gorgeous works by Herbert Howells, and the programme also includes Fauré‘s Requiem and shorter anthems.

Monteverdi Vespers

Our next concert is the Monteverdi Vespers, on Nov. 26th at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  This work, untypical of its own time as well as our own, makes an interesting change from our usual repertoire.  Simple individual lines and harmonies rooted firmly in renaissance polyphony, yet with complex (and sometimes fiendish to hold) interweaving textures, and a level of both vocal and orchestral flourishes and ornamentation that makes it arguably the first major work of the Baroque era.

I’m glad to be singing it, and I think it’ll be a good evening out for those in or near Plymouth.  Hope to see some of my readers there!

Exeter Cityscapes

In my negligence, I failed to blog about yesterday’s concert ahead of time.  Well, except in my comment on the personnel.  I much enjoyed it, both the orchestral first half, and singing in the second half.

Of particular note was the premier of a newly-commissioned work: Alfie Pugh’s symphonic suite Exeter Cityscapes, the second (and more substantial) work in the orchestral half of the concert.  I had no idea what to expect, and I have to say I was very impressed.  This is a work worthy of a place in the regular repertoire.

Like one or two other new works I’ve encountered in recent years, this work is unashamedly in the English pastoral tradition of a century or so ago.  It followed Bax’s atmospheric tone poem Tintagel, and in terms of sound-and-feel[1] one could describe it as more of the same.  Gorgeously lush orchestral textures and lovely melodic fragments, with a harmonic context that is tonal and easy on the ear, but far from bland!

A more modernistic touch compared to the English Pastoral tradition was a lively and brilliantly-conceived use of percussion.  I understand Pugh himself is a percussionist, and although he wasn’t playing this concert, the mastery shows through.  Though more prominent than in earlier repertoire, this is far from the aggressive in-your-face percussion of some 20th-century music.  It blends seamlessly with the rest of the orchestra, producing a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.  I struggle to think of any good comparison.

The one moment I felt slightly let down was when, after a slow second movement, the third movement turned out also to be slow.  I guess that says something about how close it (otherwise) felt to listening to a regular classical symphony.  The fourth movement started with a bang, and made a proper symphonic finale!

Congratulations to the composer, and to all concerned.

[1] Look-and-feel in the context of music 😀