In my travels through the choral library here at Marshfield (yes, my alma mater), I've also come across several works in English and another language (the English being a translation written into the score, not the original language used by the composer).

The question I ask myself when I open the music and start grumbling is, "Does providing a singable English version of a well-known piece limit or augment that composition?" Earlier just today I found a Brahms motet with both English and German in the score. My knee-jerk reaction is frustration that people don't learn other languages more often. Usually any English you find in an art song (speaking of solo literature now) is not something you'd ever sing, because it is usually poetic and doesn't have the preservation of the original meaning of the text as its primary goal. I could write lyrics that fit the rhythm of the music Brahms wrote, but singing those lyrics--would that really count as having sung the piece Brahms composed?

Struggling with other languages--let's be honest, it's not a cakewalk to learn to sing in another language--builds character, I think. You have to learn how to appreciate another set of phonemes. You don't have to learn the grammar or the syntax or anything much about the actual construction of the piece in order to sing it well, which is another reason I think singing in foreign languages is so cool--you don't have to spend years studying before you can say things!
You also get a chance to experience, in a way, other cultures. There are differences--sometimes subtle ones--in the ways our words shape our vision of the world. Now of course you have to put in the effort and really live with the text in order to reap some of these rewards, but even just exposing our ears to the sounds of other cultures, I think, can really do us good.

But, then, does singing a piece in a language other than the original language actually diminish its value? There are tons of books that have been translated into languages other than the one the author used initially. Does reading those books in their translated forms mean that you haven't REALLY read the book? I'm not sure whether I would say yes or no to that question, so I am not sure I can say yes or no to the same question when asked of singing. You certainly have to spend a lot of time with a language in order to be able to read and understand it, so I can definitely see a lot of value in translating books and texts so that people everywhere can understand what you want to say without having to learn your language first. So what is it about English versions of, say, the Agnus Dei that bug me so much?

Maybe there are so few translations that are both singable and true to the original text that my view of all of them has become tainted. At the same time, maybe I feel like not taking the time to learn how to pronounce the words--or at least to TRY to pronounce them!--feels like laziness.

Do you think I am missing the point of English translations? Would you say that they are more for the sake of making the meaning of the piece accessible to the audience and to the performer and are therefore rather valuable, or would you say that despite the translator's intentions, English translations are less desirable than singing in the original language? (As with all things, I don't think this is a black-and-white answer, but I am curious as to where the majority of the truth falls.)
Hello! Here's the first in a potentially limitless series of posts that represent musical issues I've had the opportunity to mull over as of late. Hopefully they will prod your brain a little! If you have any thoughts or comments, please feel free to add them (please do not link to your email as this blog is public and I wouldn't want anyone getting spammed) or email me.

Lately, I've been volunteering time up at Marshfield, working on going through the choral library. Anything that's out-of-date textually or really poorly-written comes off the shelf. Even though I can't spend a lot of time poring over each title, I've gotten to see a lot of different works--about 350 so far. One genre that could be considered controversial is the spiritual.

When I say "spiritual," I mean a song that either originated as a work song during the days of slavery in the US, or one that was written after that style. Jester Hairston and Moses Hogan are two big names in this genre of music. A lot of these pieces are written with the intent that the choir sings with the pronunciation that would have been heard when the song was being sung by slaves. "In Dat Great Gittin'-Up Mornin'," "Sooh-Ah Will Be Done," "Deep River," and "The Battle of Jericho" are all examples of this style of music.

It's gotten me thinking: in today's world of political correctness, is it still socially acceptable or even appropriate to sing some of these songs?

On one hand, I think that one of the last things anyone intends to do when they set out to sing a piece is to mock or belittle the culture that the piece comes from. The pronunciation in many spirituals is akin to ebonics, and that can raise some issues for some people. Is it a form of racism to continue to use the pronunciation in the score? Have you ever heard a choir (or a soloist, for that matter) sing a spiritual piece and had the thought cross your mind? I can say honestly that I have wondered about it. I don't know very many people who want to sound like racists.

There are a lot of contexts in popular culture where the use of ebonics probably wouldn't call up images of slavery, but there are probably just as many that do. Think about what you connote with ebonics. Think about where those connotations come from. (I'm not judging anyone, I'm honestly asking for thought. Do you think ebonics make a person sound ignorant? Uneducated? How do you identify yourself with relation to people who speak or sing in ebonics? Do you yourself speak ebonically?)

So I wonder if choosing to perform a piece like "In Dat Great Gittin'-Up Mornin'" as it is written would be a social faux-pas. I think it would definitely make a statement, which brings me to the "other hand."

Slavery happened. I think that for as short a time as it has been in this country -- the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was ratified only 155 years ago, and the Fifteenth, which gave voting rights to men of all colors and races, just 150 years ago -- we Americans love to skirt the issue and to satirize it, but serious discussion can cause a lot of tension and awkwardness.
Likewise, ebonics are not some illegitimate dialect, although their history is not generally as innocuous as, say, a Bostonian accent.

One could make a case for performing spirituals with ebonics (if written) similarly to the case one would make for performing an Italian art song with proper Italian pronunciation. If you perform a spiritual and use ebonics, you could argue that you are being true to the spirit of that piece's initial performers. Or are you?

Should we not use ebonics if they call up strong feelings of prejudice, if our intent is to bring people together? Is it more respectful to acknowledge the truth of the origin of the spiritual without singing it (or reading the text) using that pronunciation? Does what you decide to sing have anything to do with your skin color? (What I mean by that is, should choirs of "white" singers avoid ebonics and choirs of "black" singers not worry about the issue as much? Talk about a racially-charged question.) Is it cowardly or akin to denial to avoid using the words Mr. Hairston wrote in the score? How much weight should we give the ears and thoughts of today's audience, and what does today's audience think?


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