Monday 31 August 2020

Approaching music using translated lyrics

I have named my translation of the Hebrew Bible 'a translation for the music'. This is a bold statement. It is impossible to translate over 300,000 words that were set to a musical tradition and make the translation fit the original tune. So how is it done?

I have sung Bach both in German and in English translations. I just did what I was told at the time. I liked the complexity of the music and as everyone does with Bach, especially tenors, I liked the challenge of finding all the right notes in the right places. I heard others talk about doing the music in the original language, but it never bothered me for the first works we did. Jesus Priceless Treasure worked quite well and speaks to an English audience more than Jesu meine Freude.

I have read books in translation, like Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, and I have not read him in German, though over 50 years ago when I first studied a bit of German, a fellow worker suggested I should be reading Goethe in the original. (I didn't oblige -- some opportunities are missed.) 

Translations applied to Bach are not typical translations, but poetry or Biblical text in English made to fit the musical patterns that are there. No one would dare to rewrite Bach's musical construction, but of course there were rhythmic compromises. The translator of a novel has also the need to create form, rhythm, and beauty in the language they are writing. The Lowe-Porter translation of Buddenbrooks was a superb read. A translation of the whole Bible is a different order of magnitude to translating a novel. 

I have written a lot on this blog and in my published books about translation. It's strange that I felt I had to translate the whole Bible. I did not have the knowledge to start with the music. I started in 2006, but did not discover the music until 2010. But even if I had known it earlier, I would still have felt the need for a concordant rendering of the words of the Hebrew Bible. The King James version is deliberately not concordant. It was considered bad style to repeat words too often. (But what if the repetition of sound was a deliberate act of literature in its time!) 

It was for this reason that I started my 10+ year translation project first considering repeated words in the Hebrew, and I asked myself how such words could be repeated in English. My translation retains this motivation throughout. Apart from very common words where English synonyms are demanded, my translation avoids giving two separate glosses for one Hebrew stem with some exceptions: Hebrew homonyms, and Hebrew literary games, acrostics and word play which I chose to imitate where feasible.

When I discovered the music, I refreshed my motives for translating the Bible because of the beauty of the phrases and the restoring of the tone of voice, but I realized that the melodies would have word-painting problems since ornaments on a Hebrew word would not necessarily fall on the equivalent word in English. Also of course, rhythmic motifs in Hebrew would not translate directly into the same rhythms in English. 

This is a conundrum at first, but my experience has been that the problem has many creative solutions and is not as bad as it first sounds. First, although the Hebrew Bible is sung in Hebrew largely as recitative, the variable reciting-note melodies derived from the deciphering key of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura do not appear to obscure differing genres within the text.

It is astonishing to me that this works so well. I can't prove it of course, until I have set the whole Bible and that is a project for a second or third lifetime. But the facts can be seen that the accents were not applied according to a formula, the way we apply punctuation in English. Those who did it - and I am sure it was more than one person, were consummate musicians with a flare for drama, poetry, hymn, aria, and other forms that are found in the text. 

So I can discover that Psalm 96 has a strophic structure. It is not Anglican chant and it is not plainsong. It is a multi-strophe hymn with a chorus. I can see also that Psalm 116 is different from those surrounding it. It is not a hymn, but a personal aria. There is of course a lot of telling of story, recitation in the normal sense, but there is also song and dance, and it is there in the music that is embedded in the text waiting to be discovered. 

While there are formulaic components within the method, as much as there needs to be when such a massive number of words are being carried by the music, there is also considerable variety. The translation problem thus becomes an opportunity to hear.

The best way to explore this is by example. And I know I have a problem - I have hundreds of examples and I can't reduce them to a taxonomy. To get into it as a composer, you must just do it. 

Ex 1. word order differences
retaining the melody

Example 1 - word order issues. The recitation and the ornaments follow each other and do not stay with the individual words. As I would with Bach, I fit the words to the melody in the sequence of the melody. I have been tempted to let predicate-subject order be reversed, but tedious it is in English, too Yoda-like, much as we love his Hebraic soul. Word-order differences are pervasive (though much rarer in my translation that others). 

Example 2 - rare ornaments that are clearly specific to and uniquely used in the passage. What are they saying? In this type of case, let the words have the ornament that belongs to them. Hope that there is no conflict with word order. 

Ex 2. 1 Samuel 17:39-40,
two words referring to weapons, Saul's sword and the smooth stones
I say rare ornaments because relatively common pairs may ornament a common word pair as in the phrase 'and said to her' and this will almost always conflict with word order. Keeping the melody still works in all these phrases. (But I am of two minds to play Yoda in some cases.)

Example 3 - allowing the emergence of genres within speech.

In a work-in-process for the recitation of the book of Ruth, I am noticing places where the tenderness of a 6/4 pulse will underline some of the regular recitative. For a long recitation, this will give a sense of drama to the work. (Incidentally, in this piece, I have avoided putting any g naturals into the Harp part. For some instruments, this requires tuning different strings to the sharp and natural. So the major tonality is only implied at times.) 

A snippet of Ruth 1

In the book of Jonah, there are significant changes in pulse and style as the story progresses. As I wrote it, I was reminded of the treatment that Benjamin Britten gave to St Nicholas.

Example 4 - hymns

Psalms 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 115 all lend themselves to hymnody. 

Psalm 110:1 after the incipit

Example 5 - a solo

Psalms 116 is clearly not a hymn but an aria. Psalms 110-117 are all part of my oratorio, Unleashing Leviathan. Full scores are available for study if anyone is interested. 

The music for Jonah and these Psalms and more is available at my Youtube site - but not yet in a real performance (except for Isaiah 12). Synthesizer reproduction is no substitute for a performance of the text. That's one reason why, for my upcoming 75th birthday, I am raising money for the cause. You can donate at the Facebook link or you can send a donation directly to The Anglican Church of St John the Divine in Victoria and specify their Hebrew Bible Music Projects fund. I want to create opportunities for work for composers and performers and producers, especially during this difficult time.