Monday, March 11, 2013

Do we have to keeping singing in German, even in America?

This week, I'll be performing Bach's St. John Passion with the North Carolina Master Chorale. It's the first time I've performed a Bach cantata. It's kind of difficult, not just because Bach's music is more complicated and contrapuntal than Handel, but because it's in German.

Why are we performing a piece in German in the US? The answer to this question might seem obvious to music-lovers, but I want to tease it out a little. I've taken some German classes (I don't consider myself an expert), but I know that my German is better than 70% of the members of my choir. I'm sure our pronunciation is not incredible, especially since we're also worried about getting the right notes. And I bet that very few of the people in our audience will have any German proficiency. And even if someone speaks German, it's much harder to understand sung German than spoken German. So why do we work so hard to do something that has no obvious effects?

It's hard to fight tradition

The first reason is tradition. Singers are taught that we must always sing works in their original language, because the music was designed that way. If we don't perform it "authentically," the result will be less desirable. To give an example, while there is an English version of St. John Passion that sometimes gets performed, our director only mentions it in a discouraging way. And fair enough, anytime we translate something AND try to fit it in a certain number of syllables, the meaning is going to change. This is especially a problem when it's a text as well known as the Bible.

So, once we decide we must sing the music in German, we now have to solve another problem: our audience cannot understand what we are singing. The usual solution is to put the words in the program or use subtitles. But even if they do put the words in the program, do people follow along with the words? How could they, if they don't know German? True, most movements in St. John Passion don't have many words. But even if the general idea of the words is conveyed, the specific word-to-music connects (for which Bach is famous, and for which we put time and work in rehearsal) are lost in the moment. In other words, our choice to sing in German means that for our audience, we have separated the music from the text.

Religious experience?

There's a further problem with the audience being removed from meaning: originally, St. John Passion was not just an entertaining piece of music, it was an interactive church service. As many other church composers during his day, Bach interspersed well-known chorales, which are four-part harmonizations of well-known hymn tunes, so the audience could sing along with the melody.* The audience would use their prior experience of that hymn to realize "that's the take-away lesson in what we just heard." It was an internalizing moment. That familiar musical object was given new meaning, making it more powerful in a communal way. Our audience, however, will just be listening during these chorales, and unless they are working really hard, mostly not understanding

Should we keep performing this old music if it's true meaning is lost on most of our audience? I do think the St. John Passion is a great work of music and think that many people can have a great musical experience, audience and performers alike. I would argue, however, that our concert in German is now more a museum of a great work of art from a distant culture than a religious service, and I'm not sure we should pretend anything different (though in our case, it might be an amateur artist's reproduction instead of the original; not that you can EVER hear music something like the original, but that's a discussion for another time). I suppose someone could have a religious experience with it, just as people can have a religious experience in a museum. If we really wanted everyone to have a religious experience, we should sing in their language. Which may not be Baroque counterpoint.

Do you agree or disagree? Am I not expecting enough of audiences? Am I not giving Bach's ability to
reach across time and language enough credence?

Vocab: chorale

*Bach also likes the free resolution of the alto to the 5th of the chord at the end of the chorale, which most textbooks would say is a violation of harmonization rules, rules that were developed by mostly examining Bach's music. But that's for another post.


  1. Ich verstehe es. Ich weiss nicht warum du damit einen Problem hast.

  2. Thanks for the post, Peter, but I disagree. I enjoy hearing the poetry (whether understood or not) of other languages and their attendant sounds. Yes, most Americans don't have great pronunciation, but at least they're trying and this helps us get outside the echo box of living in a huge homogenized country. As a young boy in rural New York, the only way I could even hear other languages was by listening to music and trying to pick up some German, Russian, Latin, or French helped keep me awake and actively following along. Furthermore, I don't think audiences are as clueless as you'd suggest. Learning to read program notes and then recognize words in the sounds emanating from the stage isn't really a hard skill to pick up. It used to be standard education for everyone to learn a little German, Latin, French, etc. Now we lean on our amazing technology like Google and it's making us paradoxically less educated.

    Secondly, as you point out, the timing of the music is often inextricably connected to the syllables of the text-- would you add and delete notes so they mirror an English translation? I would not; I think there's value in museums and not just classrooms.

    I think that good music can reach out and touch people even if they don't understand the exact words. There are parts of Wagner, or Verdi, or Beethoven, or Mozart that give me goosebumps even if I don't have a clue what they're saying (or if no one is singing at the time!)

    I agree that we're often missing out on the composer's intended shared religious experience, but that's not something translation would help. You could translate the words of something as basic as the sermon on the mount and half the people in an American audience would miss the point. The only way to fix that will be to improve religious education and spirituality.

    1. Thanks, Tristan. Maybe I'm wrong about modern audiences and program notes. One note: I don't think that museums are bad; some classical musicians don't like that label because they think that it cheapens or makes what they do stuffy and doesn't describe music (since it's always an interpretation), but I think musicians should embrace and enjoy the term. I also think that music can touch you even if you don't understand the words (and I hope that was clear from the post), but I was suggesting that our understanding will be different than St. John Passion's original audience's understanding.