Category Archives: Poetry and Music

Should you translate songs? 

10 lessons from the SongMakers Masterclass with Roderick Williams. MiTR/Uni Sheffield 12 November 2016.
1. Lots of songs *have* been translated

Schubert’s music enjoyed huge success in France because he was sung in French translation in many of the early C19th salons

2. Some composers set texts in one language and provide a parallel translation (with some modifications to the rhythm/melody to accommodate different stresses of each language). 

Examples: Berg, Gretchaninov.

3. Publishers, especially at the start of the C20th, published a lot of translated songs/parallel scores, often with the English (translated language) on top (without composer modification)

During the First World War there was a distinct shift away from singing in German. But even Debussy’s songs appeared in parallel translations in the early decades of the C20th as part of the ‘craze’ in the UK and US for singing in English.

4. Not all translations are equal. But to claim one is ‘better’ than another is often problematic. An archaic-sounding translation to our ears today may have been the pinnacle of translation a hundred years ago.

A translation of Gute Nacht (Good Night) from Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) might use hither, thither, and gay. A more modern translation avoids those terms.

5. Singing translations differ from singable ones. Sometimes a singer has to adapt what a translator has done (discussing with the translator if appropriate/possible).

6. Different audiences like to hear different things. Those with extensive knowledge of the Lieder repertoire tend to want to hear it in original language. Newer audiences enjoy the experience of being able to understand what is being said. 

7. Singers love it when audiences are looking up at them! Traditional concert programmes with poems and translations mean audiences are often heads-down reading and rustling pages which is offputting for performers.

8. A song performed in translation is an entirely different work, doing different (not necessarily better or worse) things. It’s like a film adaption of a book: some things get left out, others have to change. There is no direct equivalence.

9. Song translations help singers and pianists to understand what is going on in the text. But good practice means performers heavily annotate their scores with word-for-word translations and key ideas from the text to make sure they are conveying meanings and emotions.

10. Singing in translation can be less daunting than working on language pronunciation and diction. But it doesn’t mean it is less work for the singer!

Why studying French poetry is great for your pronunciation skills

Getting good at French is one thing, but getting good at sounding French is quite another. I’ve posted before about how listening to French songs regularly can help you absorb accent, stress, and flow in French (in response to this JonRoss Swaby piece in The Guardian).

SingingLangs_TwitterExchange

But I’m only now realising – thanks to a growing number of observations and comments from my students – how much studying French poetry helps too.

Poetry helps us to slow down our reading. With language condensed into a shorter form, every word, every syllable, every phoneme counts. As language practitioners we so often train our students to discover the nuances of language usage via longer journalistic or literary texts, or by very short grammar sentences for which we get them to fill in the gaps, select and conjugate the correct verb tense and so on. But poetry sits in the middle ground, and is becoming – for me – an increasingly invaluable tool for enhancing language and pronunciation proficiency.

With its rich vocabulary, we can peel back layers of meaning. I get my students to use a historical dictionary so that they can unearth the unusual, unexpected meanings of French, as well as get a grasp of the historical linguistics and cultural concepts underpinning the development of French as a language.

A student studying Baudelaire’s prose poem L’Étranger researched the use of the keyword ‘nuage’ which concludes the final statement of the dialogue which makes up the poem. ‘Nuage’ of course refers to the natural phenomenon in the sky, but its multiple metaphorical uses developed over time. The portail lexical of the CNRTL offers, for example, analogical uses of the term in agriculture, atrophysics, physics/chemistry, maths/statistics. But it also shows how, around the 1820s – 1850s in France, writers began to use the term to mean ‘Ce qui assombrit, masque la visibilité des choses’ or ‘Menace pesant sur quelqu’un, annonce d’un danger’. These more sinister meanings could add a more ‘gothic’ tinge to a reading of Baudelaire’s prose poem, or – read in conjunction with the politically-infused questioning earlier on in the poem – it could point towards a predilection for political change, revolutions, upheavals (which characterised much of the nineteenth century in the years leading up to Baudelaire writing his poetry).

But beyond the meanings is the sound world. Poetic French creates crackling, sparkling sounds by bringing choice consonants (t, p) into close contact with tight u and i vowels (‘tu m’es en riant apparue’. Mallarmé ‘Apparition’) and judicious use of polysyllabic words (‘délicatement’. Verlaine). So too does it favour more mellow and rich sounds of the deep ‘ou’ vowels (‘Les roses étaient toutes rouges / Et les lierres étaient tout noirs’. Verlaine ‘Spleen’; ‘Écloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux’. Baudelaire ‘La Mort des amants’).

Encouraging students to work closely with these various poetic soundscapes means enabling them to develop a really fine and subtle ability in French pronunciation. It is not just about developing a very French pout (which does, admittedly, help – it’s a technique I use with singers who need to ‘sound French’ with minimal time left to prepare for a concert; it’s not something I recommend as a general rule!). It is all about learning how to move the mouth in a very different way – from the tight forward lips required for the ‘ou’ and ‘u’ sounds (‘nous’, ‘tu’, depending on the lowered or raised tongue position) to the wide and open ‘é’ or ‘a’ sounds (e.g. of ‘éclater’), and everything in between – the really neutral loose mouth shape for an unaccented ‘e’, the dropped lower jaw for many of the ‘o’ sounds, and so on.

So I’m finding myself doing increasing amounts of language coaching with my French degree students, along the lines of the work I do with professional singers. It’s particularly rewarding working with students studying poetry because they are able to focus in on the details, they have a good grasp of versification, accent, and metre, as well as the range of semantic play. But what so often eludes them is the intensity of the soundworld, and that’s where hard work starts to pay off.

And the proof that this approach works?

Well, it is still anecdotal, of course, but what I’ve observed is that it doesn’t just pay off for their French poetry assignments. I watch my students flourish as their confidence and ability in spoken language clicks into place. They suddenly begin to sound so French even after working on just a few lines of poetry, and this work transfers almost instantly into the rest of their spoken French – whether for oral exams, for informal conversations with native speakers in and around the University, or in the wider world beyond the University (many go on to work in France or a French-speaking country after finishing their degree).

So. French poetry may seem like a niche area of study, but it’s shaping up to be a key training ground for linguists aiming to develop that ever-so-elusive fluency skill so that they sound completely French too. And the pay-off? Better (British) linguists means better global citizens.

 

Translating poetry for song performances

This month sees the start of the 2015 Oxford Lieder festival. I’ve worked with the Oxford Lieder team since 2008, and have enjoyed giving many pre-concert talks on song programmes focused around French song. But this year’s festival is a little different. Called ‘Singing Words: Poets and their Songs’, it approaches the art song form from the perspective of the poet first. The programme includes concerts dedicated to song settings of poems by Eluard, Heine, Rilke, or Verlaine, and many more poets besides. Working with poetry in literary language, however, especially those which use old-fashioned vocabulary and phrasing, and doing all this in a foreign language, must surely be quite alienating for audiences not fully conversant in those languages, or that type of literary language?

One of the ways round this, to help audiences engage better with what is being sung on stage, is to include translations in programme booklets. In fact, just this week, I’ve translated another 7 French poems for Oxford Lieder, all texts selected by Berlioz for songs which will be performed at a lunchtime recital on 24 October 2015. The commissioning turnaround time was quick, so I submitted them to the Oxford Lieder team with the caveat that ‘they’re hardly the most aesthetically beautiful literary translations, but they do capture what’s going on in each of the songs’. It’s perhaps a lazy get-out clause which forestalls any critique of my translation work. But if I’d had more time (or skill), what would I have done instead?

Translating poetry for song performances is not straightforward, and I wanted to share some of these issues here:

Who am I translating for?
In commissioning any translation work, it’s important to factor in who the readers of the translated work will be. Am I translating for teenagers who have never been to a song recital before? Am I translating for a group of well-established concert-goers who know a lot of Berlioz songs already, and have a pretty reasonable French anyhow? The reality with public performances is that you will have a mixture of people with differing levels of competence and experience in listening to foreign-language song (and the work Oxford Lieder and numerous other arts organisations are doing is helping to diversify their audiences). So, who am I translating for?

What is the main aim of the translation?
It is so easy to claim that the main aim of a translation is to ‘capture the essence’ of the original foreign-language text. But what does this mean? As recently-developed theories and methodologies of translation show us, there are decisions to be made which include:

Domestication / Foreignization
How much should you convert the original-language source text into the specific cultural and linguistic reference-points of the translated language (‘domestication’), and how much you keep the points of difference, whether in word order, phrasing, and syntax, or culture-specific terms (‘foreignization’). Clive Scott calls for ‘foreignization’ in his books on translating Baudelaire and Rimbaud, maintaining that poetry in some way necessitates that feel of ‘otherness’ as a different way of using language. This means that you ‘feel’ that the text is translated, and the translator can often deploy his/her creativity more extensively (maintaining what Lawrence Venuti calls the translator’s ‘visibility’). Other poetry translators seek to fully ‘domesticate’ a foreign poem by adapting it into an English-language form, using English verse metre and developing a rhyme scheme based on English sounds.

Formal or Dynamic Equivalence
Adapting a poem into the verse forms of a translated language is also a type of ‘formal equivalence’ as set out by Eugene Nida, in that it sees both the meaning of the poem and the format of the text as jointly important. ‘Dynamic equivalence’ would transmit just the effect of the message (perhaps this notion of somehow ‘capturing the essence’ of a text) without maintaining its form. This perhaps best describes what I have done with my quick Berlioz translations for Oxford Lieder: I have not created a new poetic work using English verse techniques, but I have sought to maintain the effect (‘capture the essence’). But I have also sought to maintain a more-or-less word-for-word translation so that the audience can follow in roughly ‘real time’ what is being sung which retains in some way the ‘formal equivalence’. What I have done is perhaps the most common approach to translating poem texts for song recitals, but it is not necessarily the most suitable, particularly for contemporary audiences.

Singable translations
An approach which has largely fallen out of fashion is the ‘singable translation’, which keeps the rhythm of the vocal part intact but which struggles to maintain word-for-word equivalence. There are positives and negatives to a singable translation, both for the performer and for the audience, depending on what is being conveyed through the song. Do we miss the sounds of the original language? Are sung words always fully audible? Does the sung translation ‘sanitize’ the original? Perhaps perplexingly, singable translations are common in opera (such as all the works performed at the English National Opera), but less so on the song recital circuit.

Where can I find out more?
A small team of song translation researchers and practicitioners will explore this question of how to translate poems for song performances at a Song in Translation Study Event on 25 October 2015. Laura Tunbridge, Philip Bullock, Richard Stokes and I will probe issues to do with about the integrity of the poem or its song setting, political agendas and censorhip, and how national and cultural identities come into play too. To find out more, book your place at the Okinaga Room, Wadham College, starting at 2pm!

Setting up The Baudelaire Song Project

IMG_7939LowResWhen I was awarded £594,000 from the AHRC for The Baudelaire Song Project to research all the song settings of Baudelaire’s poetry, I was naturally over the moon. But I was also very aware of how much there is to do to get the project fully off the ground and running exactly as I want it to. With the project kicking off this month, the focus for now is mostly the logistical planning side. I’ll be heading up a small team of 4-6 researchers, working with Co-Investigator Dr Mylène Dubiau from Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès and HRI Digital, plus a yet-to-be-recruited post-doctoral Research Associate, and it’s important all the right elements of the project are in place.

That also means getting the project website up and running, with logo and images that capture why we’re researching Baudelaire songs right now, and how important the project’s findings promise to be. So this blog post is mostly about acknowledging the behind-the-scenes work of a group of brilliant designers, photographers, web designers and site builders, branding experts, and advisors on programming, performance, video and audio capture, and more besides who have been integral to getting this project off on the right foot. Special mention here is needed for Stewart Campbell who advised on branding and contacts, Gareth Widdowson who’s worked on our logo for usBaudelaire Logo GREY-ORANGE-small, and photography by Craig Fleming. These contributions are the ‘unseen’ parts of a big research project, but investing in them from the get-go means that we’ll be able to connect properly with people around the globe who have things to tell us about Baudelaire and song.

If you’re a composer, a songwriter, a translator, a curator/festival director, or simply a Baudelaire fan, we want to hear from you. Tweet us on @BaudelaireProj, and as soon as the website is live, we’ll share as much as we can with you all.

Study Leave Week 17

The power of digitised research

The traditional activity of the arts and humanities academic digging out and poring over rare manuscripts in archives and libraries still remains the bread-and-butter of our research, but it is changing. With increasing digitisation of so many resources, the need for travel and extended research trips to difficult-to-access archives (often negotiating with protective archivists and librarians) is waning. This doesn’t diminish the extent of the research we need to do, but it does make us rethink our modus operandi.

For me, as I write and research my third book, I have noticed a significant change even in the 4 or 5 years since I was conducting the bulk of the primary research for my second book (in 2010-11, published 2012).  One of the major resources I need to consult frequently is the Département de la Musique holdings at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Contoversially scheduled to move sites in the coming years, the holdings and access to them are more precious than ever. Up until a few years ago, the majority of the catalogue (and holdings) were still only available in paper-card index format, consultable only in person at the rue Louvois site. Now, as I research less well-known French chanson and mélodie settings of Baudelaire, I am reliant once again on the Département de la Musique’s collections. Having assumed a research trip to Paris would be the first port of call for me as I deepened my primary research, I have discovered that in fact a number of the rare songs I need to consult are now available online, through the excellent Gallica digital library. It may not yet have everything, but it has meant that I could put off my travel until next month, enabling me to crack on sooner with the main bulk of the writing and research process of the first few chapters of my book.

Brilliant as they are, however, digital resources aren’t everything. As many a researcher of historical documents will tell you, the digitised text doesn’t always show up everything you need to know. For one of the key composers I work on, for example, hand annotated versions of song offprints were done by the composer in coloured pencil, and sections of these annotations which have been erased and then rewritten are only visible on the original copy. Discovering the layers of rewriting by poets and composers often highlights some of the lost compositional processes, leading to a breakthrough in the research and analysis. And it is this old-fashioned style of traditional scholarship that still excites many of us, because it reveals hidden gems that the digitised world cannot yet show us. I find myself researching, then, in two modes: digitally, and non-digitally. Both modes have a key role to play in my work, as I adapt my way of researching according to what is available in each format.

Study Leave Week 15

Making connections 

Interdisciplinary research has become a recent buzzword in academia, already perhaps descending into a tired cliché peddled by researchers who need to tick the boxes of university and funders’ requirements and expectations. Many of us have already been working interdisciplinarily for many years, as a result of our education and training which encourages exploring multiple options to find solutions to intractable problems. But what happens when two extremely disparate disciplines come into contact with one another? It can result in nothing beyond blind incomprehension as each is bamboozled by the other’s technical jargon and unfamiliar concepts. Or it can, on rare occasions, spark unexpectedly productive connections.

This week has been another intensive writing week for me. My writing target is a 12,000-word chapter, and it is the lynchpin of the whole argument underpinning my new book. I’m trying to propose something very radical that will change the way we research and understand song. And although I had already worked out the basic tenets of my argument, imagine my surprise when I found myself turning to complex chemistry to try to explain what I think is going on in the relationship between words and music. The last time I touched any chemistry was aged 16 for my GCSE exams, so clearly I am not an expert. But I am fortunate to know someone who is (ahem, my Dad), and that makes probing the questions and ideas much more possible. I’m writing up the research as we speak, and I think it will work, but you’ll have to wait till the book is published to see whether or not I’ve kept the idea in and developed it properly…

This experience has reminded me that being open to the spark of unexpected connections made with completely unrelated areas of research is both important but incredibly daunting. In not seeking to become an expert in the other discipline, but instead questioning someone who is, there is a chance that the interdisciplinary process can open up whole new ways of thinking. 

It’s electrifying…!

When I get asked the question “why did such and such a composer choose to set Baudelaire to music?” two things spring to mind in response:
1. The question implies a secondary, comparative one “and why not another poet?”. Dealing with this would draw me down the path of making difficult-to-substantiate value judgements about how “good” or “bad”, or how “musical” or “unmusical” a particular poet’s work might be. And that makes me nervous, because it is very subjective…
2. The question also implies that there is always a rational (conscious) choice behind a composer’s decision to use a particular poet or poem. The reality turns out often to be rather different. If you are lucky, you might be able to find some explanation for a particular choice of poem buried deep in the composer’s private correspondence, say. Or even better, a composer may even state their reasons in the liner notes of a record they put out. But most of the time, no textual evidence remains. This can lead others to conjecture and speculate, often attempting to draw on biographical material of a failed love affair, or some other attractive gossipy tale. But I am glad when there is nothing. Because a logical (biographical) explanation for choosing a particular poem or poet is usually a red herring that also makes me nervous…

So I turn the “why” question into a “how” question: How has a composer dealt with a Baudelaire poem? How has s/he responded to the text? How has s/he reworked it? These questions generate far more compelling responses- with tangible evidence that we can rely on.

But today I was reading the liner notes of Ruth White’s extraordinary Flowers of Evil album from 1969 in which she offers a particularly appealing explanation for her choice of Baudelaire’s poetry. She talks of the ‘electrifying force’ of his poetry and of how she tries to parallel that in her electronic music. It’s tempting, then to change my cagey way of dealing with the “why” question and instead answer it with a much simpler response. Why set Baudelaire? Because, quite simply… it’s electrifying.


6 January 2014: As an addendum, I love the answers to the “Why Baudelaire?” question on the Baudelaire in a Boxu project website. Particularly “because he would be so irritated”…!

The Baudelaire Song Project

I’ve been a little quiet on here of late but that’s because I’ve been busy building my new major research project – The Baudelaire Song Project – for which I (together an international team of researchers, grant proposal outcome permitting!) am setting out to collate and analyse “all the song settings ever” of C19th French poet Charles Baudelaire. It’s a daunting task, but extremely exciting. As I’ve been building up the project and developing my plans into something increasingly concrete, I’ve found a particular way of working to be very beneficial: working with non-academics… I’ve talked about this before but it is becoming increasingly central to my modus operandi as an academic researcher specialising in song settings of the major French poets of the nineteenth century. Three events this year have really helped shape my thinking, and redefine some of the parameters of The Baudelaire Song Project.

1. Masterclass and workshop with British soprano Sophie Bevan
2. Festival of the Mind talk at Castle House, Sheffield as part of Languages Live!
3. Invited lecture at Westminster School

The first of these saw me working once again with a wonderful professional singer- we focused on Berlioz/Gautier Les Nuits d’été. Sophie is a consummate professional, who works tirelessly to ensure vocal readiness, including impeccable French language diction coupled with a deep interrogation of the underlying poetic text. So often when working with Sophie we’ve found a surprising way of “unlocking” a familiar text or song, and on this occasion it was no different. It’s just that this time round it wasn’t just me, Sophie & her accompanist (Richard Longman did a wonderful job on the keys this time round) but we also worked with 5 young singers tackling singing in French (some for the first time). It was an opportunity to see the full range of the demands a French song setting makes of the performers. Something that it’s too easy to forget when you are immersed in it professionally. With Sophie focusing on vocal performance and skills, and me focusing on French language, diction & meaning, it was profoundly rewarding to watch whole interpretations change and develop quite radically in just a short space of time. Feedback from the singers and some of the members of the public attending the event reminded me that something which might seem low-key or “amateur” can have transformative effects- not just on the participants but also on me as a researcher. Young singers are too often put off or daunted by singing in French in part because of the perceived difficulty, in part because they simply don’t get the opportunity to hear it, to try it out, and to be coached and guided in it (there is only so much a singing teacher alone can do). So it’s becoming an increasingly integral part of my “mission” to incorporate regular work with singers and audiences from a whole range of backgrounds and experiences- and of course it helps when someone as brilliant as Sophie is just as committed to this collaborative way of working. Lots more similar events and activities are in the planning phase now, working with a number of established singers and organisations both here in the UK and in France, so watch this space!

The second was, on the face of it, a modest 30-minute slot as part of the University of Sheffield’s big collaborative research and engagement series of events known as Festival of the Mind, held in conjunction with the city council, and using major city-centre venues where possible. For me, this meant a first: giving a public talk in a disused department store right by a major tram interchange. Surrounded by signs telling me the cash desk was this way (it wasn’t there anymore..), and long-defunct CCTV security domes, I found it quite cathartic to share my passion for Baudelaire’s poetry in such a context. Baudelaire is known as the poet of modernity, and here we were in a venue which spoke of modernism’s dreams – and how they can falter. Baudelaire knew all about new spaces for commerce and cities changing shape through demolition and rebuilding (read his poem ‘Le Cygne’ to see how he felt about Paris’s regeneration projects in the 1850s). Against this backdrop I sang and talked about some of the different song settings of that most famous poem ‘L’Invitation au voyage’ – from the naive oom-cha version of the 1860s to the luscious Duparc 1870 setting right through to some of the 1950s and 1970s reimaginings of the poem. It felt like I was able to tell the story of how the poem has been reworked through the ages precisely because I was in a space which itself had gone through multiple reworkings and is awaiting its next transformation. It cannot help but remind us that one of the things that happens in setting a poem to music is that the text sets out on a journey to an unknown destination. Just as Baudelaire wrote of dreaming about going “là-bas”, to an unspecified imagined location, so too does Baudelaire’s poetry itself set out on journeys into the unknown. For how was Baudelaire to know that “L’Invitation” would be picked up, albeit subtly, by Louis Vuitton for their latest ad campaign? For a poem that some claim talks of Amsterdam, and others of the Far East, the Louis Vuitton advertising team take us to the Louvre and then onto Venice. The point is that poetry enables these multiple destinations to coexist within the same text- so that, as I’m increasingly learning, it is no surprise that Baudelaire’s poetry has found itself adapted into such diverse musical contexts and genres.

Finally, the third event saw me speaking to a group of schoolchildren aged 15-18, in a setting renowned for its privilege (Westminster School’s long history is well-known), but the specific room I was lecturing in was formerly British parliamentary offices. This time the poem I had chosen to focus on was ‘La Vie antérieure’. How apposite, once again, that I found myself talking about modern engagement with the idea of ‘past lives’ in an environment that was once the heart of government policy-making and is now filled with young people setting out on their futures and thinking about their possible career paths. The students at Westminster showed deep understanding of what Baudelaire’s poetry sets out to do, and offered probing questions particularly about the inter-art relations inherent in his work. It reminded me that the supposed narrowness of my research (I was bemoaning to a colleague just the other day that I don’t just want to be known as the boring Baudelaire & music person…) is in fact merely a narrow lens through which to access a whole array of ideas, materials, and media.

As The Baudelaire Song Project starts to formally take shape in the coming months, I am looking forward to revisiting and questioning afresh materials and texts for which I had inadvertently assumed a given meaning. Despite being highly trained in handling the complexities of poetic texts in French, these experiences have been a salient reminder that unless I keep up the quest for the new and the different, and keep attentive to the unexpected, I will risk missing some of the most striking developments in the relationships between Baudelaire’s poetry and music. And although I have a very clear plan as to how I am going to access all the song settings of Baudelaire’s verse and prose poetry, I shall keep my eyes and ears peeled along the way, especially when I’m taking part in events that do not, on the face of it, claim to be primarily academic or research focused. Modern-day academia may talk now of co-production as an engaged way of working, but it’s clear to me that everything I’ve been doing throughout my career to date, whether working with professional musicians (often labelled “practice-led research”), or giving public talks (with their potential for “impact”), or going into schools to share my passion for languages and poetry (is this “outreach”?) is just a natural part of being an academic. For me it is not about the labels or ticking the right boxes to satisfy requirements imposed by the academy, but it is all about constantly being alert to new research findings in contexts I cannot expect or plan for.

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Britten’s “Frenchness”: Les Illuminations

Throughout 2013 the University of Sheffield has run a fantastic Benjamin Britten festival directed by Stewart Campbell. I’ve been working on Britten’s settings of French poets (Verlaine, Hugo, and Rimbaud). His famous Illuminations settings of Rimbaud offer some of the most vibrant, tantalising orchestral song writing. Having spent the year coaching different singers on performances of theses tricky, elusive Rimbaud texts about carnivals, exotic cities, bell towers, and rolling seas, I’m delighted to be able to share a little video interview prepared as part of the A Boy was Born festival with performances by David Webb and Sheffield Chamber Orchestra: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=COV2W5U3o9E

I’m hoping also that an extended article I’ve written about the Illuminations will be published next year, but I will in any case be talking about them again in London this Monday at a free, public research seminar at the Institute of Musical Research, Senate House in a talk that looks at what happens when a poem goes into song. With such interesting but challenging material to work with, it’s been a busy year for me honing and developing my words & music research approaches!

Languages, art song, and the supposed “elitist barrier”: “You might not like this much, but it will be good for you”…

A few weeks ago, I was reading a Yorkshire Life article about Leeds Lieder founder and former Opera North soprano Jane Anthony. It was a preview of the 2013 Leeds Lieder festival, whose artistic director this year was Graham Johnson (whose work I use a lot for my research). Something struck me in the article, however. The journalist talks about the perceived “elitist barrier” of listening to (art) song in a foreign language. Jane Anthony rightly says that it is “all wrong” to think that singing in a foreign language has an “elitist tag”, and this struck a chord with me. I’ve been starting to think more and more about this outmoded view of languages and art song being supposedly difficult and off-putting, and about what is being done to change perceptions.

In my 2012 book Parisian Intersections, I talk about the supposed “difficulty” of art song. In my conclusion, I write:

“Perceptions of art song on today’s recital stage frequently consider it to be a specialist, niche genre only accessible by an elite audience of cognoscenti. Music critic Adam Sweeting, for example, has recently written that art song is ‘a term that often seems to mean “you might not like this much, but it will be good for you”’.[1] Tellingly, Sweeting makes this comment in an interview with mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter following the release of a CD recording which sees her performing both classical art song and more contemporary popular song. Breaking down the perceived boundary between art song and popular song opens up new ways of understanding the function of song and how poetry and music interact across genre boundaries, but it requires careful negotiation of those boundaries.”

Anne-Sofie von Otter’s drive to include contemporary popular song in her repertoire is revealing of a classical music industry which is trying to engage new audiences. For me, as my research takes me increasingly across the boundaries of “classical” vs. “popular” song, I’m finding new ways of interacting with both (new) performers and (new) audiences about singing and listening to challenging music in a foreign language, often using more “accessible” versions of the same poetic text set to a more popular melody. We can find numerous examples of recordings which use the same text in a recital programme, but as a framing device. I’m thinking, for example, of John Mark Ainsley’s L’Invitation au voyage recording with Graham Johnson on the Hyperion label. It uses four different versions of the same Baudelaire poem (‘L’Invitation au voyage’) as tracks 1, 11, 17 and 24 of a 24-track CD of French mélodie from the Belle époque. Only one of the settings is famous – the last track with Henri Duparc’s gloriously lush version of the poem. The others – by Jules Cressonnois (the only song setting of Baudelaire that we know for certain to have been written and published during Baudelaire’s lifetime), by Benjamin Godard, and by the Hillemacher brothers. I’ve published a chapter about these different L’Invitation au voyage settings in a book called Words & Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century (published by Boydell & Brewer in 2013, edited by Phyllis Weliver and Katharine Ellis). In it, I examine how the more lighthearted, earlier song settings interact both with Baudelaire’s poem and with the later versions, including Duparc’s more highbrow “art song” setting. But I also use this poem as a key example in my undergraduate teaching at the University of Sheffield, where I ask students to go and listen to contemporary pop song versions of the poem, moving back through the 1960s and 70s chansonnier versions, through then to the nineteenth-century settings. It allows students who have had little or no contact with classical music to find a way through to it, often via versions that they thought they would like more but end up finding less satisfying once they’ve encountered the Duparc setting. Having access to many different versions of an important Baudelaire poem set to music in so many different ways is quite a rare scenario, however, and it certainly isn’t the only way to open up art song to new audiences (whether undergraduate students or otherwise).

Placing different versions alongside each other of the same poem set to music isn’t the only way of breaking down the “elitist barrier”, however, and in fact, programming experience tells me that audiences often find it boring to sit and listen to different versions of the same text, especially if they are simply paired alongside each other (I’m indebted to Sholto Kynoch for his invaluable programming advice over the years!). Another way to tackle the “elitist tag” is to develop training for professional singers, so that their own mode of access to poetry in a foreign language is enhanced through a whole range of skills which will enable them to engage more openly with their audiences. I’ve been working closely with the creative team at Pro North Voices on a new project which draws together early-career professional singers based in the north to focus on challenging repertoire in a foreign language. The first programme centers around the French language, and includes settings of Eluard poems by Poulenc, for example. The whole process that we are going through – collectively – is to work from day one on the text and the music together as part of the creative development of the programme, so that we’re not just focusing on the poet’s voice, nor on just the composer’s voice, nor indeed on just the singer’s voice, but on all three of these elements together, examining what needs to take priority, how we can overcome technical challenges, and how we can arrive at an interpretative consensus as a vocal ensemble. This offers a much deeper level of engagement with the foreign language than is often possible within the time constraints and pressures of a singer’s career. It’s not just a question of producing the right sounds (diction) – though of course the notion of “right” in the context of different accents is quite another issue – but also a question of producing something that sounds French, both in terms of its technical elements and its emotive and interpretative facets. With our first performance coming up on 16 February 2014 at Firth Hall, University of Sheffield, we’re getting stuck into the work already (I’m preparing audio recordings of the French texts for singers to use as a guide as they prepare the music, text, and their voices in advance of the rehearsal period). Integral to the whole process is also how we engage with the audience, and so we’re also working alongside specialists in stagecraft – those who have had long, successful careers on the international opera house circuit, for example – to offer our singers and our audiences a fresh way of interacting with music in a language that is supposedly so foreign that it tips over into being only accessible to the happy few. Instead, we’re looking forward to embracing a different way of working together, with all of us coming from quite different backgrounds, to produce something that is refreshingly open to all.

A final word should be reserved for translation. In the Yorkshire Life article, it states how at Leeds Lieder “translations are provided so the audience know what’s being sung and to further break down the elitist barrier.” But my experiences of performing art song, and of being an audience member for art song concerts, in fact makes me think that translations can be more, not less, of a barrier. This is because as an audience member there is so much text to absorb if you don’t speak the language that is being sung that you risk spending most of the recital with your head buried in the programme booklet which, in turn, is disheartening for a performer who sees barely one face looking up at him/her. Reading the programme with texts and translations, you try on the one hand to observe roughly where the singer is by listening to the sounds you’re hearing, and then you try to cross-check that with the translation on the page. So often translations used in programme booklets are not the best translations – either because they are too literal, word-for-word (typically something more useful for a singer in the preparation phase of a song), or because they are too poetic, transposed into an English poetic form, and so quite far in mood and tone from the original language poem. Some professional translators do an amazing job at striking the right balance (Richard Stokes’ translations are regularly used, for example, by the Oxford Lieder Festival). But what is interesting is that the translator is rarely acknowledged (this is, indeed, an issue frequently addressed in the field of translation studies[2]), often perhaps because programmers have simply found a translation on the internet (the REC Music Foundation website is an invaluable user-contributor wiki-style resource we all use). The time has come to start looking at different ways of allowing audiences access to a “translation” of the foreign text that is being sung. One way in which I do this with my French song recitals is to have people read out the poem in French before I sing them. I’ve seen this on the recital stage with the singer doing this themselves before performing the song (for example, by the French soprano Magali Arnault Stanczak sometimes does this), or I’ve instigated it myself (for example, by getting my final year students of French at the University of Sheffield to read the poem out loud before I perform it). What this does is enable the audience to have a first listen to the poem, and read the translation before hearing the song setting. But it can break the ‘magic’ of the concert atmosphere, especially if the spoken text interrupts a song cycle, for example. Another way is to use “plot summaries” rather than full translations, or project surtitles. I’m researching using these techniques in performances planned for 2014, garnering examples from other ensembles and recitals that I’ve encountered to date. And crucially, rather than looking for a ready-made translation, I am working with my students for performances in Feburary 2014 to produce a range of possible translations of texts by Gautier (for Berlioz’s Nuits d’été) and Baudelaire (for Vierne’s Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire) which can be made available online in advance of a recital planned for 24 Feburary 2014 (again at Firth Hall, University of Sheffield).

So, like Jane Anthony, I also think that “getting the message across that art song is for all can be frustrating and difficult”, but I’m actively engaging with different ways of addressing this challenge. Where Leeds Lieder, Oxford Lieder, and many of the professional opera houses have been addressing the “elitist barrier” through education and outreach projects, I’m doing it from the perspective of a researcher, academic, and lecturer, who works closely with undergraduate and postgraduate students, and with early-career professional singers. Let’s hope that through this range of approaches, we’ll manage to achieve our goal of making such wonderful music more widely available to all.


[1] Adam Sweeting, interview with mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter, Daily Telegraph, 21 October 2010, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/8077726/Anne-Sophie-von-Otter-interview.html> [accessed 21 October 2010].

[2] See, for example, Lawrence Venuti’s field-defining work The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (1995)