Music and Vision homepage


Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

What's in a name?

Looking up from the programme, a puzzled expression crossed the child's face as he asked 'What's a lieder recital?'. 'A song recital'. 'So what's lieder?' 'German for songs'. 'So why ...?'. And well might the apparently naïve question be asked of chanson too. Is it not yet another curiosity of our musical communication that we seem to need the quite unnecessary incorporation of words from other languages in preference to perfectly adequate simple English words? Do they do this in non-English speaking countries I wonder?

We do not usually advertise a dal recital of Hungarian songs, or a recital of Iberian cançiones or a pesnya recital of Russian masterpieces. Perhaps it is a type of pretentiousness that sometimes goes with a wish to wrap high art in a cocoon of mystery, protecting it from those who adore Tchaikovsky and Gershwin, Rodrigo and Miklós Rózsa! And a related curiosity. On what basis do we decide to refer to The marriage of Figaro and yet La Traviata, for it would be rather strange indeed to hear in usual conversation le nozze di Figaro and the woman gone astray.

We tend to refer to Songs of a Wayfarer, The Three-cornered hat, The Snow Maiden and The Sorcerer's Apprentice, but not often to the Freeshooter, the Troubadour, Solomon, Songs on the death of children or A prelude to a faune's afternoon. (In case you should wonder, though I am sure you weren't: der Freischütz, Il trovatore, Schelomo, Kindertotenlieder and the last is obvious!)

Così fan tutte is always just that, without even knowing what it means, and so is eine kleine Nachtmusik -- though we all seem to know what that means. La fanciulla del West and Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt are usually translated in English programmes, though Verklärte Nacht is not. Though we are highly unlikely to refer to Bartók's A Kékszakállùherceg vára (Bluebeard's castle) or the ballet A csodálatos mandarin (guessable) we have learnt to master Le tombeau de Couperin and Le Marteau sans Maître with admirable confidence.

It does however give one a thrilling air of superiority to use the authentic yet less expected titles, and a wonderful opportunity to look around the company with a shocked expression to say 'But surely you know that piece?' Like pronouncing Chopin in Polish and savouring the surprise (perhaps admiration? I'm too old for that!) when you explain that you forget he used the French style.

So I shall be on now to hear Beethoven's Die Weihe des Hauses and Musorgsky's Kartinki s vïstavki (Ravel I'm afraid -- they should do some other orchestrations).

Copyright © 30 March 2006 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK


From: Alistair Hinton

De la Rochfoucauld is credited as having said that 'language was given to Man to conceal his thoughts', though he would not, of course, have uttered this belief en anglais.

I think that the inconsistencies of usage to whch you draw attention are not dissimilar to those that we are accustomed to when citing the names of foreign towns and cities. We do not, for example, speak of Roma, Torino, Napoli, Milano, Firenze -- yet we do not alter Bari, Palermo, Como, Empoli, Perugia. Whether the extent of this Anglicisation is accurately reflected in the opposite direction I do not know; the Italians do call our capital city Londra, although when I asked an Italian about the rest she rather unhelpfully said 'in Italy we try not to say "Birmingham" at all'. The Italians do, however, Italianise the names of various German cities to the extent that one has occasionally to stop and think where and what they are. The point here is 'why do we do this sometimes and not others?' -- which is where it seems to coincide with the point that you make.

Finally -- to return to the Italians -- I have just returned from a performance in Rome of a piano concerto (whose full title I'll spare you!) which I am ashamed to admit was actually the first live performance of it that I have ever attended. Ferruccio Benvenuto Dante Michaleangelo Busoni lived quite a large part of his life in Germany and died in Berlin; he would, I'm sure, have had no truck with the Italianising of the names of German cities. For all that his monumental concerto would be expected to eclipse whatever else might also be on the programme, the one work in the first half on this occasion gave me pause for thought. Perhaps the pairing was of a serendipitous significance of which even the programme planners were unaware. Busoni the visionary is often credited as having somehow contrived to merge the future with the past, but it now seems that Schubert had a similar ability to divine the future. I do not know whether he used Sibelius (of whom he would not actually have heard) or Finale (which on the occasion concerned he omitted to write), but he was clearly already au fait with the principle of music typesetting, as evidenced by his 'Sinfonia Incompiuta'.

I must now go away and listen to the Lustspiel Overture -- whether Busoni's or yours I'll leave you to guess ...




 << Music & Vision home                 Mozart >>