Wednesday, August 15, 2007

New text for the 'Seasons'

No, you wouldn't be the first to say 'I did not know Vivaldi's Four Seasons have wurrddzz'. Of course, you would be right. In fact, it's Haydn's 'Seasons'. A chap called Neil Jenkins must have laboured forever over writing new words for this oratorio.

The reasoning behind it is this: Haydn found the text by James Thomson in England, rushed back with it to Vienna, where Baron von Swieten, an old hand at the translating (I seem to have heard his name before) translated it into German. You know how it is with poetic texts - they are just hellish to translate if you want to get the rhymes right and the metre. Only recently I came across a horrendous translation into English of the St Matthew's passion which left out whole chunks of serious facts.

Then, to please the simple English-speaking singers, the text was retranslated into English. You can imagine what was left of the original. So Neil Jenkins sat down and tried to get it as close to James Thomson as he could.

Translations are a difficult thing - English people hate to have their Shakespeare adapted (what wonderful language!) and ditto do Germans with their Goethe and Schiller, presumably. But every translation is an adaptation. In some cases, as in the Georgian Hamlet, it goes a bit far when the whole 'to be or not to be' monologue is translated into 'To be or Not to Be' and there stops.... But of course with music it's a different matter, and it makes it even harder seeing the words have to match the rhythm of the music.

The difficulty of not understanding the original language was brought to me the other day, at an Open University seminar when the lecturer, who clearly had not a word of German, tried to interpret an aria from the Magic Flute, pointing out stresses here and structures there. Sorry, girl, you were quite wrong - the musical stresses and structures there might have been according to your interpretation and the changes of key and so on, but they did not fit with the stresses and structure of the original language.

Anyway, back to the Seasons. The language is now a mixture of archaic and plain English. (Not helped by the fact that more than one of the poems Haydn used did not actually come from Thomson). Looking at the translated text it looks as if no more than 50% came from the Thomson poem. So what's the point?? As a singer, you find yourself stumbling over 'Be propitious' (not in Thomson), earlier English version 'be now gracious', and in German 'sei nun gnaedig'. The older translation was much clearer. 'Propitious' is not a word that would ordinarily trip off your tongue....

As for the 'labourer's pains' - one can see that this adaptation was made by a man, no? A woman would never have used this turn of phrase.

The phrase 'Surrounded now on every side, he stands at bay and groans in anguish while the pack hang at is chest' may be mostly Thomson (from after the comma), but the older translation is 'Surrounded now on every side, his spirit and his vigour lost, exhausted drops the nimble deer'. Clearly Baron von Swieten was a bit more sensitive to the needs of his singers and his audience than Jenkins. A number of people in the choir were unhappy with this turn of phrase. We also felt there is a logic gap between 'standing at bay' and the pack hanging from his chest.

There's a whole aria about a dog (a spaniel) which in German is just a 'dog' (but this is real Thomson and real Haydn). Apart from that the retranslation then departs widely from the dog story... Not entirely sure that I should have bought the piano score with these words - I wonder how often they will be performed, and whether I will ever perform them. Because I was so annoyed at the words I then also bought a large pocket score to compare the 'real' words....

It's only when you sing or play a piece that you realise all that it contains, and the many delightful little instrumental details Haydn added to it, including the drone of the bagpipe, the crow of the cockerel and so on. Some of the arias/songs seemed to be a bit disconnected, like where the seigneur tries do enforce his droit and the young lady concerned outwits him. What's that got to do with winter. What was she doing walking about in the countryside in winter? And would she have been attractive to look at in winter, all covered in warm clothes?