Singing in languages part 2

Several months ago, one of my wonderful nieces attended a Celtic festival. She posted on social media: “Unpopular and controversial opinion: people shouldn’t sing solo on stage in languages they do not speak”. I commented: “Almost every opera and lieder singer?”

Strictly speaking, lieder singers (possibly lied singers, compare song singers) only ever sing in German, but let’s expand the repertoire to at least Italian, French and German, and maybe Spanish. Opera singers can easily add Czech and Russian, and modern operas have incorporated Sanskrit (Glass, Satyagraha), Ancient Egyptian, Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew (Glass, Akhnaten), probably Palestinian Arabic and Modern Hebrew (Adams, The death of Klinghoffer) and maybe Mandarin Chinese (Adams, Nixon in China).

Choral singers also clock up languages, probably even more so, because there are larger or smaller choral works in languages in which there are no operas. In my last post, I talked about a recent concert in which we sang in English, liturgical Greek, liturgical Latin, Church Slavonic and Latvian. I forgot to mention that the women also sang in French. 

Another choir I sing in (a perfectly ordinary suburban community choir) is preparing a concert with pieces in English, mediaeval Galician-Portuguese, Italian, Latin, modern Hebrew, Māori and Quechua. And our conductor wonders why we are looking so worried as we sing. 

In addition to the above, I have also sung in concerts in Welsh, Spanish, biblical Hebrew and Korean that I can easily think of, and as read-throughs of at least one South African language. I sure there’s more. I speak exactly none of those. If I only sang the language(s) I speak, I’d be limited to English. 

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Singing in languages

Last weekend one of the choirs I sing in presented a concert which had been delayed and disrupted by COVID and reduced in numbers by choristers travelling. Alongside works in English, liturgical Greek and Latin, we sang works in Church Slavonic (a movement from Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom) and Latvian (a new work by a local composer of Latvian birth or heritage). 

Church Slavonic and Latvian are both Indo-European languages, so I was on the lookout for any words which are obviously related to other IE languages I know about. But the only words I could discern are loan words into those languages just as into English: kheruvímy (cherubim) in the former and fenikss (phoenix) and oranži (orange) in the latter (all heavily influenced by the pronunciation and spelling of those languages). There is also trisvętúju in the former, which is guessable as trinity

Even though all these languages are Indo-European, they are obviously very different. Even though Church Slavonic and Latvian are both Balto-Slavic, they are obviously very different. Among other things, Church Slavonic is Slavic and Latvian is Baltic. Also, the texts we sang are liturgical dating to perhaps the 9th century and a 19th century secular poem. 

Linguists started by comparing closely related languages, such as Church Slavonic, Bulgarian and Macedonian, and Latvian and Lithuanian, then work their way back from there, eventually linking Polish, Czech and Slovak, the Balkan languages, the Russian-related languages and others into Slavic and thence with Latvian and Lithuanian into Balto-Slavic and then Indo-European. (Some people have attempted to reconstruct further back than than that, but their efforts are speculative and inconclusive at best.)

PS The Latvian poem is Putns ar uguns spārniem (which I can’t find anywhere online) by Aspazija. The title translates as Bird with wings of fire. I wondered if putns is related to a certain Russian surname, but no, the certain Russian surname apparently comes from put (path or way) + in (belonging to) and probably means something like ‘one who travels on a path’. (I couldn’t find any authoritative source and am relying on several user-submitted websites.)

God is terrible

This idea is scattered throughout the bible, if not in exactly that form. I probably knew it first and certainly know it most familiarly through Ralph Vaughan Williams’ anthem on Psalm 47, O clap your hands.

O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.
For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.

English has a number of words derived from Latin terror (noun), terrēre, terrificāre (verbs) and terribilis (adjective), including terror, terrorism/t, terrify, terrorise, terrible, terrifying and terrific. Terrific is now positive (though I remember a primary school teacher telling us that it should only be used in contexts of terror), terrifying is negative and terrible sits uncomfortably between the two.

As is usual with biblical words like this, there are many translations. In the 54 English versions on Bible Gateway:

awesome 18 awesome beyond words 1 awesome and deserves our great respect 1
awe-inspiring 3 

to be feared 9 to be feared [and worshiped with awe-inspired reverence and obedience] 1 fearsome 1 fearedful (to be feared/to be revered) 1 fearful 1 

terrible 10 
excites terror, awe, and dread 1

wonderful 3 wonderful [awesome] 1

stunning 1 

We must fear the Lord 1 We must fear Yahweh, Elyon 1

most of which have other problems, especially these days awesome. If “Everything is awesome” then there’s nothing special about God. At least no translations use awful (see this post, towards the end) (or dreadful).

(Another choral setting of the same psalm, by John Rutter, uses to be feared.)

Lying behind all of these is the Hebrew word נוֹרָא (nora, Modern Israeli Hebrew pronunciation noˈʁa). I will let an actual Hebrew speaker pronounce it and explain. So, awesome or awe-inspiring, or terrible or awful, even in Hebrew.

My problem with all of these is that if God is terrible, to be feared or even awesome, then our response will be terror, fear or awe, but will not and cannot possibly be love, and certainly not with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength.

It is noticeable that most of the verses describing God as terrible (in whatever words) are in the Old Testament (the one exception being the Old Testament-focused Hebrews). Elsewhere in the New Testament, we get “God is love” (not “God is loveable”!).

(I possibly have more to say about this, but would be venturing too far into theology for my comfort.)

gentleness, moderation, softness

One of the readings at church last Sunday was from Philippians 4, starting Rejoice in the Lord always, and continuing Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The preacher spoke mainly on the idea of gentleness. 

As a choral singer, I know two anthems on that text, one by Henry Purcell (which my number one commenter of recent times, Batchman, mentioned in a recent comment) and the other by Anon or John Redford. The first uses the text Let your moderation be known and the second Let your softness be known, so obviously there are different translations out there. In fact, Bible Gateway has 25 overlapping translations of these words in 62 versions. These can be divided into noun( phrase)s (typically Let your N be known, or Let everyone see your N) and adjectives (typically Let everyone see that you are Adj). 

gentleness 20
gentle spirit 3
gentle spirit [your graciousness, unselfishness, mercy, tolerance, and patience] 
gentle attitude
gentle nature 
moderation 5
forbearance 4
kindness 3 
graciousness 2
gracious attitude  
reasonableness 2 
chassidus (piety) 1
modesty 1
patience 1
patient mind 1
unselfishness (your considerateness, your forbearing spirit) 1

gentle 3
gentle and kind 3
gentle and gracious 
gentle [kind; considerate; patient]
considerate 3
reasonable and gentle 
unselfish and considerate 

Two are very different: the Message version, which has Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them and the Worldwide English version, which has Let everyone know that you think kindly of others before yourselves.

The Greek word behind all these English translations is ἐπιεικής, epieikés, from epí upon and eikos equitable, fair. It is an adjective; the equivalent noun is epieíkeia. Bible Hub explains: epieikḗs (“justice beyond ordinary justice”) builds on the real intent (purpose) of what is really at stake … and hence, is true equity that appropriately fulfils the spirit (not just the letter) of the law. 

I first said to the preacher that the best word out of all those seems to be moderation, but I later thought of the rather cumbersome equitability  and equitableness, which, not surprisingly, none of the translations uses.

If any Greek (or Hebrew) word has 25 different (but overlapping) meanings in English (or any other language), can we say what the bible says (or even means)? I’m sure it is possible to worry too much about this, as I have probably just done.  

the square __ the hypotenuse

One of the choirs I sing in started practicing the chorus of the Major-General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, very slowly, starting with 

with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

Hang on, shouldn’t that be on the hypotenuse?  At least, that’s what I’ve always thought it was.

Apparently not. The two books on Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas I have both give of, and the video I linked above has it. But, in general, of and on seem to be interchangeable, with a recent preference for of

There doesn’t seem to be an original Greek form of the theorem, whether formulated by Pythagoras or someone else. If there is a difference, it’s that the square on the hypotenuse is an actual square on an actual side of an actual triangle, and the square of the hypotenuse is a mathematical function of the length of that side. To the ancient Greeks, γεωμετρία (geometria) was literally about measuring the earth.

If you are a singer, use what you conductor provides or tells you. If you are a maths teacher, use what’s in your textbook. If you are anyone else, choose one and don’t worry about it.

gnädig und gerecht

One of the choirs I sing in has just presented our first concert since coronavirus restrictions were eased. The program was very carefully chosen around the themes of remembrance and renewal. One of the two longer works on the program was Das ist mir Lieb, a setting of a German translation of Psalm 116 by Heinrich Schütz. Although English is a Germanic language, singing in German is a strange mix of the familiar and unfamiliar, even allowing for the fact that the choirs I sing in don’t sing in German much.

Two of the verses are:

Der HERR ist gnädig und gerecht, und unser Gott ist barmherzig. 
Der HERR behütet die Einfältigen; wenn ich unterliege, so hilft er mir. 

Alright then:

The Lord is something and something else, and our God is something different again.
The Lord does something to some people. When I somethinged, he helped me.

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If ye love me

If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may bide with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.

One staple in the repertoire of the kinds of church or community choirs I sing in is If ye love me, by Thomas Tallis. Note ye and you, will and shall and pray the Father

Some people decry any change in language as the first step to incoherent grunting, but language has always changed and always will. Example 1: ye and you. Until about 400 years ago, (most) English speakers observed the distinction between the subject form ye (ye love me) and the object form you (give you, bide with you), and also the singular and/or intimate thee/thou/thy/thine and the plural and/or polite ye/you/your/yours. These all collapsed onto all-purpose you/your/yours, and almost no-one cared. (Art, wast and wert disappeared around the same time.)

The people who rail against singular they rarely mention singular you, which must have been just as shocking at the time, and the people who use non-standard plural forms such as y’all,* all y’all or yous(e) are railed at for being non-standard. (Note that you started off as plural anyway. If anything, we need a ‘singular you’.) (*I originally included you all, but the more I thought about it, the more I became sure that plural you all is standard: compare “I am very pleased to welcome you all here today” and “I am very pleased to welcome y’all here today”. (Also all of you.))

Because most people encounter thee/thou/thy/thine in Shakespeare, the King James/Authorised version of the bible or the Book of Common Prayer, or musical settings of texts from those sources, they imagine that these are formal/polite, and use them in conscious but often mistaken imitation. Leigh Brackett and/or Lawrence Kasdan, the scriptwriters of The Empire Strikes Back, has/have Darth Vader asking the emperor “What is thy bidding, my master?”. 

(Wikipedia has more about the T-V distinction (from Latin tu and vos).)

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Love’s pure light loves pure light

Six years ago, very soon after started this blog (I can’t quite believe it’s that long), I wrote about Round John Virgin and some other linguistic aspects of the Christmas hymn Silent Night.

Recently, one of the choirs I sing in was invited at short notice to record some items for a Christmas musical entertainment to be streamed into aged care facilities around Australia. (We have just begun to rehearse together again.) One of these was as the backing for a soloist singing a slightly jazzy arrangement of Silent Night. Among other things, there were several extra notes inserted into the melody, which then required extra words (or maybe the arranger decided to insert extra words, which then required extra notes). Small example: in one verse, Silent night, holy night became O silent night, and holy night. Larger example: Son of God, love’s pure light became Son of God, he loves pure light, which is not just adding a word, but changing the grammar and meaning of what follows.

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Unbowed

Youtube suggested a series of videos on Korean movies, including reviews of individual titles and lists of ‘best [genre]’ or ‘most [concept]’, of which I have watched some but not all. One of them included the movie 부러진 화살 (bu-reo-jin hwa-sal). The literal translation of the title is Broken arrow, but apparently it is officially titled Unbowed in English. 

In almost any other context unbowed would be /ʌnbaʊd/, as in bow and pray. But the presenter of the video pronounces it as /ʌnboʊd/, as in bow and arrow, which kind of makes sense, because the movie is about a university professor who is arrested, tried and convicted for shooting a crossbow at the presiding judge of his unsuccessful appeal against wrongful dismissal. While /boʊ/ as a verb and /boʊd/ as an adjective are used in carpentry (a bowed plank) and music (a bowed string), /ʌnboʊd/ as an adjective rarely is, because we would say a straight plank or a plucked string. And as far as I know or can find, /boʊ, boʊd, ʌnboʊd/ are never used in archery: Bow your arrows! The bowed arrows arced their way towards the advancing enemy. The arrows remained unbowed as the messenger approached. (And would bow as a verb in archery mean nock or draw or loose (basically the archery equivalent of ready, aim, fire)?) 

Intriguingly, bow and pray and bow and arrow are related through their common meaning of bend/bent, while bow and stern (rhymes with bow and pray) is unrelated, being related to bough (of a tree).

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