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. 


The Best of Pachelbel

A few months ago I saw a video promising 78 minutes of ‘The Best of Pachelbel’. Oh hooray, 5 minutes of canon, 3 minutes of gigue and 70 minutes of other works from his prolific output. Er, no … 75 minutes of canon, 3 minutes of gigue and zero of other works. Can you even name another work? I had, and maybe still have, a volume of organ music.  

About two months ago I wrote about covers of pop songs, with special reference to The Eagles’ Hotel California. Many of the same comments apply to classical music, though the term cover is probably not appropriate. We refer to performances, renditions and interpretations (of the composer’s original) and transcriptions and arrangements (someone else’s changing of the original in some way). Pachelbel’s Canon is surely in the top 10 of most arranged and (over-)used works. The challenge of arranging this work is that 3 independent upper lines don’t fit naturally together on any one other instrument. Of the versions in the video, the most convincing were those which kept the original lines (one for string orchestra and one for brass ensemble) and those which totally reimagined the work (one for guitar and one for string quartet which ended up in Brahmsian territory, as far as I can remember – I’m not going to spend another 78 minutes relistening). Most of them were wishy-washy. Music should never be wishy-washy.

I was going to write far more about classical arrangements in general and this one in particular, but I won’t. I’ll leave you with this for those who like it and this for those who don’t.

Dah dah Dah

Two weekends ago our niece treated us to lunch at a Korean restaurant, for a combination of Australian Mother’s’ Day and Korean Parents’ Day (even though we’re not actually a mother and parents). We were sitting within sight and sound of a medium-sized screen playing K-pop girl groups. I got thinking, not for the first time (for example, the previous time we went to that restaurant) how indistinguishable most of the singers, groups and songs are. At least to me, but that might be because I’m a non-Korean man my age and my general unfamiliarity with K-pop girl groups. I could probably say the same about most current-day US/UK/Australian pop music. No doubt they become more distinguishable with exposure and practice. 

A few days later I was listening a video of songs of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. One song started which I didn’t recognise but could tell that the singer was Neil Diamond. (Don’t judge me!) A moment later …

Sweet Caroline (Dah dah Dah …)

Oh, that one!

But I have no idea how the chorus goes after that, not even the melody and certainly not the words. 

Anyone’s ability to distinguish any music or performers depends on exposure and active, repeated listening. (I tend to listen to music while I’m working, though many classical music videos come with scrolling scores, which I tend to pay more attention to when I’m not working.) Not surprisingly, I’m better at classical music and 1970s US/UK/Australian pop. Two years ago my wife and I were driving in the Blue Mountains. She turned on the radio and I recognised the voice of the presenter (who I know) of Australia’s leading classical music interview/discussion show. He interviewed the author of a book about Beethoven and his milieu and finished with a piece of loud and grand orchestral music. My wife asked me if I knew what it was and I told her Beethoven’s 9th symphony. She said “Are you sure?”. I said “… Yes”.

(A few minutes later) I’ve just listened to Sweet Caroline and realised that I knew the introduction/interlude and vaguely the rest of the chorus, but the verse is still a complete non-memory. I also remembered four chords and originally wrote (da Dah dah Dah).

Related to this is that list videos of No 1/greatest/favourite songs tend to play just the most recognisable part, which is usually the chorus. 

my guide

Speaking of bachs: In December 1933 the German composer Richard Strauss wrote a song titled Das Bächlein, (originally for voice and piano but the first recording that came up is for voice and orchestra), in which a wanderer asks a mountain stream where it came from and where it is going. It answers “I come from the womb of dark rocks. A merry childlike spirit drives me onward, I know not whither. He who called me forth from the rock, He, I think, shall be my guide.”

Strauss set the words for my guide rhapsodically. There can be no doubt that he realised the double meaning of mein führer (leader/guide). There is still debate about his interactions with the Nazi regime, even though he was cleared by a denazification tribunal in 1948. In the early days he might have seen it as the (or a) solution to the chaos of the previous 20 years, but after he reluctantly accepted the position of president of the Reichsmusikkammer he quickly lost whatever illusions he had and fell from favour, especially because of his professional relationship with author Stefan Zweig and personal relationship with his daughter-in-law and her family. The song wasn’t published until after his death. 

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On 29 May 1913, one of the biggest bangs in classical music history took place in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, being the premiere of The Rite of Spring, a ballet by Igor Stravinsky. A combination of the music, stage design, costumes, story and choreography led to a near-riot (or an actual one, depending on whose account you read. In an interview some time later, Stravinsky referred to Vaslav Nijinsky‘s “knocked-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”. There is very little information about the interview, but it is obviously some time later because 1) it was filmed and is now viewable on Youtube, 2) Stravinsky looks considerably advanced in years and 3) he uses the name Lolita in that way, placing the interview after the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel in 1955 (when Stravinsky was 73). (Indeed, the poster of the video suggests the early 1960s.)

A lolita (more often lower-case, but Pages for Mac just upper-cased it), is now an alluring (at least to a certain kind of man) older girl or young teenager. (Nabokov’s narrator specifies the age range nine to 14; he also calls them demoniac, placing the blame on them rather than himself.) Even though The Rite of Spring is about a pagan fertility ritual, it is questionable as to how alluring the dancers were or are, or were or are meant to be.

But the name Lolita goes back further than Nabokov’s novel. Dolores is a good Spanish name (Maria Dolores, Saint Mary of the Sorrows), which became Lola, which became Lolita. 

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C flat minor

C flat minor (10 flats) is certainly a rarely used key. 99.9999% of the time it is simpler to use B minor (2 sharps). Someone asked on a music forum whether G flat minor (9 flats) and C flat minor exist and are ever used. Someone else answered “They are certainly extremely rare in classical music. In fact, I would be very surprised if they have ever been used at all.” (I suspect G flat minor and C flat minor are extremely rare in folk, jazz, rock and international music as well.)

At least C flat minor has been. By me. Twice. At least in passing. The first is in a song in Eb minor (6 flats). The bass descends stepwise: E flat – D flat – C flat – B flat. This would usually be harmonised: E flat minor – D flat major – C flat major – B flat major. Except the text talks about deep silence on a moonlit night, so I wanted the music to be sparse and bleak, so I used E flat minor – D flat minor – C flat minor – B flat major. I might have used D sharp minor (6 sharps) (D sharp minor – C sharp minor – B minor – A sharp minor), but that is too ‘sharp’ for my internal musical ear, although those keys theoretically sound exactly the same. 

The second is in a song which starts in C sharp minor and modulates to E flat minor. Again, I might have used D sharp minor, but the rest of the song spends as much time in the corresponding major key, and I’m not going to use D sharp major (9 sharps). From E flat minor, I would otherwise have used a C flat major chord except I wanted a harmonic twist for a text about separation and loss. (I do set happy texts sometimes!)

Searching the internet, I found a reference to a piano sonata in C flat minor composed by the Argentinian composer José Torre Bertucci and played by the Argentinian pianist Alfredo Corral. Further searching revealed that it’s actually in C sharp minor (4 sharps), which sounds a lot more reasonable. I can’t imagine that anyone would write a whole sonata in C flat minor.

Mozart and B-A-C-H

Most styles of Western European music (which have spread almost worldwide) use seven notes called A, B, C, D, E, F and G. It is possible to spell a small number of words with these letters; for example, the spaces of the treble clef spell F-A-C-E. In fact, most styles of Western European music are built on twelve notes, five of which are called, in English, ‘sharp’ or ‘flat’. In German musical terminology, though, B refers to B flat, and B natural is called H. Thus we can spell the surname of one of the most famous Western European composers, JS Bach. German B-A-C-H is English B flat – A – C – B natural. Bach was aware of this, and used these four notes in several of his compositions. Various composers have used it since, either as the basis for a  whole composition, or as a passing reference. Some draw attention to it, while others don’t. 

I was recently watching a video about the Requiem by Mozart, which he was in the middle of composing when he died. Relevantly, he died after writing eight bars of the Lacrimosa movement (Full of tears will be that day When from the ashes shall arise The guilty man to be judged) (video). I suddenly noticed that right there, four of the notes in the bass part are B-A-C-H. I haven’t been able to find anything online about this (eg, searching for ‘mozart lacrimosa bach motif’) but I can’t believe that I’m the first person in 200+ years to notice this.

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