Sometime about the beginning of November, my wife arranged with the conductor of her church choir that I could join them to sing in a cantata on Christmas Day. (My church choir is singing at a very early service, and I just can’t get there in time.) I have been attending Sunday afternoon rehearsals for about six weeks, and learning the words by myself on the train. The music is straightforward enough, but the words are entirely in Korean. I’ve sung (actually performed) in other languages before; lots of Latin, some German and French, a sprinkling of Italian, Spanish and Welsh, one movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms in Hebrew and all of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers in Russian. As far as I can remember, the words for the Bernstein were given in transliteration, but the words for the Rachmaninoff were in Cyrillic and transliteration. (Hebrew is written right-to-left, and would not naturally fit into in a musical score. I have seen a hymn in Arabic for Arabic-speaking Christians, and the whole score is reversed.)
The cantata was written and/or arranged in the USA (I’ve found information online, but I’m not going to give them free publicity). The Korean version is licenced by the US publisher, unlike at least some Korean choral music. It intersperses modern songs with traditional hymns and narration. There is a CD of the cantata in English, which my wife has been listening to in the car. The Korean words, so far as I can understand them, are a close equivalent, but obviously concessions have to be made to the SOV word order and the multiple verb inflections of Korean. Just occasionally there are slurred notes in one language and separate notes in the other. For example, the last phrase of O come, all ye faithful has three words in English (Christ – the Lord) and four in Korean (구주 났네, gu-ju natt-ne, Saviour (was) born), but the Korean copy still has the slur. In some places, slurs have been added or deleted as required, but there are few stray examples where the slur (or lack thereof) clearly refers to the English. There is one example of a different rhythm. The Korean version of O come, all ye faithful has an extra note in the first and third phrases; it is the equivalent rhythm of ‘O come, all ye faithfully’ and ‘Come and behold himmy’. In the hymn book, the last two notes of each phrase are written as crotchets, but in this arrangement they are quavers, which catches some of the Korean singers by surprise (possibly a different one each time). (Note that this hymn is irregular in English, too.) The placement of the Korean words into the rhythm is sometimes awkward. At one point, the words 왕의왕 (wang-e wang, king of kings) is put into the rhythm as // – / 왕 / 의 / 왕/, which is the equivalent of singing // – / king / of / kings. Even though Korean is a stress-timed language, 의 really should not be on the third beat of a bar.
Korean is written in syllables, but there is no indication of how those syllables join into words. For example 높이계신주께 is, essentially, ‘to God in the highest’. There are various rules about breaking Korean into words, but I would write, in a musical score, 높-이-계-신 (no hyphen) 주-께. Most of the modern songs have words which are slow enough or repetitive enough that I can sing them, but the hymns zip by with not much repetition, and I’m struggling with those. There are times when I can translate the words, especially after hearing the English version so many times, but otherwise I just have to ‘chunk’ the syllable into words and words into phrases whether it actually makes sense in Korean or not. One thing I’ve noticed is that the Korean uses the same word in ‘King of kings’ and ‘Prince of peace’; the Korean is literally ‘peace-of king’ (the Korean word for prince has one more syllable, which the music just can’t be adapted to). (In English, ‘King of peace’ isn’t wrong, but ‘Prince of peace’ is far more common.)
Unlike most other examples of modern-day Korean, which are sprinkled with modern English words, there are no modern English words in the text. But there are a number of Hebrew and Greek words, which are often rendered closer to the original than they are in English: 예수 (ye-su, Jesus – as the standard form of the name, not just poetically, as in the English Jesu, joy of man’s desiring), 다윗 (da-wit, David), 임마누엘 (im-ma-nu-el, Immanuel), 알파오메가 (al-pa o-me-ga, alpha [and] omega – not a and z in English and 가 and 하 in Korean), 베들레헴 (be-deul-le-hem, Bethlehem – which has four syllables in Korean, which takes a bit of getting used to) and 알레루야 (al-le-lu-ya, alleluia).
The music was written and/or arranged in the USA, but it has many features in common with Korean choral music (I think Korean choral music borrowed the style from a certain genre of US choral music), including many unnecessary modulations. The first movement goes through four modulations in the 41-bar introduction, then there’s another one (up a tone) after 10 bars of singing, and anothernother one (up a semitone) towards the end. Only one of the eight movements (the last one) remains in the same key throughout. There’s nothing inherently wrong with modulation, but too many of the same kind can become cliched.
The cantata is licenced by a US publisher, but the typesetting wasn’t checked by an English speaker. The contents page lists ‘O Cone, All Ye Faithful’ and that misspelling reappears in the title of that movement, a footnote includes a copyright notice for this arrangement of ‘He Is Born, the Divine Chirst Dhild’, an indication over the music tells that this section is based on ‘SILENT MIGHT! HOLY NIGHT!’, one movement includes the hymn ‘Angels We Have Heard High’, tempo directions include ‘Worshipgully’, ‘Much fasterm like beginning’ and ‘With grea warmth’, and another movement includes the hymn ‘ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGHF’ (appropriately in F major, but there’s no high F in the arrangement). Almost of all of these are simple typos, but they should have been checked. Could I do better in Korean? Well, I would pay an actual Korean speaker to check it. In these days of computerised music typesetting, there is no reason for the Korean publishing company to touch any of that material anyway. All they have to do is insert the Korean words and add the Korean titles and narration. (At least I assume that those mistakes are unique to the Korean edition; I can’t imagine an English-language edition containing them. Update: I’m sure it’s not the English-language edition with the Korean words inserted – one of the movements is credited to ‘[name] ald [name]’. Whatever other mistakes an English-language edition might have, that isn’t going to be one of them.)
Am I enjoying this? Well, no. I’m still too focused on singing the actual words to be able to get into the spirit of the words or music, and the music is not really my genre at the best of times. And Korean choirs tend to sing with too much heartiness at the expense of precision and shaping (there is some, but there could be more). And I’m really out of practice from not attending rehearsals up to three nights per week because I’m teaching in the afternoon and evening.