Zoe studies French, German & Music at the University of Birmingham and this summer has joined the Baudelaire Song Project team, undertaking an Undergraduate Research Scholarship. From playing bassoon in a variety of orchestras with people from various countries and performing in different parts of the world, Zoe is continuously interested in the universal communication that is possible through music and the intriguing relationship between languages and music.

Here Zoe explores some 20th-century examples of settings of Baudelaire in German and English translation, sharing her own thoughts and questions around the status of text, music, and translation which are pertinent to her own interdisciplinary degree studies.

Music is often considered a universal language. As yet, no culture has been discovered that does not have music. However, in exploring settings of words and lyrics in different languages across various genres of music, composers and musicians frequently employ poetry in translation as a basis for song lyrics. Do translations of texts for song settings and lyrics alter the perception that music can be universally emotive? Or is it that music itself is evocative enough to express the meaning of the text, regardless of language barriers, potentially hindering comprehension or connection to the meaning of song lyrics?

In translating between languages, there will inevitably be words or phrases that cannot be expressed fully in any manner other than the original language. Here the challenges of translation for song settings of poetry begin… there exists a considerable challenge between maintaining accuracy to the original poem versus making the text singable, leading to considerations regarding word order and syntax choices, in addition to alliteration and rhyme challenges when not presenting a text in the original language.

In 1929, Austrian composer Alban Berg set a German translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Le Vin’ in a concert aria for soprano and orchestra, using a translation of Baudelaire’s original French poem into German by Stefan George.

Stefan George Alban Berg

A comparison of Baudelaire’s poem ‘Le Vin des amants’ and Stefan George’s translation ‘Der Wein der Liebenden’, shows how George predominantly maintains Baudelaire’s rhyming couplets throughout the stanzas, retaining the sense of encapsulating adoration and vitality portrayed in this poem. Phrase lengths are not drastically obscured in the German text, as the playful nature of the final line of each stanza remains present, as in the original French. George skilfully offers an accurate translation of Baudelaire’s poem, providing the expressive, light articulation of Baudelaire’s original French despite using entirely different vocabulary.

Whilst the atmosphere of Baudelaire’s poem has been retained in German translation, Berg’s song setting of ‘Der Wein der Liebenden’ presents George’s German translation with music that evokes contrasting moods to those described through the words. Berg’s music for ‘Der Wein der Liebenden’ juxtaposes phrases of frantic, angular movement with sustained, tranquil expressions in the vocal line. For instance, the soprano part in this movement features notable leaps in pitch with fragmented phrasing, alongside sudden contrasts in sustained phrases with lyrical direction. The contrast and variety in these phrases is not cohesive with the overall sentiment of Baudelaire’s original poem or George’s translation. Furthermore, Berg’s use of minor tonality and dissonant harmonies creates a sense of sorrowful unease and agitation, which is not reflective of the enamoured, charming ambiance created in Baudelaire’s poem.

Despite in certain instances not musically reflecting Baudelaire’s poetry, Berg appears sensitive to Baudelaire’s original text in publishing the score. The French text is alongside the German, in a two language score edition, offering adaptations to the vocal line with additions and omissions of certain notes plus adaptable word order, when singing in French or German. Nevertheless, when published, Berg’s ‘Der Wein’ was equally printed with two languages to simply increase publishing value and sales of the score, in the publication knowledge that providing two languages increases appeal and potential audiences for Berg’s composition.

However, even if performing ‘Der Wein’ in French (as provided on the score – ‘Le Vin’), would the performance be more evocative of Baudelaire’s ideas when performed in the original language? When hearing song settings, the music is an integral part of capturing and reinforcing the meaning of the text. As the music in this movement does not always correspond to the text, it seems that performances in both French and German of Berg’s setting could evoke different moods from those portrayed in Baudelaire’s French or George’s translation of the poem.

Hear Berg’s ‘Der Wein’ performed in French via France Musique:

In Vino Veritas | France Musique | Olivier Le Borgne

In unravelling the relationship between poetry, music and performance, the choice of using translations to appeal to wider audiences remains an interesting feature in audience reception and understanding, developed from the words or the music itself.

The third movement of Miriam Gideon’s ‘The Condemned Playground’ (1963) uses a translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Les Litanies de Satan’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Gideon uses the English translation in this song setting but decides to keep Baudelaire’s original French for the refrain of the composition. This offers a balance between presenting a translation of the poem for the majority of the song setting, arguably making the content of the song or poem more accessible to English speaking audiences, whilst retaining admiration and integrity for the original French language.

Music remains a genuine expression of emotion that is not confused by language barriers or alphabets. In song settings, the music is arguably more influential in capturing the mood of a poem than the original language or translation of the text. As listeners, our ears are often enveloped in the sound world of the musical timbres and colours, rather than determining precise words and sentences. Whether performing song settings in the original language of the text or lyrics, or in translation, music can continually be emotive and communicative to listeners, and understanding the words can only engage listeners further and heighten involvement with a performance. The integral connections between poetry, language and music performance are present in all languages and translations, as music remains one of the most evocative forms of communication across various cultures and continents.

Image Credits

Stefan George: http://pippoetry.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/stefan-george.html

Alban Berg: https://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/f61c909a-db95-4a61-bc23-65a86e0d2907


Cover image:  Photo by Zoe Lumsden