Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Good Night

November 12, 2018

Theodore Baker (1851–1934) was a noted American musicologist who, among other things, was the first to write about the music of indigenous Americans, and was for many years the in-house translator for the music-publishing house G. Schirmer, Inc.

Baker’s translations are what appears above the German text of the Schubert volume I mentioned in my last post. His style is what passed as “poetic” in the Victorian era: the first lines of Gute Nacht, “Fremd bin ich eingekommen, fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus” — quite ordinary colloquial German — are rendered as “A stranger I came hither, a stranger hence I go”. I can’t imagine anyone nowadays being caught dead singing lines like these.

Around the turn of the millennium I developed another hobby, that of translating songs. By this I mean translating them into modern English, keeping the meaning as close as possible to the original but also keeping its rhythm and rhyme.

My first effort dealt with a set of three Catalan art songs by the 20th-century composer Federico Mompou. Since then, however, I have avoided art songs and focused primarily on popular songs and secondarily on opera numbers. But I’ve always kept Gute Nacht in the back of my mind. But, because I love the song so much, I wanted it to be just right.

Since I’ve resumed singing I have taken another stab at it. Here is my latest attempt. It definitely isn’t final.


Gute Nacht

November 5, 2018

I recently underwent a course of speech therapy, consisting of various vocal exercises, because of some hoarseness that had crept into my speaking voice over the past year. In the course of doing the exercises I realized that I hadn’t done any singing in a long time.

Singing was one of my chief hobbies for many years, beginning in my thirties. In public it meant being in a chorus, at various times the University Chorus at UC Berkeley and the Berkeley Community Chorus. In private I sang classical lieder and opera arias while banging on the piano and Spanish-language songs of various kinds while plucking on the guitar.

But over the last five or ten years this activity somehow petered out of my life, leading to a certain atrophy of my vocal cords (helped along by aging). Hence the hoarseness and the need for speech therapy, prescribed by my ear-nose-throat specialist.

The treatment seems to have been effective, and once I felt vocally strong enough I looked at my music bookshelf and, almost unconsciously, homed in the Schirmer volume of Schubert songs for low voice, which I took out, put on the piano and opened to the page featuring Schubert’s Gute Nacht, the first song in the cycle Die Winterreise (set to poems by Wilhelm Müller).

For most of my life — since the age of ten, to be exact — I have felt that this is the most beautiful song ever composed.

in the winter of 1945–46 — the first winter after the war — my mother and I spent a few days in the resort town of Bad Harzburg, at the foot of the Harz Mountains in north central Germany (a place where later I lived and went to high school). Bad Harzburg does not have the aristocratic cachet of spas like Baden-Baden with its luxurious Kurhaus, including its famous casino (Kur, meaning ‘cure’, is often prefixed to various institutions in German spa resorts), but it appeals to the bourgeoisie of Northern Germany and is therefore also a middlebrow cultural center. (It is also where, in 1931, the Nazi party conspired with other right-wing groups to put an end to the Weimar Republic.) When I was there, a full-time chamber orchestra (strictly speaking a “salon orchestra” called Kurorchester) played afternoon concerts of light classical music almost daily in the Kurpark, and weekly evening concerts of standard classics in the Kursaal.

On occasion, some touring musicians gave concerts or recitals. During that winter stay, on a cold day, it happened to be the baritone Heinrich Schlusnus, performing Die Winterreise in the unheated Kursaal. At the time I was rather new to classical music,both as a listener and a piano student. The effect of that short piano introduction and then the magnificent intonation of Fremd bin ich eingezogen… was magical. I forgot the cold air around me and felt enveloped in the music. The memory of that sensation has never gone away.



Bulgarian and Macedonian

January 17, 2018

When I wrote about Colombia’s musical diversity in my last post, I neglected to mention that, in addition to its many own regional styles, Colombia is quite hospitable to outside music as well. Salsa is popular everywhere, but especially in Cali. Bogotá is a hotbed of Mexican mariachi music, while the Argentine tango is at home in Medellín (it was where Carlos Gardel gave his last performance before the plane in which he was leaving crashed with another at the airport). And, of course international pop, rock and jazz are as popular as anywhere, though they weren’t so when I lived there in 1977. When Elvis Presley died, all four of Bogotá’s rock bands joined for a memorial concert at the bullring.

But while these musical styles are acknowledged as being external, the llanero music of Venezuela is, as I mentioned, regarded as a part of Colombia’s heritage, including sometimes a change of lyrics as I described in the post. I remember once getting into an argument with a Colombian acquaintance who insisted that a certain well-known Venezuelan song (I think it was Moliendo café) was Colombian (this was before such a question could be easily resolved with the help of a portable device).

I found some similarities between Colombia’s attitude toward llanero music and Bulgaria’s toward that of Macedonia (meaning what is historically known as Vardar Macedonia, now the Republic of Macedonia). I am familiar with the subject because of my lifelong (or at least adult-life-long) addiction to Balkan folk-dancing.)

First of all, there are some historical parallels. Colombia and Venezuela were once together as part of Spain’s New Granada, and Venezuela briefly belonged to Colombia after independence. Similarly, Macedonia belonged to the Bulgarian empire before becoming a part, along with present-day Bulgaria, of the Ottoman empire’s eyalet of Rumelia, and was briefly a part of independent Bulgaria before being returned to Ottoman rule. Until about a century ago Slavic Macedonians regarded themselves as Bulgarians (though nowadays such an identification is vehemently rejected), while the inhabitants of southwestern Bulgaria (Pirin Macedonia) continue to identify themselves as both Bulgarians (ethnically) and Macedonians (historico-culturally), and this is how many Bulgarians still think of Macedonian Slavs. A young Bulgarian woman in Plovdiv once told me that when a professor from Skopje gave a lecture (in Macedonian) at her university, the students thought that he was speaking funny Bulgarian.

To this day, Bulgaria and Macedonia share national heroes (such as Goce Delchev and Jane Sandanski), as do Colombia and Venezuela (such as Simón Bolívar).

And, interestingly, Blagoevgrad hosts an international pan-Macedonian festival, just as Villavicencio hosts a llanero one.

With regard to music, Bulgarian regard Macedonian music and dance (especially what is known as lesnoto) as part of their folklore. They don’t Bulgarianize the content of Macedonian songs (which are replete with references to the river Vardar and places in Macedonia), but they do adapt the language. For, unlike the common Spanish of Colombia and Venezuela, Macedonian and Bulgarian are, at least in their standard form, similar but different languages, as I have discussed here (when it comes to actual speech there is a dialect continuum), though the difference is lessened in singing, since the distinctions in syllabic stress and vowel quality become insignificant.

As one example, when the Macedonian song Oj ti pile is sung by Bulgarians it is generally done in Bulgarian, as More pile. One exception is the great Kostadin Gugov, a specialist in Macedonian songs, who makes a point of singing the original Macedonian version.

To summarize:

There is a llanero culture, which Venezuelans consider uniquely theirs, while Colombians regard it as a part of their national culture, and sometimes adapt the contributions from Venezuela to make it more so.

There is a Slavic* Macedonian culture, which “Macedonians” (Slavs of the Republic of Macedonia) consider uniquely theirs, while Bulgarians regard it as a part of their national culture, and sometimes adapt the contributions from the Republic to make it more so.

*I am leaving out the Greek, Albanian and Aromanian (Vlach) elements of Macedonia.

Colombian and Venezuelan

January 11, 2018

Of late I have been listening — mainly via YouTube — to quite a few Colombian and Venezuelan songs. And what drove me to it was a subtle point of Spanish grammar.

Specifically, the Colombian songs are of the genre known as vallenato, and the Venezuelan ones of llanero. I have long been a fan of both.

Llanero music is that of the Llanos or plains that make up more than a quarter of Venezuela’s territory and whose culture — focused on cattle and horsemanship — is seen by Venezuelans as typifying their country, embodied in the classic novel Doña Barbara (by Rómulo Gallegos, the first democratically elected president of Venezuela) and in the song Alma llanera (a joropo), which is considered Venezuela’s unofficial second national anthem.

I have never been in Venezuela, but when I was in graduate school I had a friend from there, who taught me to dance the joropo and introduced me to the beautiful interplay of harp, maracas, cuatro and singing.

I got to know and love vallenato music when I lived in Bogotá in 1977. The music is characteristic of the Caribbean coastal region, but in the 1970s (after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967 and the founding of the Vallenato Legend Festival in 1968) it became popular throughout Colombia. But it is still one of a great many of the country’s regional musical styles.

Colombia is arguably the most diverse Hispano-American country. Geographically it has the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the Amazon and the Andes, volcanoes and plains. Culturally there are different mixes of European, African and indigenous influences in different regions. (The vallenato is one such mix, with the European accordion, the African drum or caja and the indigenous guacharaca.) There are even more different varieties of Spanish spoken there than elsewhere; it’s the one Hispanic country where I am not usually taken for a foreigner, because my accent may be taken as being from some other part of Colombia.

I mentioned the plains of Colombia. They are, in fact, adjacent to those of Venezuela, in the department (the Colombian equivalent of province or state) of Meta, whose capital Villavicencio is located on the department’s very edge, where the plains meet the Andes, but its culture is fully that of the Llanos, virtually the same as Venezuela’s. I got to hear llanero music live when I visited there in the 1990s.

Perhaps the most famous llanero song, internationally, is Caballo viejo, though its best-known renditions are in more of a salsa-like or pop style, unlike the purely llanero original of Simón Díaz. But my favorite is Campesina, which I first heard sung by a Colombian llanero group in Bogotá.

In the version I heard, the last line of the song’s lyrics is “y adorna con tu hermosura a la tierra colombiana“, which struck me as not quite grammatical.

Spanish has the peculiarity that when direct object of a verb is a person or persons, it is treated as an indirect object, with the preposition a. This makes it possible, when the direct object is, say, the name of the country, to distinguish between its meanings as, on the one hand, the land, and on the other hand the people or some entity representing the people (government, armed force, sports team). Thus, “Germany occupied Poland” is Alemania ocupó Polonia, but “Germany defeated Poland” is Alemania derrotó a Polonia. But la tierra colombiana is land, not people.

The mystery was solved for me when I discovered, by searching the song out on YouTube, that the song is actually Venezuelan, and the line in question is “y adorna con tu hermosura la tierra venezolana“, without the ungrammatical a, which the Colombians added to make up for the missing syllable.

Now, what was it that led me to listening to vallenato? The accident of finding a vallenato version. of Caballo viejo.

And, incidentally, listening to the song led me back to my old song-translating ways, and I’ve made an English version of it.