What's in a name …?
Looking up from the programme, a puzzled expression crossed the child’s face as he asked: ‘What’s a lieder recital?’ ‘A song recital’. ‘So what’s lieder?’ ‘German for songs’. ‘So why . . . .?’.
And well might the apparently naïve question be asked of a recital of chansons too.
Is it not yet another curiosity of our musical communication that we seem to need the quite unnecessary incorporation of words from other languages in preference to perfectly adequate simple English words? Do they do this in non-English speaking countries I wonder? We do not usually advertise a dal recital of Hungarian songs, or a recital of Iberian canciones or a pesnya recital of Russian masterpieces. Perhaps it is a type of pretentiousness that sometimes goes with a wish to wrap high art in a cocoon of mystery, protecting it from those who adore Tchaikovsky and Gershwin, Rodrigo and Miklós Rózsa!
And another related curiosity.
Why do we decide to refer to The Marriage of Figaro and yet speak of La Traviata? For many of us it would need a double check to hear these pieces referred to as le Nozze di Figaro and the Woman Gone Astray. So it isn’t all one way. Perhaps we are all guilty of using titles foreign to our own language occasionally – they just slip out – but never very consistently.
We tend to refer to Songs of a Wayfarer, The Three-cornered Hat, The Snow Maiden and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but not often to the Freeshooter, the Troubadour, Solomon, Songs on the Death of Children or A Prelude to a Faun’s Afternoon. (In case you should wonder, though I am sure you didn’t need to: der Freischütz, Il trovatore, Schelomo, Kindertotenlieder and the last one may well be obvious!)
Cosi fan tutte is always just that, without even knowing what it means, and so is Eine kleine Nachtmusik – though we all seem to know what that means. La fanciulla del West and Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt are usually translated in English programmes, though Verklärte Nacht isn’t.
While we are highly unlikely to refer to Bartók’s A Kékszakállùherceg vára (Bluebeard’s castle) or the ballet A csodálatos mandarin (if you know Bartók’s music, you might guess that one?) those who pride themselves in frequent concert-going have learnt to master Le Tombeau de Couperin and Le Marteau sans Maître with admirable confidence.
It does however give one a thrilling air of superiority to use the authentic yet less expected titles, and a wonderful opportunity to look around the company with a shocked expression to say ‘But surely you know that piece?’ (Does anyone remember Stephen Potter’s ‘One-upmanship books?) A similar effect is gained by pronouncing Chopin in Polish and savouring the surprise and perhaps admiration (though I’m too old for that now!) when you explain that you simply forgot to use the common French style. So the concert I have seats for this weekend is to hear Beethoven’s Die Weihe des Hauses and Musorgsky’s Kartinki s vïstavki (Ravel’s orchestration again I’m afraid – I wish they would do one of the others) but if you don’t know, they are sure to put the English titles in the programme for you – though I would wonder where you went to school.
And I hope you’ll help me out in that rather classy restaurant afterwards…