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Thread: Foreign language & music

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    Senior Member Avey's Avatar
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    Default Foreign language & music

    I only know one language, and that is English. So, many of the great choral works -- whether they be operas, Requiems, or lieder -- are in many ways foreign to me. Of course, I enjoy the music, the things I can hear and sympathize with, but I have to read translations to get the lyrical message behind the piece.

    This greatly irks me, because if I don't hear the piece consistently, I don't recall the translation. And if I hear a new piece, I can only hear the voice as another instrument. I feel like I'm always missing the complete narrative.

    So, do you feel the same way about listening to music in a language you don't understand? Do you read translations, pay special effort to memorize your favorite works? Or do you just look past the actual lyrics, enjoy the words merely as sound, another instrument? Or are you multilingual?

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    Senior Member Weston's Avatar
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    When I listen to Handel who is often in English I find myself thinking these lyrics or librettos are sometimes cringe-worthy. "We, like sheep" repeated over and over is an unfortunate example. I almost prefer classical in a language other than English. Having listened to it for several decades now I find I can often understand the gist of the meaning because the root words have a common ancestor. German especially seems almost comprehensible to me. I'm far from multilingual though.

    For some reason the same is not true with non-classical. I've never been able to get into Rock Progressivo Italiano for instance. Words are of lower importance to me, and I get frustrated with people who say "I can't understand what he's yelling!" but without the lyrical content I think I notice the flaws in the singing. Progressive rock can have a LOT of singing flaws.
    Last edited by Weston; Feb-13-2014 at 13:21.

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    Senior Member elgars ghost's Avatar
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    I suppose in a perfect hi-tech world we would all have a little ear-to-brain implant which would auto-translate everything as we listen but for me following a text/libretto is a small price to pay in order to make full sense of a work. Some listeners don't necessarily prioritise the text as long as they can get the gist of the overall story but in my case the words are important enough to want to know what's actually being sung, whether it be a full-blown opera or a brief art song. I feel that I'm being far more inconvenienced if I'm listening to a vocal/choral work and don't have any accompanying texts/translations at all - in fact, I think it can actually detract from the experience.
    Last edited by elgars ghost; Feb-13-2014 at 07:44.

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    I actually know a lot of popular music in foreign languages and get used to it fine. The melody, arrangement and performance can carry a song. Sometimes you have to get used to a different style of vocal but that's just getting used to the style often.

    Classical song can also be appreciated often because of the melody/arrangement/performance aspect. However you often can get more from the words as the music changes more often to the words than happens in popular song. So the lyrics can contain more development and aren't always as simple as in popular music where it is often simply sad love song/happy love song.
    Not really active anymore because of disagreement of how the forum is run (if I'm allowed to say that).

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    Senior Member Rhythm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by elgars ghost View Post
    ...I feel that I'm being far more inconvenienced if I'm listening to a vocal/choral work and don't have any accompanying texts/translations at all - in fact, I think it can actually detract from the experience.
    I have felt that same inconvenience. But, you know, I’ve reminded myself more than once that there’s a search engine, so after typing “libretto” or “lyrics” followed by a title, I’ve usually found them, which has been a surprise, really. Finding them among all the hits on the first search page may take a bit of click-through time, but usually lyrics for an art song or aria or pop song can be very helpful, as you’ve said, for understanding the context of the piece. That’s what I do, anyway. Hope that’s helpful.

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    Senior Member Rhythm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Avey View Post
    ...Or do you just look past the actual lyrics, enjoy the words merely as sound, another instrument?...
    I would say another instrument, actually.

    Frequently, I turn off a want to hear consonants, which leaves vowel sounds to listen for. To me, when listening to vocalists’ arias or a chorale, the production of a vowel sound is more important than consonants. Sometimes, during a piece, consonants might be distinguished, and for me even a timbre of say a contralto could leave me wanting to distinguish vowel sounds.

    Finding the lyrics is the only way to keep me from throwing my hands in the air! Having lyrics handy is pretty helpful, in any regard.

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    Senior Member SiegendesLicht's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Avey View Post
    So, do you feel the same way about listening to music in a language you don't understand? Do you read translations, pay special effort to memorize your favorite works? Or do you just look past the actual lyrics, enjoy the words merely as sound, another instrument? Or are you multilingual?
    For me it's both ways. I want to understand everything that is being sung, and I look up lyrics and translations when the language is completely unfamiliar. But I also enjoy the sound of many languages, such as Italian or Norwegian. I had a wonderful experience with Grieg's lieder recently.

    The only foreign languages I understand are English and German, and I mostly listen to German and Austrian classical music, so I do understand most of the lyrics. At the same time I greatly enjoy the sound of the language itself, the interplay of vowels and consonants, as an element that enhances the beauty of the whole musical piece (maybe in ten years or so it will be just an ordinary, everyday thing for me, but for now I still find the sound of the language to be exotic and fascinating, both when spoken and sung). My beloved Wagner and Schubert would simply not be the same without it.
    ... yet for us will still remain the holy German art... (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg)
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    God gave all men all earth to love,
    But since our hearts are small,
    Ordained for each one spot should prove
    Beloved over all.
    R. Kipling

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    I always think of the voice as another instrument as well, it's used as such anyway. And really you could say it's the best instrument as far as variety of expression.

    Also another point on progressive music, much of it can be instrumental not vocal, so where it is from can become even less relevant. Better to look at some foreign ones than some of the overhyped and overmarketed English language ones. Though I'd exclude Pink Floyd who are pretty good, and I don't rate Tangerine Dream that high (though some offshoots were better I feel).
    Not really active anymore because of disagreement of how the forum is run (if I'm allowed to say that).

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    In general, music is more important than words to me, so once I've read the libretto once or twice so I know what's going on, I don't need to know every word in every line being sung. Exceptions, of course, are church music in Latin. Once you know the mass text, for instance, you know it, so it serves for many pieces.

    Handel, as someone mentioned, is weird, because he adapted an Italianate style of composition popular in England at the time, to a language totally unsuited to it

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    Senior Member lupinix's Avatar
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    sometimes even if I know the language I can't follow the text
    even english
    as for my own language, I usually can't even recognize it
    but I rather listen to music than text anyway so I don't mind much

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    Sr. Moderator Taggart's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lupinix View Post
    sometimes even if I know the language I can't follow the text
    even english
    as for my own language, I usually can't even recognize it
    but I rather listen to music than text anyway so I don't mind much
    I remember the story of a setting of "life is but a melancholy flower" which sounded like:

    life is
    life is butter
    life is butter melon
    butter melon
    cauliflower

    It reduced the audience to fits of giggles. Sometimes, it may help not to know the language.
    Last edited by Taggart; Feb-13-2014 at 19:24.
    Music begins where words leave off. Music expresses the inexpressible.

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    Foreign languages don't irk me at all whether it be opera or choral works.
    I follow along with the libretto or translation until I no longer need it.
    One doesn't have to understand every word. After a while one recognizes certain words or phrases common to most works in the foreign language: "let's go", "I love you", "die! "leave me", etc; in operas, for example, and thus one can follow along. All you need is a few common phrases to know what's going on.
    Last edited by hpowders; Feb-13-2014 at 15:20.
    Facts don't care about your feelings.

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    Senior Member brianvds's Avatar
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    As far as I am concerned, the words are just there as an excuse for the music, and I generally couldn't possibly care less what they mean. I think I actually prefer not to know, and I also don't mind when the words are just meaningless syllables, as some composers now and then do.

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    Senior Member Avey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SiegendesLicht View Post
    My beloved Wagner and Schubert would simply not be the same without it.
    That's the problem, right? That's what annoys me. Because I don't understand their language, I am missing a large part of the narrative.


    It's interesting that many of you have said "you get the gist of it," or with a few phrases, "you can know what's going on."

    Is that enough? Isn't that sort of settling for what it is -- music in a different language? I don't think getting the "gist" of what's going on is what I've always been looking for.

    And it seems like this may be OK in an opera, if you are watching purely for the story -- you have bodies to interpret from as well. But with lieder/songs, or Requiems & Masses, or other large scale choral works, we only have ears. I can't listen to the piece with one listen and fully grasp what that music was about. It may have sounded amazing, but I am always wondering and struggling to understand the lyrical meaning.

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    Senior Member Blancrocher's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Avey View Post
    It's interesting that many of you have said "you get the gist of it," or with a few phrases, "you can know what's going on."

    Is that enough? Isn't that sort of settling for what it is -- music in a different language? I don't think getting the "gist" of what's going on is what I've always been looking for.
    It depends, of course, on how much you want to know. If you want to pick up on subtleties of word-painting and dissonance in Monteverdi, Handel, Schubert, etc., the better one's knowledge of the original language the better it is for one. There are things one can do short of learning the original language, of course: besides scanning translations of Italian and English and German, one can usually find very good and detailed listening notes for vocal works by major composers, allowing one to get a much better sense of what's happening (deep down) in the music than one could otherwise. You may always feel you're missing out on that je ne sais quoi that the native speaker sometimes goes on about--but in such cases I prefer to believe they're faking it
    Last edited by Blancrocher; Feb-13-2014 at 17:56.

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