Friday, 20 June 2014

Moving heaven and earth

On Saturday week I shall, ojalá, deo volente, weather permitting, etc, be singing Verdi's Requiem [details of the concert here or, after the 29 June 2014, here], and in preparation for the concert I was browsing the text the other day. Here and there in the Latin, despite various teachers' efforts, there is a word or words that I don't understand; and I thought I would wile away [see here if you think that's a typo – the footnote, and the Update arising from it ] the time on a bus journey going through the translation.

But it turned out that that word (translation) calls for a pair of quotation marks (or perhaps that should be QUOTATION MARKS...? " "...? ) The publisher prints a note at the beginning:
...Permission must be obtained from the publishers if it is wished to perform the work in this new English translation..
Can any choir have wished this fate on themselves? And I imagine the publishers had (realistic?) visions of money changing hands; why else would they require formal written permission? The mind boggles.

Most such works have the self-awareness to call themselves 'singing versions' or something of the kind. The problems are obvious. Take the first word, 'Requiem'; three syllables. Most singing versions just have 'Re/qui/em' – good enough. But our man at Ricordi, Geoffrey Dunn, it says here, knows better: 'Rest and peace'. Hmm.
Rest and peace eternal give them, Lord Our God; and light for evermore shine down upon them. 

'...and light for evermore shine down...' Why, for heaven's sake? The Latin is a straightforward noun phrase: lux perpetua. Most singing versions (and indeed prose translations, as I remember from a misspent childhood) content themselves with 'perpetual light'. But not Mr Dunn; 'change for change's sake' is the order of the day; I imagine he would translate that as Ars gratia artis, though I'm not convinced that ars is the same thing as 'change'. Not content with a simple adjective for perpetua he contorts the original prayer into an inverted monstrosity featuring an adverbial phrase. Besides, he has removed the prayerful mystery of that perpetual light. Dunn's could be a torch powered by a nuclear reactor.

Elsewhere I have asked 'Why can't translators just GET OUT OF THE FRIGGING WAY ?' Moving on to the Sanctus, not having time for a detailed critique:
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua

Easy enough: 'Heaven and earth are full of your glory', right? (Or, if you must, 'Full are heaven and earth...') . But Mr Dunn needs something more. Another idea perhaps?
Earth and heaven are full of echoes to Thy glory

Once again, this meddlesome 'translator' has removed the prayerful mystery of the original. Gloria tua is an ablative – 'with your glory'. Mr Dunn has asked himself  'But what's making the noise?' Echoes of course!

But having got his teeth into a device (introducing new ideas‡‡), he won't put it down. The second time those words appear, he goes one better:

Earth and heaven are full of echoes praising Thy glory

And what can have been his reason for swapping 'heaven' and 'earth' around? 'Heaven and earth' is what corpus linguists call a strong collocation... a very strong one. The British National Corpus has 66 cases of 'heaven and earth' and only 3 of the inverted form. The Corpus of Contemporary American shows slightly more tolerance for the inverted form (340 plays 26 in a much bigger corpus) but 'heaven and earth' is normal.

There are things native speakers just know about ordering words: native speakers of English just don't say 'the red big bus'. ESOL students learn a rule about this sort of thing, but native speakers don't have to. Most of them don't know it. Teachers of ESOL know it (or in some cases  [] know where to find it). But when you change the order you are consciously doing something different: 'No, not the green one, the RED big bus'. (Even there it sounds pretty odd; I think I'd say '... the big RED bus'; but contrastive stress can change otherwise fixed word orders.)

So rather than dismiss Dunn's order out of hand, we should perhaps consider what sort of exception he's trying to make. Is the music involved, perhaps? Looking at the music introduces yet another variant (on pp. 143-4 of the Ricordi edition):

Heaven and earth fill with echoes,  praising Thy glory

And perhaps the music explains the change back to 'heaven and earth'. A lot is happening in the music here, and the 2nd choir don't have the words at all. But the sopranos in the 1st choir are singing a descending scale; for them  to sing 'Earth and heaven' would be plain contrary.

The idea of a tune influencing the words suggested to me the bass line on p. 207 of the Ricordi edition. Heaven and earth are involved here too, but not in the Pleni sunt coeli... context; it is the cosmic disaster (a pleasingly apt word, given the derivation from the Latin astrum [='star']) that strikes on the Dies irae. From coeli starting on a G (and flirting for a bar with notes as high as C) the basses drop down an octave for the word terra. And what does Mr Dunn's 'translation' do here?

When the high heav'n and all the earth are ... (all on the top note) and  
shaken (on the lower G)

This really is contrary. You've got a high word ('heaven') and a low word ('earth') simply  crying out to be reflected in the music. Verdi showed the way. But Mr Dunn knew better.

An observation about Fauré's word painting is at the back of my mind, but it'll have to stay there for the time being – an update, perhaps...? But for now I must get back to learning the music. Don't miss the concert!

Update 2014.06.22.16:45 – Added this note:
When Shakespeare called Romeo and Juliet 'star-crossed', I wonder whether he was tipping the wink to the more erudite in his audience: 'Here comes a disaster'.  The word désastre was only borrowed from French in the late-sixteenth century, so if so it was a pretty trendy bit of wordplay.

Update 2014.06.23.11:15 – Added this  PS:
PS to footnote: But maybe I'm overestimating the relevance of erudition in this context. At the time, probably the lowliest of the groundlings knew that astrology and disaster went hand in hand. The existence of the new borrowing  is not relevant (silly me).

Update 2014.06.25.15:00  – Added  this PPS:

On the subject of word painting (which I think is the expression for writing musically suggestive settings), as a foil to Verdi's setting of the words 'heaven and earth', this observation about Fauré's setting of those words occurred to me.

The going rate for the (musical) difference between heaven and earth  seems to be about an octave. (This is an open goal for musicologists – my theoretical knowledge of music is minimal. Please comment if this needs another update.) Verdi, as I said, drops an octave from coeli to terra (after a bar containing higher notes).

Fauré, an enfant terrible who was nick-named Robespierre during his Directorship of the Paris Conservatoire because of his reforming zeal, toys with expectations in his setting of  Libera me.
Quando coeli movendi sunt
Quando coeli movendi sunt
Et terra ...
The words are describing the Day of Judgment. Quando coeli movendi sunt – 'not too scary; a clap or two of thunder. But hang on terra. Not just thunder, that felt to me like an earthquake I've got a REALLY BAD feeling about this.'

But the drop isn't quite an octave. This minor seventh coincides approximately with the 'that felt to me like an earthquake' in my imaginary commentary. What coincides with the words 'I've got a REALLY BAD feeling about this' is the octave drop at '...Dum veneris' {='when you [will††] come'}. Taking the music along with the text you get an even more intensely growing feeling of impending doom.

Well over a year ago I wrote  a piece about prescriptive grammars (the ones that say you're doing everything wrong and tell you how you should oughter).

In it I wrote a longish digression about what I was singing at the time. It seems rather (indeed, more...:-?) apt here, so here it is:
My choice of 'listen out' as an example [of a phrasal verb – see the full context here] is not entirely accidental. I'm singing this season Fauré's Requiem [and THIS season, Verdi's], which includes the prayer Exaudi orationem meam. This phrase is preceded by a soprano solo tune marked both piano and dolce: a very gentle and not-very-down-to-earth (in fact angelic)  'It is fitting that a hymn should be offered to you in Sion, O God'. Here the human penitent breaks in,  fortissimo: Exaudi – as if they were saying 'Enough of this airy-fairy stuff  "it is fitting that..." my Aunt Fanny! This really matters to a human soul. Among all the millions of prayers addressed to you throughout Christendom not to mention that bl**dy  'hymnus' listen out for mine.' The rather limp translation 'Hear my prayer' doesn't do justice to the word.

Then the speaker thinks better of this impertinent fortissimo interruption, and repeats Exaudi  but piano. The id then reasserts itself with the next word fortissimo: 'No I'm  not going to be quiet and reverential.' The internal dialogue between the super-ego and the id is reminiscent of Gollum's arguments with himself. 

...Fauré made the elementary mistake of not making this a solo though it is a sweet and angelic-sounding tune sung by the sopranos. Apologies for this lapse ( he was only young! [not so young, I was thinking of his Cantique de Jean Racine, written while he was still at school])
Update 2014.06.26.09:50 – Added gloss to Dum veneris, and typo fix.

Update 2014.06.27.11:25 – Added this note:
 ††This is not to suggest that the original writer had any choice about using the future (if he [almost certainly a he] used a finite verb, that is). Latin, like many languages, just does this; ESOL students in fact, find it very difficult to buy in to the English way (and even when they've 'bought in', a pretty reliable bear-trap remains – a potential error that few manage to avoid!) I only insert the 'will' as a way of underlining the fact that the Latin makes it very clear that THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN. A common way of dealing with this in English is the addition of an expression like '... And it's a question of WHEN rather than IF'.

Update 2014.06.29.19:45 – Added this PPPS:
PPPS One last Geoffrey Dunn horror, but I don't have the text any more. Having written above about Exaudi (the bit in red) I was listening out (!) for the treatment of this verb. As I said, I don't have the text to hand, so I'm not sure of his word for latronem [= Sp: ladrón] in
Et latronem exaudisti
I'd've said something like 'and who heeded [see above for why it's not just 'heard'] the thief'. But our Geoffrey turns the syntax inside out and makes it 'and the robber won Thy pity'. Oh dear...

Update 2014. – Added this note:
 ‡‡ On re-reading I see that he has form for this: in the first line of the piece he does it twice – Requiem → 'Rest and peace'; Domine → 'Lord Our God.

Update 2014.08.10.16:15 – Added this PPPPS:
I've run out of handy footnote symbols, so you'll have to do a bit of DIY to place this. It's 2 or 3  screens down (but YMMV), where I talk about 'the red big bus'. A recent Slate post addressed this point, in what it announces as

A long fascinating article—or is it a fascinating long article?

I  expect it is, though I confess I haven't read it carefully.

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