Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Faithful or attractive, take 2

"Since some time I have begun an oratorio [BK – Elijah], and hope I shall be able to bring it out for the first time at your Festival..." 
Mendelssohn to the organizers of Birmingham Music Festival, 24 July 1845
'Since some time'? 'Bring it out'? Mendelssohn was an imperfect  speaker of English, though his English was a lot better than my German  (which, as I have said before, was Best Before End November 1969), and Elijah appeared first in English; all his correspondence with the Festival organizers and with his English publishers was conducted in English.

F.G Edwards, in his History of Mendelssohn's Oratorio 'Elijah' wrote:
The music of "Elijah" was composed to German words; an English version was therefore necessary. Mendelssohn had no hesitation in assigning the task of making the English translation to Mr. Bartholomew—"the translator par excellence," as he called him—who is so well known as the translator or adaptor of Mendelssohn's "Athalie," "Antigone," "Œdipus," "Lauda Sion," "Walpurgis Night," the Finale to "Loreley," "Christus," and many of his songs and part-songs.
According to Edwards,

William Bartholomew (1793-1867) 


William Bartholomew (1793-1867) was "a man of many accomplishments—chemist, violin player, and excellent flower painter." In 1841 he submitted to Mendelssohn the libretto of a fairy opera, entitled "Christmas Night's Dream"; and in this way an acquaintance commenced which developed into a(49) close friendship between the two men—a friendship severed only by death.

Perhaps Mendelssohn's estimate of Bartholomew's excellence as a translator could be questioned. Perhaps Mendelssohn just meant that he was biddable, and ready to offer dubious and/or risible versions of the German texts as long as they approximated to the rhythms and sounds of the original. Here are some bits of the German, with Bartholomew's English text (I admit I was tempted to add some derisive quotation marks to that English); in the event I have just coloured offending versions in red.

verbig dich am Bache Crith
   =(?) thither hide thee by Cherith's brook

so ziehet hin, greifet ihn, tötet ihn!
    =(?) So go ye forth; seize on him! He shall die!

Wir haben es gehört  
    =(?) We heard it with our ears

noch sind übrig geblieben siebentausend in Israel, die sich nich gebeugt vor Baal
    =(?) for the Lord hath yet left Him seven thousand in Israel, knees that have not bowed to Baal

That last one is hard to deliver without laughing. At a first reading, I thought the seven thousand knees were just an encouraging spin on the notion of only 3,500 faithful. But look at the German: 'siebentausend..., die sich nicht...'  The die are the 7,000 faithful. The 'knees' are a figment of Bartholomew's imagination [and the resultant chaotic syntax is his fault].

But I don't underestimate the difficulties of verse translation; I'm a one-time practitioner, as mentioned here. And I'm not suggesting the wholesale revision of dated works; I pointed out here, for example, that in The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves Verdi set the archaic word Ove where modern Italian would have Dove; archaisms come with classic works of art. I'm just saying that the publishers of the next edition might usefully spend some money on a less unreliable English version; after all, they must have recouped the £250 [+ £100 ex gratia to Mendelssohn's widow] they paid for the copyright.

(I shouldn't have to add, but perhaps I'd better, that this doesn't make Elijah any less exciting to sing or listen to. I'm looking forward greatly to singing it with my choir next month. )

This is a puerile attempt at sounding archaic. Thither doesn't just mean there; it didn't in 1846 and it still doesn't.


Update 2015.10.14.16:20 – Added clarifications in maroon.

Update 2015.10.15.15:25 – Umble [sic] pie eaten.

I have wronged Bartholomew. He was presumably influenced by biblical translations (not always the ones relevant to the Elijah story). Of the four lapses I identified, three are explicable:

  1. seize on
    This is used only once in the King James Bible (which I'm assuming is the one Bartholomew was conversant with), and in the New Testament. But a biblical snippet like this would naturally have come to mind when Bartholomew was looking for words to match the rhythm of the German.
  2. we heard it with our ears§
    Again, this isn't taken directly from the Bible text, but it's strongly reminiscent of this:
    Then spake the priests and the prophets unto the princes and to all the people, saying, This man is worthy to die; for he hath prophesied against this city, as ye have heard with your ears.
    [Jer. 26:11] 
  3. knees
    This is not in the German text in the Novello edition, but it is in the King James Biblealmost verbatim:
    Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal
    [1 Kgs 19:18]
    And it is also in the Lutheran bible that Schübring based his libretto on:
    Und ich will übriglassen siebentausend in Israel: alle Kniee, die sich nicht gebeugt haben vor Baal

    In the KJV text, I think the all the makes it sound slightly less silly. But it's a fair cop:
    Pride [goeth] before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. 
Update 2015.10.19.15:15 – Final obsessive? shaft  added this footnote:

§ In an afterthought added to item 3  in this list of dubieties
...I almost wrote infelicities – which would have been pleasing [in view of the composer's given name  – geddit, b-boum/tsh] but perhaps a little excessive. Besides, I rarely pass up the chance to use a word as luscious as dubiety ...
...I cited the Lutheran Bible's Kniee (which I had previously said was 'a figment of Bartholomew's imagination'). The associated syntax, I had said, was 'his fault'.

Well, in a sense, it WAS. I was put onto the track of this line of enquiry by this extract from the Lutheran Bible (of the extract from The Book of Jeremiah, which I gave as precedent for '[we] heard it with our ears'):
Und die Priester und Propheten sprachen vor den Fürsten und allem Volk: Dieser ist des Todes schuldig; denn er hat geweissagt wider diese Stadt, wie ihr mit euren Ohren gehört habt.
Again, the bit of text that I had found questionable was in the Lutheran Bible [as far as I can tell from the only Lutheran text that I have found on the Internet – which can't have been the one Schubring knew [unless he had a DeLorean in the garage], but was not in Schubring's German text. Possibly (I think probably would not be an overstatement) there are many other bits of Bartholomew's translations that reinstate bits of Biblical text which Schubring had suppressed – presumably with Mendelssohn's approval (as their correspondence is quite detailed).

Bartholomew had a low opinion of the original librettist. On 23 June 1846 he wrote to Mendelssohn:
...I know not how so bad a scribe as he who penned the libretto could have been found;  words, nay even sentences were omitted... 
(Quotations from this and other correspondence are taken from F.G Edwards'  History of Mendelssohn's Oratorio 'Elijah' )
Poor Mendelssohn! Only months before (just before Christmas 1845) he had written at length to Schubring:
My dear Schubring,—I now send you, according to your permission, the text of 'Elijah,' so far as it goes. I do beg of you to give me your best assistance, and return it soon with plenty of notes in the margin (I mean Scriptural passages, etc.)... 
...Speaking is a very different thing from writing. The few minutes I lately passed with you and yours were more enlivening and cheering than ever so many letters.—Ever your
Bartholomew's 'so bad a scribe' must have tried Mendelssohn's loyalty.

For the revised version, Bartholomew seems to have largely had his way, with Mendelssohn struggling (successfully, in the case of the 'couch-watering' widow) against Bartholomew's scriptural conservatism. On 3 March 1847 he wrote to Bartholomew:
My dear Sir,—I have just received your letter of the 24th, and hasten to reply. I like all the passages of the translation you send me with but two exceptions. In No. 30, 'that Thou would'st please destroy me' sounds so odd to me—is it scriptural? If it is, I have no objection, but if not, pray substitute something else. And then in the new No. 8 [the widow scene]—the words from Psalm vi. which you hesitated to adopt are, of course, out of the question; but I also object to the second part of the sentence which you propose to add to the words of Psalm xxxviii. {6}, viz.: 'I water my couch,' etc. [Psalm vi., 6.]—I do dislike this so very much, and it is so poetical in the German version. So if you could substitute something in which no 'watering of the couch' occurred, but which gave the idea of the tears, of the night, of all that in its purity. Pray try!
But enough of this. I should redirect my energy into LEARNING THE NOTES.

Update 2015.11.22.12:25 – Added post-choral PS

PS One last reflection on Bartholomew: How long was the drought?

I don't have the text in front of me (as after the concert last night –  the fullest I've ever seen the Great Hall, and the first time I've ever heard such an enthusiastic ovation [deserved, especially by a brilliantly electrifying Elijah] – I returned my hired score), but Google tells me the German text, as originally set, in the passage where Elijah decides to go to Ahab, is Heute, im dritten Jahre, will ich mich dem Könige zeigen..., The original curse, mentioned in the opening bars, is these years there shall not be dew nor rain but according to my word – that is, it was up to Jehova when the water supply was to be reconnected. The baritone tune (in this later section, No 10) mirrors the opening curse, and the 'these' of the opening bars becomes 'three'.

This belief is no doubt partly due to that dritte. A simple textual translation of those German words would be "Today, in the third year, I will show the king..." But Bartholomew's extraordinary translation makes it oddly specific: 'Three years this day fulfilled, I will show myself unto Ahab..." Oddly specific and improbably, if you think about it; if it stops raining in, say March, it's not going to start again at precisely the same time of year; that'd be a MIRACLE. And Bartholomew has also mangled the sense in another way. Heute ... will ich zeigen...; it just happens to be im dritten Jahre [="in the third year"], not "precisely, to the day, at the end of the third year" [or as Elijah puts it in Bartholomew's text "three years this day fulfilled"].

I'm forced to the conclusion that the only way to be true to Mendelssohn's intentions would be to sing the German – not a welcome suggestion among singers who look forward, every few years, to singing words like "extirpate". 

Update 2015.11.23.15:40 – Added clarification in green.

Update 2015.12.05.23:30 – Added PPS

PPS: One last thing. Elsewhere I wrote this:
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).
I quoted from a couple of pieces (with a pretty interesting reflection on the way Fauré plays with his audience's expectations, TISIAS) , and was aware at the time that this tally needed adding to. I've just noticed one in Elijah, and though that post seems the obvious place to put it I think that would be an update too far –  it would be the fifth PS.

Earth-Heaven = 1 octave
(Excerpt from Elijah)
When in  the second half of the oratorio, Elijah is taken up bodily into Heaven (none of this rotting business – so common) the music steps up an octave, starting with the basses on E♭.

And Mendelssohn repeats the scale, and then gives both extremes to underline the point.

Update 2015.12.06.11:30 – Improved music snippet, updated footer and added this crossword clue:

Mine sea cow – sounds like our kind. (8)

Update 2021.01.15.11:30 –  Deleted old footer; and  tried to dredge up the answer to that clue after six years. My knee-jerk answer would be manatees, but I can't think how that works. 

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