Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Catherine Winkworth: the poetry of translation

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Catherine_WinkworthTranslating hymns is no small feat. This is what I’ve concluded after making a first attempt at translating German poetry. Besides conveying the sense of the text, you have to put into metrical form, ideally preserving the meter and rhyme of the original, and do it in a way that sounds good.

So I’ve really come to appreciate the work of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). She was a prolific translator of German chorales, including “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and “Now thank we all our God.” The accounts of her life that I’ve found so far are all rather brief, but all state unequivocally that she did more than anyone to bring the German chorale tradition to English-speaking churches, and that her translations are the most widely used of any from the German.

She was an educated woman who, in addition to her translation work, advocated for higher education for women. My guess is that her family was pretty well connected, since, according to one account, it was the German ambassador to England who introduced her to German hymnody. She published her first collection of hymn translations, Lyra Germanica Series 1, in 1854 or ’55, when she was still in her twenties. She followed with Series 2 in 1858.

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A treasury for the English-speaking world: the gift of John Mason Neale

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

The church I attend sings a lot of hymns translated by John Mason Neale (1818-1866). That probably says something about the type of hymns we tend to sing, but it also says a lot about how prolific he was as a translator, and how much the English-speaking church owes him.

The current Anglican hymnal, Common Praise, for instance, has no less than 25 texts translated by Neale. (Hymns Ancient and Modern had many more than that, judging by a brief glance at its index.) The old red Anglican hymnal, which my church still uses, has twenty. Over half of these are hymns marking seasons of the church year: Advent, Lent, and especially Easter. Hymnal: a Worship Book, used by Mennonite churches, has only eight, but one of those is “O Come, O come Emmanuel,” one of the essential Advent hymns.

One result of the 16th-century Reformation was that Protestant churches began using vernacular languages in church liturgy instead of Latin. This was a good thing on the whole, but some things were lost in the process. A great wealth of ancient hymns “henceforth became as a sealed book and as a dead letter,” as Neale regretfully put it. He did his best to remedy that, translating over two hundred Latin and Greek hymns from the early centuries of Christianity.

I would guess that many people sing these hymns without realizing just how old they are. “O Sons and daughters” is relatively new, written in the 16th century, but “That Eastertide with joy was bright” dates back all the way to the 4th century. Thanks to these translations, English-speakers have access to hymns spanning over sixteen hundred years.

Every era of church history has had its own “brand” of hymody, with its own particular emphases and its resulting strengths and weaknesses. The greater the variety of hymns we can sing, the greater the breadth of language and imagery that can inform and enrich our faith.

[The title of this post borrows a phrase from Exploring the Mennonite Hymnal: Handbook (Faith and Life Press, 1983, now out of print), p. 59]

Out of the ordinary

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

The genius of much folk music, whether traditional or contemporary, is that it takes perfectly ordinary situations and makes them interesting, significant, even mythical. Love, friendship, birth and death, natural beauty— all these are common enough, but all feel distinctive and unique to the one experiencing them. Hearing a song about the very thing happening to you drives home the commonness of the experience and at the same time elevates it.

Poetry can have the same effect. For instance, Walter de la Mare’s poem “Five Eyes” is about something that once was perfectly common: a miller keeping cats in his flour mill to prevent rats and mice from eating the grain. Yet the poem makes it all sound quite spooky: “Whisker and claw they crouch in the night,/ their five eyes smouldering green and bright.” There’s a musical setting of “Five Eyes” by C. Armstrong Gibbs that brings out the spookiness even further.

Then there’s David O’Meara’s poem “The Throw.” It’s about throwing a ball, and particularly about that small moment when the ball is in the air and your brain is making all the complex and unconscious calculations involved in knowing how to place your hand for the catch. But O’Meara takes it further with these lines: “In that/ curved, brief flight, whatever’s/ waiting to happen might. Just/ might.” And then he spins out the possibilities that lie in that instant, that bit of time just long enough for a situation at the critical point to tip one way or the other.

You could say that de la Mare is simply enhancing what’s already there, the hint of wildness and uncanniness in the most domestic of cats. O’Meara, on the other hand, takes the commonplace off in another direction. As Louis Menand expresses it in a New Yorker article: “This is what poets do: they connect an everyday x with an unexpected y.”

De gustibus non disputandum

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Or, in English, matters of taste are not to be disputed. Or, to stretch the concept a little, there’s no arguing with tradition. I’m thinking of how we often feel a strong pull toward things we’ve grown up with, regardless of how our beliefs, tastes or critical faculties have changed over time. This is expressed beautifully and hilariously in the song Zen Gospel Singing by Mark Graham (recorded by Bryan Bowers). In it the singer tells how, despite having left the church become a Buddhist, he misses the four-part hymn singing. He doesn’t believe in that sin-and-salvation stuff any more, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to get his Buddhist friends to sing more than one note at a time.

I had to laugh when I heard this song, because it reminded me of the Christmas songs we used to sing at family gatherings years ago. Some of them are truly lovely; others can be either lovely or drippily sentimental, depending on the day; still others are just not very good (sorry, Mom). Bells are mentioned frequently, as in “Süsser die Glocken nie klingen” (“Sweeter the bells never ring”), “Hört Ihr nicht die Weihnachtsglocken” (“Don’t you hear the Christmas bells”), or “Kling, Glöckchen, kling” (“Ring, little bells, ring”). Christmas trees come up fairly often, too, as in one of my favorites, “Welchen Jubel, welche Freude” (“What rejoicing, what delight”). I sang all these, and loved them, long before I understood the words.

But for a certain subset of Russian Mennonites from the prairies (my extended family included), the crown jewel of Christmas music was “Der Friedensfürst” (“The Prince of Peace”). It’s different from the others: not a hymn or carol, but a choral piece probably written around the turn of the 20th century. It’s composed of several short sections, with each pair of lines in the text having a different musical setting. It sounds like it was written in the popular-song style of the day. Once, at a carol-singing evening at the church we attended in Toronto, someone brought out copies of “Der Friedensfürst” and we sang it. Those of us who knew the piece were thrilled; those who were new to it didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

To this day I am not sure if it’s a good piece of music, objectively speaking. But that’s not the point. The point is that we used to sing it every Christmas, and now we don’t. And if, at some Christmas gathering, someone were to pull out a copy of the music, and if there were at least two other people in the room who knew it, I’d sing it. With feeling.