Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Expressive Language

One of the things that every English-speaking musician – professional and amateur – must master is the presence in musical scores of instructions in languages other than English. Most often, these markings are in Italian, which seems to be the most widely used language. And some of these, of course, are used so frequently that soon become so familiar that they need no translation, such as markings for tempo (allegro, andante), volume (piano, forte), and expressive style (such as dolce, meaning sweetly, or marcato, meaning with marked emphasis).

Of course, composers will often add specific instructions or descriptions in their native tongues, and sometimes there will also be notes, instructions, and other jargon printed in the language of the country where the score was published. Sometimes this yields an interesting combination.

Last year, for instance, when The Hartford Chorale performed the Verdi Requiem, we used scores published by the German publisher C.F. Peters. The liturgical text, of course, is in its original Latin, but the title page, preface, primary translation of the Latin, and other peripheral texts are in German. An English rendition of the Requiem text is the only part of the score that has been translated to English. Where Verdi has used standard Italian musical directions (andante, sotto voce, crescendo, leggiero, etc.), these are printed in Italian. Verdi also offers copious interpretive instructions that are not “standard” musical terms. When he penned his manuscript, surely he wrote these in his native Italian. In the Peters edition, these are rendered in German, without any English translation. It seems very odd to see, in this most Italian of Italian music, an instruction like this: Äußerst leise, mit düsterer Stimme und sehr traurig (“Very softly, with mournful voices”). It’s too bad that English translations, either in the music or in a separate list, were not offered in this edition that is sold in English-speaking countries. I translated these terms on my own (and also found them online in simpatico Italian in a facsimile of an old Ricordi edition), but I wonder how many Chorale singers missed out on Verdi’s insights because we did not have translations?

The Hartford Chorale is presently in the final week of preparation for its upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra (see details below). Several weeks ago, I went through my score to look for and translate any terms that are unfamiliar to me. Turns out that they’re all in familiar Italian except for the major tempo descriptions at the head of each movement, which are in German. I’ll post the translations here for the benefit of any other Chorale singers who might find these useful. (The tempo markings for movements III and VI are in friendly Italian.)

Movement I: Selig sind, die da Leid tragenZiemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck – Rather slow and with expression

Movement II: Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie GrasLangsam, marschmäßig – Slow, moderate march
Second section: Etwas bewegter – With somewhat more motion

Movement IV: Wie lieblich sind deine WohnungenMäßig bewegt –Moderately moving

Movement V: Ihr habt nun TraurigkeitLangsam – Slowly

Movement VII: Selig sind die Toten
Feierlich – Solemnly

Our rehearsals have been wonderful, and tickets are selling briskly – don’t miss what promises to be a magical performance!

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Call for your tickets today!
The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem

Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, November 13, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford

To purchase tickets, contact:
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
PHONE 860.244.2999
or online at

Discounted tickets may be available via for some concerts.

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