Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It Just Sounds Better...

It has become fashionable to include the English lyrics to operas, even to project them above the stage while the opera goes on.  If you purchase operas, you have the option of having the English translation scrolled on the bottom of the screen like captions.  I love opera.  I do not love the scrolled English above or below the stage, either on screen or live.  I know that often the most wonderful arias and duets of opera are about ordinary and mundane things but I choose to ignore this and imagine that the words match the lilting melodies of the greats (Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, et al).  I listen to opera in my office (I have all the collected works by Puccini, my favorite as well as a hundred or so other opera CDs) and the music commands my greatest respect.  But... it just sounds better in Italian (or any language, save perhaps, German, I recall those lines from Amadeus:  "Italian is the proper language for opera. All educated people agree on that").

Anyway, the funny thing is that this is often the complaint about the switch from Latin to the vernacular in the Roman Mass.  I well recall my dad's old Roman Catholic friend and fellow businessman in town who, after going to his first English Mass complained and was disappointed to find out "that the words in Latin have been the same words in English that the Lutherans have been saying for 400 years!"  It just sounded better, more lofty in Latin.

To a certain degree I would agree.  It does sound better.  We cannot let go of the sound of Latin -- at least not entirely -- so we call the parts of the ordinary the Gloria in excelsis, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei.  I think nearly everyone who has sung a Christian carol imagines the angel singing, "Gloria in excelsis deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis" -- not "Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth..."

Yet it is not in how it sounds that we find comfort, inspiration, and grace.  It is in what it says.  This is the great conundrum.  We may prefer the sound of the words in Latin but it is in what they say that we are edified and encouraged.  Now if we know Latin sufficiently well, this is not a problem.  For you Lutherans out there, the good Dr. Martin did not envision a time when Latin would not be the primary language of worship but he did make provision for the uneducated who did not know Latin (the Deutsche Messe).

Perhaps this is exactly the dilemma we find ourselves in when choosing a version of Scripture to be read.  The sound of the King James rings even in the ears of a youthful people no longer accustomed to its archaic forms so my own church body has used the English Standard Version -- in part because of its accuracy and in part because of the way it reads out loud.  Other versions may be just as accurate but sound wooden when read aloud or even casual and humdrum.  The language of worship and the version of Scripture used in worship has to be attentive to the sound of this language as well as everything else.  Is this not the reason why nearly every family prefers the King James for Psalm 23 while standing at the grave side?

Just a muse today... nothing theologically earth shattering... a preference for the way something sounds in one language over another, while at the same time acknowledging that it is not how it sounds that is most important to us (except perhaps in opera) but in what it says....


Terry Maher said...

The whole problem of how it saounds versus what it says is exactly illustrated in the impression that the words of the Mass turn out to be what Lutherans have been saying all along.

The fact is, the Mass was not translated into English. Period. A new Mass was written, in Latin, and THAT was translated intro English. Like Lutheran services, it is at points the same, at points similar, and at points new, from the previous Mass, but it is not the same.

And the recognition that the RCC switched from Latin to English (in English speaking areas) without the recognition that it switched Masses too is only possible when the Latin was not understood, either directly or via the facing English translation in C20 missals.

It's a complete misperception. The fact is the words in Latin are not even the same words in Latin Catholics were saying for the last 400 years. The words in English, including the "new" translation, translate the words of the new Mass.

Likewise opera. I recall two performances of Aida I heard, one in Minneapolis at Northrup, the other in Verona at the old Roman amphiteatre. Some booing arose at the former from the well-heeled crowd at these not so well-heeled people booing during an aria -- turns out, the not so well-heeled were Italian immigrants who recognised the singer was not singing the lyrics but complaining about the Minnesota weather and nobody had a frigging clue among the opera lovers there for their cultural services.

At the latter, everybody understood it, people sang along, after arias arguments broke out as to whether it was sung well, "Bravo" being countered by "Are you nuts, that STUNK!" etc.

Not to mention the construction workers across the street from my host's apartment in Milano, who would sing arias to her when she went out on the balcony in a bikini to catch some sun.

The real reason these things sound "better" is because to the extent that they are acquired and not native they have a certain exoticness we mistake for a deeper meaning or content. We listen with an accent, so zu sagen.

Janis Williams said...

Could knowing the 'plot' to the opera make a difference?

I don't speak Italian (or German - Wagner - ick) but if I know the plot, even if the singer is complaining about the weather, I know where the opera is supposed to be going.

How many RC (and Lutherans for that matter) don't even know the plot?

Anonymous said...

It sounds great in Estonian, too.

Check out this lovely Sanctus sung by 20,000!

Terry Maher said...

The music is written to set a certain text, not a weather report.