Singing in Original Languages: pros, cons
Date: Thu, 10 Dec 1998 15:56:23 -0500
From: John Howell
Subject: Re: Choral Texts in Foreign Languages
>I have an unusual situation this year with my sophomores in our 150 voice
>Concert Choir grades 10-12.
There is no single answer and no simple answer to this question, which is
why I always bring it up in my Choral Lit class to make students think
about it. It's also on my mind at the moment because my Early Music
Ensemble has been asked to get together to share a concert with an ensemble
at a small college, and the director informed me that her singers refuse to
sing in foreign languages! I'm not sure how that is going to work out.
The composer started with the text, and set that text to music in a way
that enhances and supports the text. In other words, the SOUND of the text
is part of the music, along with the text-painting and word emphases the
composer worked out.
The composer also started with the desire to communicate the meaning and
emotion of the text, using the musical setting to enhance it. In other
words, the MEANING of the text is part of the music as well.
The answer that works for me is that the decision is a functional one.
When we present music as an exhibition of art (which is what a concert
performance is), we should come as close as possible to what the composer
intended AS ART. When we present music in a functional setting (part of a
church service, wedding, funeral, pep rally), we should emphasize
communication and use the language of the audience/congregation. When
Susie and I were married we had a Bach wedding cantata, and it was sung in
English because the meaning was important to the occasion and to our
families. (It was a terrible, Victorian, twinky translation, but it was
understandable!) When we perform Bach cantatas in concert, it is always in
the original German.
Music is intrinsically an international language. It's a small window
through which we can get glimpses of other times and other places. That's
John & Susie Howell (mailto:John.Howell@vt.edu)
Virginia Tech Department of Music
Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A. 24061-0240
Vox (540) 231-8411 Fax (540) 231-5034
Date: Thu, 10 Dec 1998 08:44:57 -0700 (MST)
From: "James D. Feiszli"
Subject: Re: Choral Texts in Foreign Languages
On Thu, 10 Dec 1998, Brumbachs wrote:
> Dear Colleagues:
> it." (the translations are printed in the program) I replied to her that
> "no choir worth their salt sings only in English." There are only two
Bad answer. "Just because everyone else does it" will never
carry any weight. Foreign languages are used because:
a) One can work on vocal tone with the Romance languages
(I'm including Latin here) because there are fewer
different vowel sounds and students have no
pre-conceived notions of how to form them. They
don't assume they already know how to pronounce
and therefore you can shape their voices so that
they become better singers.
b) Just as students study literature in English class that
is outside the popular or "easy" literature of the
masses, so they must study music that is outside what
they would normally experience in order to become
It goes without saying that if you have not established a
choral situation wherein education is the top priority
(rather than simply preparing a group of students for
the next performance) these arguments will not be well-
Choral educators should be educators first and
choral directors second. Do parents or students
tell the math teachers what problems should be worked
in geometry in order to teach that discipine best?
Of course not. BUT it is not their fault that the
music profession has allowed them to view us as less
professional than these other disciplines. When we
cannot justify what we do on an educational/philosophical
basis, we deserve what we get. Ask an English teacher
why they read Shakespeare in sophomore English instead
of Tom Clancy.
Date: Tue, 9 Apr 1996 13:27:14 +0000
From: email@example.com (Mimi Daitz)
Subject: long file--singing in translation
Choralisters: My apologies for the delay in posting the responses concerning
singing in English translation vs. singing in the original language. The huge,
antiquated CUNYVM system made the process more complicated than it would be
elsewhere. Before I quote the responses (20 for the original language, 1 for
English trans., 3 for some of each) I will confess my own predeliction is
strongly in favor of original languages--for reasons that are expressed by
others below. The City College Chorus has sung in French, German, Latin,
Spanish, Estonian, and Twi (one of the languages spoken in Ghana),
greater homogeneity of sound than when we sing in English. I asked for your
opinions in the hope that they would strengthen my position in an on-going dis-
cussion with some publishers and composers. Thanks very much for your
responses. Mimi S. Daitz (Music Dept., City College/CUNY)
>From Bob de Frece, U. of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada (Bob.de.Frece@UAlberta.CA):
I hold the attitude that music should be performed in the original
I feel particularly strongly about this as regards folk songs. The rhythm of
folk songs is related to the rhythm of the text. Some translations, in an
effort to give accurate meaning, end up putting the stress on the wrong
and the results are sometimes laughable. Any choral director who is familiar
with the International Phonetic Alphabet can use an IPA transliteration to
teach the text of a piece in a language other than English. With my own
I have performed pieces in Swedish, Spanish, German, French, Itialian, Zulu,
Slovak and Russian. I teach at a large university where a number of languages
are taught. Professors in other Departments have been very helpful in writing
IPA transliterations. They also give me a word-for-word translation so we can
express the text just as we would in English. It's always affirming when
these professors tells me after the concert, "I understood every word." IPA is
not hard to learn and there is a number of manuals published by Schirmer Books
that are very helpful. I think you can tell that I am solidly in the "Sing it
in the original language" camp.
>From Joseph H. Janisch, Columbus, OH (firstname.lastname@example.org):
As a rule I don't schedule works in a different language for worship serv-
ices. However in my new congregation it doesn't seem to be a problem.
I suggest you take the temperature of the congregation and react accordingly.
>From Bob Eaton, Mass. (email@example.com):
My High School Choirs sing in many languages. The major requirment for most
of us is that the language, if not a classic language such Italian,
have a good transliteration or pronuncitation guide so that we can enjoy the
sound of the language in our singing rather than spending hours trying to
out what it is supposed to sound like. Have sung in Chinese, Korean,
the guides are essential or we can't spend the time.
>From Martha Sullivan, Cambridge, MA (Voices96@aol.com):
I think it is a good idea to publish music bilingually. Some groups will
want to go to the trouble of learning the Estonian; those that are really con-
scientious will want to find an expert on the language, but if none is avail-
able, they might prefer to sing the piece in English rather than mangle the
original by trying to learn it only with a written guide to pronounciation.
Other of the languages you mentioned, such as Hungarian or Russian, I con-
sider to be hopeless for choral programs *unless* you have someone who is
proficient in the language available to coach the choir on several occasions.
You just can't get some of the nuances without hearing the language spoken.
But when you do have the luxury of a good coach, the orginal language is
much better for performance, IMHO, since the composer has generally crafted the
music to have a close relationship to the original text. The Rachmaninoff All-
Night Vigil (aka Vespers), for example, shakes the bones so much more when sung
in Old Church Slavonic, with all those deeply open O sounds...
Another idea, if you want to publish some editions of works in Estonian,
would be to make available for purchase an accompanying tape with a native
speaker saying the text. That is for the truly conscientious (or obsessive-
compulsive) choir director!
>From Harriet R. Simons, SUNY at Buffalo (simons@acsu.Buffalo.edu):
You know my answer--do the music in Estonian or Latvian or whatever. I must
admit that I don't do Czech pieces in Czech or Swedish ones. I don't know why.
But Estonian is especially good and the choir got [Tormis' "Raua needmine"]
pretty well....Now I am working on a Latvian score--in Latvian. Of course
living in a big city, I can always find somebody who is native to help with
>From Susan Mueller (SGEMueller@aol.com):
[I conduct a chorus] of about 70 in a smaller Southwestern town. We sing in
both English and foreign language, but I have to be very judicious.
Last year we did the Stravinsky Mass (in Latin) and most of the Rachmaninoff
All-Night Vigil (in Russian) on one concert, so this year we're doing a lot of
The chorus really struggled with the Russian (even with the help of Musica
Russica tapes), but these are mostly "amateur" singers, and the work was quite
>From Michael Molloy, D.W. Poppy Secondary School, Langley, British Columbia,
I am a high school choral director who loves to perform works in other lan-
guages. In fact, one the most exciting performances my chamber choir gave last
year was for the national conference of the Canadian Association of Second Lan-
guage Teachers in which we sang in English, French, German, Latin, Japanese,
Spanish, and Haida (a native Language). It is my belief in North America today
that multi-culturalism is very important, and exposing students to other lan-
guages and other cultures helps to promote understanding and reduce racism.
The staple of our repertoire is still English and Latin, but every year I
try to find pieces in other languages that are musically valuable and hopefully
educational from the muti-cultural perspective. This year, I am doing a Latvian
Folksong and am having trouble finding a pronounciation guide. Do you have any
ideas? I saw a posting today that might help, but the source is in Latvia and I
might have trouble getting it soon.
All of the groups I sing with routinely perform music in languages other
than English. Perhaps it's because we specialize in early music.
Provided translations are provided, I feel performing music in languages
that are foreign to the audience broadens their experience. One thing I hate is
to hear an entire audience turn the page during a piece because they are
ing along. We always try to print our programs so that no translation
page turn. We also encourage folks to read the translations ahead of time.
I once saw Benjamin Bagby of Sequentia tell an ancient story (I can't
ber if it was Beowulf or one of the Tristan legends) with a medieval harp
ancient tongue. Because of his incredible commitment to the text and his
extrodinary acting ability, I understood everything without once looking
the program. In fact I don't think there even was a translation. This
will always stand out in my mind as the epitome of presenting in a foreign
language- naturally, comfortable and effectively. Do it!
>From Dan Ratelle, San Diego, CA (DanRatelle@aol.com):
For performances, and even for Services, I generally favor the
guage for the "feel" which the poetry lends the music, and the growth involved
with learning to pronounce a new set of sounds and words. But I have also done
many things in English, for the ususal reasons of handy edition, rehearsal
appropriateness to the occasion, more communication to the audience, etc.
I think it's a great idea, not only in secular settings, but also in sacred
music. Here in the Tampa Bay area, and all over Florida, we have such cultural
diversity, I think people would appreciate hearing even an infrequent work in
their own language. For instance, in the parish where I play, we have many who
are Latin, Asian, European, etc. I am amazed by the response I get when we do
even the simplest number is Spanish, for instance.
Hearing things in their own language helps people feel more accepted and more a
part of a community. I'm all for it.
>From Lisa Caldwell, Georgia Southern University (firstname.lastname@example.org):
This is a very important subject! The original language should be used in
nearly every case I can think of. I even use it in church and provide a
tion in the bulletin or verbally before the work is prevented.
The syllabic stress is almost never the same in an English
a text, which can destroy the original concept and composer's intent musically.
In addition, the actual SOUND of a word casts a timbre and pitch shading into
the musical line. There has been research on the actual pitch of vowel forma-
tions. (ie- [i] is sharp to [a] sung on the same pitch.) These sometimes subtle
differences between languages make a very large difference to the overall
of a performance.
Consonants are of course, incredibly different!!! German and English are
highly consonantal languages, whereas Italian is more vowel oriented. The
articulation that a composer intends is often to be found in the diction,
you sing in another language...that is completely lost.
Languages also have discernable timbres. Slavic languages are simply darker
than most Latin based languages. The spoken pronunciation is toward the back of
the mouth, by contrast, a language such as Spanish is a rather bright, frontal
language, affecting even the tongue placement of the consonants! This natural
timbre of a language has GOT to be in the composer's ear as he/she conceives of
It is absolutely essential that we teach our singers to sing in the
language, for the sake of honest performances, for the sake of the music. We
have IPA to help us to this end! Once IPA is learned, there is NO barrier!
>From David Griggs-Janower, SUNY at Albany (email@example.com):
I will certainly purchase music in languages other than English, and it
doesn't matter what language, provided that:
1. The alphabet used is the same as English and there is *some* sort of pronun-
ciation guide, even though that will never take the place of talking with some-
one who knows the language. or
2. If the alphabet is not the same, then a transliteration that I can read is
provided as an underlay.
3. Translations included somewhere are extremely helpful. 4. If I have a
I'll purchase music with BOTH the foreign language and English underlay,
never know what group of mine might use the piece again in a later year (I
do it in Estonian with my best group and English with my student or chruch
group), but that's only if I have a choice of editions. If no choice, I'll pur-
chase it with no English underlay.
>From Milton Olsson, Michigan Tech University (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I frequently program works in languages other than English. I find the
original language has a striking influence on the sonority and rhythm of the
>From Jaymar Music, Ltd., Peter Martin (email@example.com):
In our Jon Washburn Choral Series, we publish "The Midrija Bird" for SSATB
choir a cappella by Adolf Vedro, English version by Jon Washburn. The pub-
lication contains both the Estonian and English texts.
>From John Goldsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org):
My choir here at the University of Pittsburgh has sung in Russian, French,
Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, German, Yorobo, Japanese, Slovak, Hungarian, Czech,
and more. Most of these pieces did NOT have an English version, but many did
have a translation (which is essential). The amazing thing is that of some 55
singers, only five or so can read music, so every note is taught by rote!
do all a cappella music. So, bunk on the publishers!
>From S. Scott Leaman, Palm Bay High School, Melbourne, FL
Assuming that the original language is not English I never sing the English
translation. My opinion is that the choral directors job is to as closely as
possible convey the ideas of the composer. If he/she did not write the work in
English, performing it in English goes against the wishes of the composer. I
would rather not even have the english translation underneath as an option, but
rather a word for word translation at the beginning along with a pronounciation
guide if it is an unfamiliar language.
>From Bruce MacIntyre, Brooklyn College, CUNY (BCMBC@CUNYVM.BITNET):
I still agree with the publishers. I "feel great" (i.e. positive) about
programming choral pieces in another language with my choruses at Brooklyn Col-
lege. One must, however, limit the number of foreign-language pieces when the
sight-reading abilities of the group are limited. There's only so much time to
rehearse in a term, and teaching pronunciation takes time; there's no avoiding
that--even with loaned out tapes for the students. With my chamber chorus of
very good readers we can do more selections in a foreign language (usually W.
European ones) because there's the extra time saved from not having to 'teach
every note.' Ideally, along with the original language in a transliteration in
the score, I like to have a) an English singing translation also beneath the
notes, and b) a real translation at the BOTTOM of each score page or,
in the appendix. The spiral-bound scores from the international songs done at
Talinn about 6-8 years ago were quite a model, I thought. They even came with a
cassette tape of the spoken and sung sound of the songs in the various
of the former USSR republics.
>From Joel D. Pressman, Beverly Hills High School
While I do music in many languages, I strongly believe that almost no music
is written in a foreign language - rather, it is written in the composer's lan-
guage (yes, there are exceptions, but let's do the math).
If a text is repetitive and simple, I prefer to use the original language.
If it crafts a story, I tend to want my audience to experience that story
directly, not by reading along in the program, but by hearing us tell it.
Of course, many English translations are so crummy that they are
to do, and, since I am in a public school with Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and
Moslem students, I can "get away" with doing more liturgical stuff if we do it
in Latin or some other language than English. It makes it less preachy
I admit that I choose on a song by song basis, but these are some of the
things I consider.
Will Dean, The Esoterics (email@example.com):
We have programmed lots of works in languages other than English. They have
been Western European as well as "other." We haven't sung in Estonian
we have sung in Russian, Hungarian and Czech.
If you have a Web browser, and would like to see a listing of all of our
programs, it's at: http://weber.u.washington.edu/-
>From Jim Nord, Church of the Good Shepherd, Augusta, Georgia
Please do not exclude music for worship. I am sure some of the music
thinking of was written for use in church. My parish choir nearly always sings
music in its original language. They sing Latin, German, French and a little
Russian. A translation of the text is always provided and the congregation
to appreciate our efforts in this area.
It is too bad that so may publishers include English translations--maybe
this is for lazy conductors or choirs, or perhaps it is the Bible Belt
Protestant fear of the Pope's Latin. I am using the Franck "Panis Angelicus"
this Sunday. It will be sung in Latin. Even if we wanted to sing in English, the
translation has NOTHING to do with the real text. Is it not always best to sing
tunes using the vowel sounds intended by the composer?
>From Carl Bangs (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I think a chorus should sing in a variety of languages to develop a
different sounds. The director should be familiar with the language or have
expert advice. My community chorale in Deer Park, Washington has sung in Latin,
Dutch, German, and French, as well as English. They find my translation usually
somewhat amusing which helps morale with what might otherwise be daunting.
Patrick O'Shea, Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas
This last point [availability of literal trans.] is especially important.
However, with a translation in place, I usually prefer to perform choral music
in the original language, even if it is one with which I have little famil-
iarity. If I can consult a linguist or native speaker, I'm willing to give it a
As for publishers, we do tend to suffer from a general watering down of the
musical literature in print. Somtimes I just throw up my hands (or just throw
up) when sifting through a packet of samples from a publisher, looking for the
5% or so of the titles that are respectable. There are plenty of junior
high school choirs that can approach literature in Italian or Spanish or French
(etc. etc.) with no difficulty. Why must publishers continue to insist on a
parallel English translation (or worse, a substitution of an English "singing"
translation for the original)?
In short, unless the composer provided a translation or approved one, I am
of the opinion that choral music should be performed in the original language.
Perhaps this makes me a "purist," but if you want to perform music with an
English text, why not choose from the myriad of works that were originally set
>From Judith Zuckerman (email@example.com):
I love to program music in different languages when possible and have con-
ducted works sung in Czech, Old Church Slavonic, Hebrew, Ladino and an assort-
ment of European languages. I'm always more interested in having a good
*literal* translation and an accurate and complete pronunciation guide
than I am
in a "singing translation" which may or may not have much to do with the
>From Donald F. Burrill, Ontario Inst. for Studies in Education, Toronto (dbur-
All three of the choirs I sing in quite regularly sing works in their
original language: Latin German, French, Hebrew, Greek, that I can think
hand. These are generally for concerts; but even my church choir (one of the
three) regularly sings works in Latin, German, French, or Hebrew (e.g., the
Chichester Psalms) when the works are appropriate for worship.
I have sometimes been responsible for preparing printed programs, setting
(inter alia) the words sung and their translations. "Singing" translations I
have not found useful: my firm policy (and belief) has been that an audience
needs to be able to follow both the sounds being sung (thus the words as they
appear in the language being sung, possibly transliterated in the case of
Hebrew, or Cyrillic alphabets) AND the meaning of those words (thus a transla-
tion that conveys the meaning, as nearly as possible parallel to the word order
of the language sung). "Singing" translations are usually relatively free
translations of the overall meaning, stanza by stanza if one is lucky, but not
word by word; and often with more attention to the metrical aspects than the
semantic aspects of the translation.
>From Hans Oostendorp (firstname.lastname@example.org):
A few titles of our published comtemporary music is written in our
Dutch. Maybe you can use this list! [I do not include the long, interesting
list here since it is not strictly appropriate as an answer to the question.
However, you may obtain it from Mr. Oostendorp.]
Annie Bank Choral Music Publishers since 1941
Partner Musica Databank
P.O. Box 347, 1180 AH Amstelveen, the Netherlands
Roger O. Doyle, U. of Portland, OR (email@example.com) referred to his article
in *The Choral Journal* XXI/2 (1980), pp 5-7, from which I have excerpted some
passages which refer to performances of a Schutz motet and the Brahms
Why, then was the motet performed in German? A number of reasons might be
suggested: pride, peer influence, a misplaced display of eruditeness, or the
unspoken opinion that the "music" was greater than the text....
Advocates of the "original language" most often use the argument that the
music and the text are too carefully wedded to alter one element....Yet,
musicologists have contributed many articles pointing out mis-accentuation in
Bach's recitatives. Even the master's common practice of supplying different
texts to the same music questions the validity of the text-music argument.
Suely it is obvious that in Bach's sacred music, the message of the text is the
important point. Bach used German texts because his congregation spoke
Unfortunately, American conductors seem to be the most afflicted with the
"original language" phobia. Our insistence on singing in a foreign language is
all the more lamentable for the fact that our populace is still among the most
musically-unsophisticated to be found...
The singer has only one unique aspect that the instrumental musician cannot
match--a text. If the language is lost on the audience then the uniqueness is
largely lost as well....
If we ever hope to keep choral singers active and supportive of other
groups and if we ever hope to build large audiences for professional and semi-
professional choral music then we must drop the snobbish attitude toward
in English. [There's much more to the article.]