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The question of language

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Stalwart Admin
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Johann's post in the Composers forum about whether to sing the Messiah in English or German, prompted me to think about some of the other "in which language should this be sung?" arguments.

One example is Rachmaninoff's The Bells. Adapted from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, the choral parts are written in Russian. Despite this, it is more often performed in English. While most choirs can handle works in the more frequently encountered French, German, Italian or Latin, there aren't too many choirs outside Russia who can tackle the Russian pronunciation comfortably.

The sound of words, not just the meaning, is so important in choral music; even more so in a work titled 'The Bells'. 

So which should it be, Russian or English? And which other works do you think suffer or benefit from being sung in a translation rather than the original?

And for a bit more about The Bells and its English and Russian performances, this video by the always highly opinionated David Hurwitz is a fun ride:

Dinah and Jen reacted
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Ummmm 🤔

That's a rather good question.

I don't want to be prejudiced, but personally, I prefer to listen to choral/ vocal works in the language the composer had (originally) set to music.

Let's take Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice for example. It was originally set to an Italian libretto, and even though Gluck himself had later reworked it to a French translation, I think we might agree that the Italian version has something about it that the French one somehow .... lacks, shall we say?! 🤷‍♀️ I don't know, but to my taste it sounds more poetic in its original Italian, the verse sounds more in tune with the accompanying music. I think that's because as you said @capriccio

Posted by: @capriccio

The sound of words, not just the meaning, is so important in choral music


I know that what you probably mean is that a choir has to be comfortable with the language they are singing in so as not to detract from the listener's enjoyment due to poor articulation (, and believe me it happens!) Yet, your quote above also proves my point! The very "sound" of words differs from one language to another, and the effect of listening to one song/ poem/ libretto in its "mother tongue" is very much different than listening to it in its translated form. 

Thus, when a composer initially writes a musical line/ phrase to go with a verse like "che farò senza Euridice...", and then he goes on to set "j'ai perdu mon Eurydice" to the same musical line, I think the effect is going to be somehow different. I suppose it has to do with the innate musicality of each language. 

Now, I'm not familiar with Rachmaninoff's Bells!! (an unforgivable slip on my behalf, which I intend to rectify right away!), but this is my take: even though the composition is based on an English poem, if the composer had adapted/ translated the poem to Russian and then set that new creation to music, I think it should be experienced in the language the composer set it into, and originally intended it to be experienced in, i. e. Russian.

Of course all of that is my own personal opinion, no offense to anyone's preferences and tastes!

Cheerio 🤗,



Jen and capriccio reacted
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Another vote, always, to hear a work in the language the composer set.  I agree, the sound of the words is so important: their shape and accent, the attack, the sweetness of the vowel sounds.

So Handel’s Messiah I’d rather hear in English.  But (curiously given that it’s basically the same music) Mozart’s arrangement, Der Messias, is preferable to my ears in German.  I have quite a soft spot for Mozart’s version, in particular the way in which he weaves woodwind through the vocal lines.

Dinah and capriccio reacted
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When I was young, I remember a program playing every Friday evening (if a remember correctly) on Cairo's (where I'm from) classical music station, it aired operas translated into Arabic (I think they were trying to get the general public interested in classical music).

And I wasn't much convinced. Actually, I was rather put off by it. Don't get me wrong: the libretti were professionally and beautifully translated, and the singers had good, powerful voices (as much as a young person could tell).

But I remember thinking to myself: what's that strange thing playing (to my younger self the concept of "opera" was non-existent 😂)? Why are they singing like that? Arabic is not supposed to be sung like that?!! 

More than twenty years later, I still stand by my verdict: each language lends itself differently to music. I would rather do some research beforehand so I can understand a work sung in a foreign language unfamiliar to me, than listen to a translated/ adapted text set to music which wasn't written for it in the first place, if I'm making any sense! 




(the following is a little bit off-topic) 

An example of how sung Arabic should sound like:

Standard classical Arabic:


Egyptian vernacular Arabic:


Hope you enjoy 🤗 



jchokey, Jen and capriccio reacted