Blanche Marchesi: singing and languages

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At the end of twentieth chapter of her book Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi shares her thoughts on some of the aspects of languages in the art of singing.

Another difficulty that arises for the vocalist, which the instrumentalist has not to tackle, is the language. When you wish to sing masterpieces you must sing them in the language in which they have been conceived and written. Translations are treasons, and even when made by the cleverest translators are only like mirror reflections of a living person. A masterpiece presented must be sung in the original language, because a master and a master only will so enter into the spirit and the value, the rhythm and sonority of the words that his music will make it appear as if both were born together. The more the art of writing songs advances the more the word is married to the note, and a translation means a divorce. Artists in consequence ought to sing all masterpieces in their original language, and the public should hold the translations in hand to be able to grasp the meaning. Only in the countries in which the language is spoken will the song carry its full weight, but by repeating songs often, as has been done with The Two Grenadiers of Schumann all over the world, the Nussbaum and The Erl King, the public will enter into the spirit of the music and enjoy by and by songs sung in a strange language.

Sometimes translations are so ludicrous, so impossible, that there are only two ways to choose either to make a new translation, if the translation is really necessary, or to drop the song. Bad translations are the fault of publishers. In our days I think they take more trouble, but in former days they would give the work to anybody who was cheap and never trouble if the words were really translated or even if they made sense. I have actually seen songs bearing in their translation not one single word of the original meaning.

In opera, translations are sometimes musically criminal, because the translators, when embarrassed about the rhythm, simply alter the notes, the tune, anything to make their task easy. In consequence the original idea is spoiled. An artist who does not know the different languages and learns an opera only in a translation will often not be able to find the right shape of sentences, and is certainly misled in altering the word that he is called to represent. In consequence I can only give this advice to singers —always learn an opera in the original language before learning the translation, even if ignorant of the original language, because it will give the right idea of the music in its original shape. I always myself cling to this principle when I work on something new.

Translations for singing music should only be made by men who are singers and poets at the same time, otherwise the result of the translator’s efforts is often disastrous. I have been so often confronted with bad translations that in the earliest days of my singing career I started making my own translations, and have done so to this day. In every case I arrange and fit the words first for the musical, second for the poetical, sense. In 1895, when I made my debut in Paris, my mother opposed herself to my singing in German and I gave way. But a short time after, returning from my debut in London, I sang everything straightway in German and nobody objected. This miracle had been worked by Bayreuth. The musical society people began pilgrimages to Bayreuth, and the enthusiasm created by the performances heard at Wagner’s theatre opened the path to singing in German. When I once had started all the other singers followed, so much so that in Paris society you were not considered an artist if you could not sing in German.

So much for translation. I must speak now of the difficulties to be expected by a singer of modern works concerning pronunciation. Composers in olden times used to study singers’ wishes and necessities, and avoided placing certain vowels under certain notes, well knowing that the artists would refuse to sing if they had not been consulted as to the comfort of the music written. But the modern composers —starting with Wagner, Richard Strauss, even worse, and worse still the latest composers, of whose works I hear terrible reports— do not mind what they call upon the human instrument to execute, never troubling as to which vowel is easier or which is quite impossible to sing on certain notes. In our days the vocalists for Messieurs les Chefs d’Orchestre et les Compositeurs must possess a sort of gutta-percha larynx, which must be kneaded or stretched to their will. If the vocal instrument goes to pieces under such treatment that is a mere detail, because when one voice is gone there are always others to be got and smashed. There are registers in the human voice, and in those registers there are vowels which cannot be used without creating everlasting injury to the voice. Unless the composer studies this, the first ignorant and docile singer he finds will be the victim. The only thing a singer can do is to minimize the evil by camouflaging. I am for camouflage. For instance, when I sing in the final scene of the Götterdämmerung, “Siegfried, Siegfried,” on the high A flat, “sterbend grüsst Dich Dein Weib,” I sing instead, “Sagfrad, Sagfrad.” Nobody has ever remarked it. Nobody minds. But my larynx is safe, and if I really sang “Siegfried” and pushed out an “e” on the top notes I should soon have no voice left at all. None of these gentlemen would mind that either, but I should! In the Walküre, whenever a “u” or “i” is put on a high note from F sharp on, the conductors and composers can do as they please; they can faint or weep: a woman cannot and may not sing anything but “a.” If she does, she ruins her voice. None of these gentlemen will restore the broken voices and return the lost fortunes to the unhappy victims who are too obedient to these barbarous methods based on ignorance.

Text excerpted from Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi, Boston, 1923.