To the Editor:
Edward Rothstein’s interesting and informative article, “Bach in the Original” [May], is both timeless and timely; I have a feeling that general interest in this subject has grown tremendously in recent decades and is likely to continue to grow. . . .
The Musical Heritage Society in this country is publishing or republishing recordings of Bach cantatas in large numbers, not in numerical order, but rather in an order that corresponds, at times at least, to liturgical proximity. Mr. Rothstein calls the notes accompanying the Telefunken recordings exhaustive, but MHS recordings of the last few years have come with far more exhaustive notes and analyses. They are useful, though perhaps in some respects they go a bit too far and occasionally I would disagree with them. Their besetting trouble, however (now to some extent remedied), is a translator who is unfamiliar with musical terminology and who, in translating the incredibly detailed, erudite, and in places fanciful German notes, manages among other things to confuse “major” and “augmented” or “minor” and “diminished.”. . .
The MHS records come, alas, without scores . . . though with useful examples in musical notation to help the analysis. As far as I remember, their translations of Bach’s texts, a far more important matter than the commentators’ or analysts texts, is closer to the original than Telefunken’s.
The two examples Mr. Rothstein quotes from the Telefunken translations by Henry S. Drinker sound as though those lovers of authenticity have stopped short of taking care about faithful, i.e., literal, translations of Bach’s original texts. I suspect they have fallen into the Drinker trap. In the case which Mr. Rothstein mentions of the “ecumenicizing” substitution of “Peace be unto all Mankind” for “Friede über Israel” I recognize a Drinker line; in “Dearest Jesu sore I need Thee” for “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” the scansion makes me suspect it. Drinker made translations for singing; and those, of course, have to scan like the original; he even made them rhyme more or less like the original.
Faithfulness to scansion in a translation is bound to mean infidelity to the literal meaning of the original and inability to get Bach’s key words into their right musical places. Those key words were not just nouns and verbs like “snake” and “descend” which could be, in a manner of speaking, pictorially represented in the score, but pronouns, significant conjunctions, and the very grammatical and syntactical structure of a sentence. The original linguistic text must be taken seriously (as Bach took it seriously), even if we think, even if Albert Schweitzer thought, that some of the libretti were in doubtful taste. . . .
Mr. Rothstein rightly stresses the drama of Bach’s cantatas which is connected with Bach’s homiletic intent. He was a preacher and probably was and certainly remains a far more effective one than the parson with the purely verbal sermon. But for the discovery or rediscovery of Bach’s religious rhetoric we need faithful, literal translations, translations not for singing but for telling what the German original means.
This whole, rather important, complex of questions is treated more fully in my article, “Bach’s Way With Words,” in the forthcoming Essays in Honor of Jacob Klein, to be published this autumn by the St. John’s College Press, Annapolis.
And permit me a final footnote: that article shows that it was Bernard Lewis to whom the discovery is clue that one of Bach’s ways with words, deliberate mis-stressing—occasional or climactic—is a way he has in common with the dancing and chanting of dervishes. But, of course, the patron saint, of ecstatic dancing and linguistic levitation is King David.
Beate Ruhm von Oppen
St. John’s College,
Edward Rothstein writes:
I thank Beate Ruhm von Oppen for revealing what the exhaustive Telefunken commentary concealed: the English translator of the cantatas is indeed Henry S. Drinker It is surprising that Telefunken should have chosen Drinker’s translations, since, as Miss von Oppen points out, they were written to be sung. That goal itself is troubling. for the abstract sound of the original language is a musical component of the composition; the composer uses the phonemes and accents of his language as carefully as he does the elements of harmony and counterpoint. Singing in translation is often expedient but it should be recognized as more than a mere textual change. Finally, a difficulty with Mr. Drinker’s translations may be noticed in his own English prose: “The Bach Chorales are as unerring as the planets, as fresh as the sea-breeze in the morning, and as nourishing and wholesome as roast beef or bread and butter.” Unfortunately, this conjunction of astronomy, meteorology, and gastronomy has as little to do with the spirit of Bach’s Chorales as some of Mr. Drinker’s translations have to do with the specific meanings of Bach’s texts.