Getting the Meanings Right

By John Glenn Paton
Editor, Alfred Vocal Masterworks Series

I love poetry. I love music more, but poetry and music added together make up the art that grabbed me at an early age. Once a voice teacher said to me, “We sing in Italian because of the vowels. The poetry isn’t so important.” I felt something was wrong with that. I knew that those words meant something, and I wondered what it was.

We are all singers because we want to say something to people, to stir them with feelings that we can all share. To do that, we must know the meanings of our lyrics. There was a time when I didn’t know German, and I hoped that none of my listeners really knew the language either. What kind of communication was that? Pretty limited.

I tried to read the singable translations of my songs. But sorry, a translator just cannot produce an accurate translation while thinking about rhymes, the number of syllables in each phrase, and accents in the right places. I could work through my lieder with a German dictionary. That helped, but it could lead to bizarre misinterpretations, like overlooking the difference between schon and schön or not knowing whether der Zug meant a train, a swig, a facial feature, or one of the other valid dictionary meanings of that one word.

In the 1950s, some collections of German and French songs had readable English translations printed in the front or back pages, a big help toward understanding. Berton Coffin, my senior colleague at the University of Colorado, published a book of phonetic transcriptions of songs and arias. Then he brought out books of word-for-word translations, which are still on the market. My friend William Leyerle combined those features in a three-line formula with the phonetics, words, and literal meanings all vertically aligned.

In addition to the three-line text analysis, the books in Alfred’s Vocal Masterworks Series have one more feature that is my innovation: A readable translation is printed at the foot of each music page. We need such a version because the word order of the original text is usually quite different from English word order.

For example, take the beginning of a famous Italian song: “Nel cor piú non mi sento brillar la gioventú.” That means: “In the heart more not myself I feel sparkle the youth.” But that’s nonsense. So we also provide a readable version: “No longer do I feel youth sparkle in my heart.” And that is printed on the music page, right where singer, pianist, and teacher can all see it immediately.

It’s up to you, the singer, to find the inner meaning of the poem, the personal interpretation that you want to share with the audience. But Alfred has given you the tools you need to do your job and know that you are on the path to successful communication.

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One response to “Getting the Meanings Right

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