What is the point of singing a song if your audience cannot understand it?
The job of the singer is to make it possible for the audience to understand the song, without you drawing the wrong kind of attention to yourself. You do not want anything to get between your audience and the song. This business of not drawing attention is actually a lot of work. I see this as having three parts: first, to know the song without question; second, making every word heard and understood; third, appropriate expressions and acting.
If you know the song well, you are far less likely to make a mistake. If you do make a mistake, you know the song well enough to know how to recover. If you know the song well, you can look directly at the audience in front of you, rather than looking at a piece of music. These are things that bring the song into the foreground, and the singer into the background.
Now that you know the song well, good diction is crucial, and there are two reasons this is so.. The first reason is that when the words are clear, the audience can understand them. If the audience understands the words they will have no need to wonder about you, the singer. They will not have to ask themselves, “Why is he singing that way?” It moves the song to the foreground, and the singer into the background.
Now that you produce the words clearly, it is important to act. Your face has to match what’s going on in the song. Your face must communicate the happiness, sadness, joy, and longing of the song. When your face shows the correct emotion for the song, not only will the audience understand these emotions better, they will not have to wonder about the expression on your face being wrong for the song. Again, it moves the song to the foreground, and the singer into the background.
Now that you have learned to do these three things all at once, you might learn and sing a song in some language other than English. This, of course, is a problem that strikes at the very heart of what the singer is trying to do.
There are a huge number of wonderful songs that are written in German, songs by Schubert, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, and others, all of which employ the best of German poetry for their lyrics. By definition, they’re meant to be sung in recital, accompanied by piano. The German word for them is lieder; in English we call them art songs1. One of my favorite such songs (and the first one I ever learned) is “An die Musik”, which means “To [the Art] of Music”. The German lyric by Friedrich von Schober and the song by Franz Schubert, were composed in 1818. It is a tribute to the “gracious art” of music, personified. It is possibly Schubert’s most familiar and best-loved song.
An die Musik
Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,
Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,
in eine beßre Welt entrückt!
Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir
Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!
(There is a short history of the song and its makers at <<http://www.daisyfield.com/music/guitar/about/An-die-Musik.htm>> ).
This is really good, if you understand the German. But the majority of the audience will not (unless, of course you are singing in Germany!) You can memorize the song, produce the words clearly, and act appropriately, but the unfamiliar language gets between you and your audience and causes them to wonder about a lot of things. They’re wondering what it means, or wondering why they never learned German, or wondering if the singer is singing the language well or not. One way around this is to have a program to give to the audience that has the translation for them to read. It’s a good idea, but the program gets between you and the audience. While you sing your heart out in front of them, they will be reading the translation and not looking at you. Performing them in translation, of course, is the way to go.
There are generally two kinds of translations: literal translations that accurately describe the meaning of the words and expressions in the song; and singable translations, which attempt to preserve the original sense of the lyric, while at the same time being singable. The second sort is fiendishly difficult, due to differences in sound and idiom between two languages.
On the Web I found the following translation of An die Musik2. It is very rare when one can find a translation that is, at the same time, both literal and singable.
Oh sacred Art, how oft in hours blighted,
While into Life’s untamed cycle hurled,
Hast thou my heart to warm love reignited,
To transport me into a better world,
transport me to a better world!
How often hath a sigh from thy harp, drifted
a holy chord from thee, and full of bliss
a glimpse of better times from Heaven lifted,
Oh sacred Art, my thanks to thee for this!
Oh sacred Art, I thank thee for this.
This is the most singable translation of the song I have ever read. For instance, of the total number of words in the poem, half of them are not only accurately translated, they are, both poetically and musically, in the exact same places. (They are printed in boldface.) That is really good. But, looked at line by line, it’s even better. Of the 10 lines of the poem, nine of them say exactly the same thing in English as they do in German. And it even rhymes! This is what I mean when I say something is superbly singable. And so, I have sung it.
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2Copyright © 1995, Walter Meyer, and printed here with the kind permission of its author. Please contact the copyright-holder (walterm (AT) erols.com0 when requesting permission to reprint.