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Words and Music 10: Pierrot Lunaire – Voicing Albert Giraud

In 1997 I made a new singing translation of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.  I did it because I wanted to mount a staged performance of the piece in a way that would allow a British audience to understand the texts, and the existing translations were not good to sing.

The early (and most famous) translation by Cecil Gray, for example, has some horrors: ‘a phantasmagorical light ray’ (no 3) is one; even worse is ‘a chlorotic laundry maid’ (no 4).  I was tired of concert performances of the piece, in German, where the funniest lines were signalled by the singer raising one eyebrow and giving a cute half smile, while five knowing members of the audience did that thing where you snort quietly through your nose to show that you have got the joke.  For the rest of the audience the poems are usually lost until the lights come up and they can read the translations in the programme (if there are some).

I began my translation with Cecil Gray and Andrew Porter’s translations beside me, and a good friend (Jonathan Dunsby) at the end of a fax line.  I needed these supports because…..I only have a smattering of German.  In the end I think I did a pretty good job – clear, direct and as faithful as I could be to Hartleben.  I staged the piece, with Anna Myatt and Black Hair and a wonderful set designed by Chris Newell, and I was heartened that audience members told me they had heard and understood about 80% of the words. More than that is impossible in any language, sometimes because of Schoenberg’s scoring (no 18), and sometimes because of his very fast tempi (no 12).

Translation, as I commented in my last blog (Pierrot Lunaire: re-discovering Albert Giraud), always involves compromise; there are always difficult choices to be made.  This is especially true when translating song lyrics.  In addition to seeking a correct equivalent word, one has to find a word with the right stress patterns to fit the existing musical setting.  That’s why Cecil Gray settled for ‘a chlorotic laundrymaid’ when ‘a pale washerwoman’ would be more accurate; the latter hasn’t enough syllables and has the stress in the wrong place.   I encountered all the same problems. I settled on ‘she’s a pa-le washer girl’ for ‘eine blasse Wäscherin; for ‘Julinachten’, where ‘July night’ has the stress in the wrong place, I used ‘August night’ instead.  It was when I came to ‘Türkenshchwert’ (Turkish sword), with its emphasis on the first syllable, and wondered if Gray’s ‘scimitar’ might be the best solution, that I suddenly had my lightbulb moment.  It suddenly occurred to me that I was translating a translation!  Perhaps, I thought, looking at the original French poetry would provide legitimacy for some of my offbeat choices.  It was at that point that I discovered how little was known about Giraud, and how difficult it was (in 1997) to find his work.  When I eventually managed to track it down, I discovered that Giraud’s 50 rondels were amazing. I have written about that in the earlier blog.

I finished my Schoenberg project, and later began exploring Giraud in a little more depth. Very soon I had knowledge which, among musicians at least, was new knowledge. I wanted to revive Giraud, and to restore his reputation somehow.  Should I write a book?  No.  Eventually I wrote a long article (for Twentieth Century Music), but first, I decided to set Giraud’s poems myself; to create my own Pierrot Lunaire; and to set all 50 poems, since the cycle has a satisfying logic to it which Schoenberg’s selection of 21 destroys.

The opportunity came when in 2001, thanks to the suggestion of my good friend and colleague John Potter, I was asked by the Hilliard Ensemble to be the composer in residence at their international summer school for vocal ensembles.  My brief was to write a piece for each of the vocal groups attending the week long workshop, in such a way that they could all combine at the end of the week in a single performance.  This was the perfect opportunity to tackle the Giraud poems.   I decided to set the first 22 poems.  I chose 22 for two reasons: firstly no 22 makes a perfect choral ending piece – the poet drowns in a sea of absinthe; secondly – because Schoenberg set 21……

I set the poems in order, tailoring each to the make-up of one of the groups attending the summer school. Thus some of the pieces are for three voices, others for 4, 5 or 8; one is for full choir (all the ensembles combined); one is for a soloist – Linda Hirst, who was a guest tutor on the course; and four are for the Hilliard Ensemble themselves. They are all a capella.   The biggest decision I had to make was which language to use.  Since the start of this whole project was my desire to make Giraud’s poems clear to an English audience, clearly I would need to set them in English.  But since I was also, by this time, quite cross that Giraud was now known only through a German translation, it seemed equally important to keep his elegant and colourful French poems intact.  The solution?  I had to set them in French and English.  I did this in various ways.    In a majority of the settings, the poem is sung in English, and given in translation, line by line, by a speaker.  In the first performance this was generally one of the singers in the group; in later performances and in the recording, the ‘Reciter’ is a separate role.  In one of the settings (no 5) I alternated French and English, setting each line twice.  In the final piece of each half, the voices sing other words – Giraud’s dedication from the front page of Pierrot Lunaire, while the text is spoken in French (no 22) and in both languages (no 50).  In one or two numbers the poem is sung in French and there is no translation.  In this way, clarity is maintained for an English speaking audience while the full flavour of Giraud’s magnificent French is also maintained.

The vocal style is much simpler than the music I was writing generally at that time (and far simpler than Schoenberg). All the same, some of it is quite demanding – some awkward harmonic clashes etc.  When I came to set the remainder of the poems in 2002, I kept things deliberately even more simple, and – it may not surprise you to read – the second half has the best music.  The final work is called: Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire: 50 Rondels Bergamasques. In 2007 we recorded the whole piece in the National Centre for Early Music; Jez Wells was the engineer.

Many good things came out of my experiences with this piece.  First and foremost, it was my first experience of working with the Hilliard Ensemble, and such a fruitful one that they commissioned me to write two further works for them: Il Cor Tristo in 2008 and Poor Yorick in 2011.   At the summer school there was a newly formed trio from York who, for the purpose of the summer school, came up with a name: Juice.  They are now a well-established force on the new music scene, of course, and I have had the pleasure to work with them on several occasions, as have many of our students.

After the premiere of the whole work in 2002 (as the York Practical Project), I had an interesting letter from two of my former composition pupils.  It concerned one of the Pierrot settings: Arliquinade.  In this poem Harlequin, dressed in his flashy costume, shows off his wealth – his castles in Spain etc.  I set this as a ‘rap’ to be staged as a kind of fashion show. In the first performance, in Germany, Kerry Andrew performed the rap with Juice; in York it was a very young Stef Conner.  They both did a brilliant job.  But the letter from my two PhD students suggested I should re-think this setting.  They were concerned that the appropriation of hip-hop was inappropriate in this context, and that this number seemed cheap compared to the other settings.  In one way I disagreed with them.  Cultural appropriation is a very difficult issue.  In a way we are all committing cultural appropriation all the time these days.  I have appropriated all sorts of music into my work and this was the first time I had received a complaint about it.  But on reflection I had to agree that this ‘setting’ seemed a bit too easy; perhaps the problem was compounded by the fact that I just hadn’t put enough ‘composition’ into it – I hadn’t done it well enough.  So I scrapped the rap and revised the setting.  It has the same flavour now and the same rhythmic drive, but it doesn’t sound like a cheap imitation of something else.    What pleased me most about this little episode in the story of my Pierrot was that my two former pupils, Ed Jessen and Kerry Andrew, who remain good friends and colleagues, thought it worth summoning their courage to challenge me on this, and that they felt they were able to give it to me straight.  The best friends, -the best colleagues, the best students,- are those who will tell you what they think.


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