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Have you ever thought you were being ‘helpful’ only to find that your meddling was… unhelpful? This blog post is a bit of a fly-on-the-wall moment looking at this. In it you can have a glimpse of the kind of work I've been putting in behind the scenes with the Guildhall School students as part of the Year of Music UK-Russia project ‘A Voice between Nations’.


As musicians we often like to think of ourselves as that helpful link between a composer’s ‘idea’ or concept, and the audience: direct, in good faith and without corrupting the essence of that idea with meddling. Sometimes it’s very hard not to change little bits – a little accent here, a dynamic marking there, a little slowing down etc. Many times these changes would most likely be expected by the composer anyway and be considered ‘too obvious’ to write into the score. Other times it might be part of an aural tradition or even a passing fashion. Other times still, it is just simply our own decision (conscious or otherwise).


Some of the most famous helpful meddlers are perhaps the group of Russian composers called the ‘Kuchka’. The ‘Kuchka’ or ‘Mighty Handful’ arguably exerted the first significant unified force in Russian musical history.


What is amazing is that when they met as young men they were all self-trained, and so largely what might called amateurs. Balakirev was the only one to have had a musical education in his childhood, but went on to study mathematics in the University of Kazan. Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer; Borodin a chemist; Mussorgsky was part of the Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Imperial Guard before becoming a civil servant; and Cui rose to the ranks of Engineer-General in the Imperial Russian Army. There is no exaggeration in saying that much of their path followed the trail of trial and error.


Despite each member of the ‘Mighty Handful’ having distinct ideas, which contributed to their unmistakable musical signature, their sprit of camaraderie was particularly well honed. They took a brotherly, if not liberal, attitude to shaping, promoting and revising each other’s work. Take, for instance Mussorgsky: an aristocratic dandy and exquisite calligraphist by nature. His ideas burned fiercely at the start, but he found it a burden to continue with fervour once practical difficulties dogged his creative vision. Finally, with his reputation marred by the rumours of alcoholism, and his early demise, much of his work in the version that audiences the world over know and love, such as his iconic opera Boris Godunov, is re-structured, re-orchestrated, re-arranged, and ‘completed’ by Rimsky-Korsakov.


When composing their songs a certain process of adaption is always required. Firstly to help the singer, and equally, to help the form as the process to layer together the words and music unfolds. But when does helpfulness become meddling? Is it harmless, or does it exert some impact on the integrity of the work?


Let’s take a little look at Balakirev’s ‘Hebrew Melody’ [Еврейская Мелодия].


Ilya Repin, Balakirev, Glinka and Odoevsky (1890).



Like many other composers of the Mighty Handful, Balakirev was inspired by the texts of ‘Hebrew Melodies’ of Lord Byron, in translation by Mikhail Lermontov - a Russian poet of Scottish descent.


Already, we are looking at a translation of a translation – and that translation is yet to be translated into the living drama that unfolds before the audience by the performers.

Byron’s text unfolds with dualities: Saul’s monologue or soliloquy as he describes his distress; and Saul speaking out to urge the minstrel to play the darkest song he knows because he longs to be soothed by the music’s cathartic power. The final lines summarise this:


I tell thee, minstrel, I must weep,

Or else this heavy heart will burst;

For it hath been by sorrow nursed,

[…] now t’is doomed to know the worst,

And break at once – or yield to song.



Byron’s last line compresses the duality communicated throughout the verse: the imminent and overbearing tragedy that drowns Saul (and whose description occupies the greater part of the poet’s utterance), is dispelled through that simple and instantaneous action described in the last three word: ‘yield to song.’


Musically, this pivotal moment can call upon a significant range of gestures – each designed in a slightly different way to release that bottled-up tension. Subtly or dramatically most of these would seek to create a discernable ‘break’ in the unfolding narrative: one that echoes the cathartic power that Saul feels as he listens to the tragic refrains of the song. Whether the subsequent musical commentary played by the pianist (the minstrel) returns back to drama, or goes on to prolong that blissful consolation would be another decision for the composer to make, and yet another for the performers to respond to.


The myriad of possibilities that this pivotal point encourages from each individual gives rise to that magic which sits at the heart of precisely why we can happily return to the same story or subject over and over again, and why to an audience one performance seems ‘different’ from another.


Let me show you how Lermontov translates Byron’s text. Below is the same extract, but in my literal translation from the Russian back into English:


I tell you: I want tears, singer,

Or else my breast will burst from suffering

With suffering it was fed

[…] now it is full,

Like the cup of death, with poison filled.


All is fine, apart from those final three words. Where is the promised cathartic relief that is such a vital feature of Byron’s text? Lermontov’s (mis)translation presents an altogether different dynamic to Byron’s.


Even for those who are unaware of there being any difference (accidental or otherwise…) between the endings of Byron’s and Lermontov’s texts, its trace will nevertheless reflect itself in the reading of the unfolding narrative. Those last three words – ‘with poison filled’ – shift the entire dynamic of the poem.

Whether momentarily or not, Byron’s ending brings the audience out from the presiding wilderness and distress. We are offered a moment a reflection – the promise that the worst has passed. It is very much an embodiment of that ‘it will be alright...’ moment. We are left feeling the consoling result of having journeyed through that process of the cathartic experience. Leaving behind the unrest, we are left to wonder at the experience and bask in bliss of its healing effect.


In Lermontov’s text, however, we are left beholding a poisoned chalice. We are denied a moment of reflection. Unlike the Byron, the action is still very much moving forward. A chalice is there to be shared. Saul’s soliloquy has been directed very much at us (interrupted only a few times by his appeals to his minstrel). Lermontov leaves us standing face to face with Saul. It almost seems that the poisoned chalice is making its turns towards us. Drinking from it we do so knowingly. We drink that deadly poison – his soul. Filling up with his poisoned soul we are not at the release, but right at cusp of that very moment where the mysterious act of catharsis starts.


It is now up to the piano, the minstrel, to go on to calm us down. Balakirev is sensitive to this. His piano writing is famously difficult (pianists all quake with dread just at the mere mention of his Oriental Fantasy Islamey!) and so Balakirev uses this to redirect the audience’s attention onto the song’s postlude. Doing so Balakirev was one of important Russian composers doing what Schumann had already established in the Germanic tradition: moving the song genre from song and accompaniment to two equal partners. In this case, he does so by a bit of helpful meddling in the Russian translation of a British text.


It is only three unassuming words difference, but their effect and significance is simply staggering!


#music #song #translation #word #Russia #Byron #Lermontov #BritishCouncil #coaching #GuildhallSchool #soul #culture #helpfulness

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