Oxford Lieder Festival: languages as performance

Grand piano
Philip Ross Bullock

One of the obvious advantages of anniversaries is that they can allow academics to tap into public interest in a particular topic, event, or historical personality. To be sure, it can sometimes be hard to cut through received wisdom, popular myths, and reductive interpretations, but anniversaries do offer a brief moment to change the terms of the debate, or convey new research in an intelligent and accessible way. For scholars of Russian culture, 2017 has been something of a boon. The centenary of the revolutionary events of 1917 have given rise to major exhibitions in leading galleries, extensive broadcasting on the television and radio, and Russian-themed seasons in our theatres and operas houses.

The Oxford Lieder Festival has been no exception, and on Friday 27 October, it hosted a day of concerts and lectures on the theme of ‘Revolution in Russian’. In the morning, Rebecca Mitchell – who had flown all the way from Middlebury College in Vermont – introduced an audience of over eighty to musical culture in the Russian Empire in the years between the first revolution of 1905 to the events of 1917. Then, after lunch, Pauline Fairclough (Bristol) examined the impact of the October Revolution on musical life in early Soviet Russia, and I followed this with a talk about Russian song in the age of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, the two greatest song-composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

What made these talks so resonant was the fact that between them, we were able to hear so much Russian music for ourselves and to imagine ourselves somehow transported in time and space to a very different culture. At lunchtime, Katherine Broderick, accompanied by Sergey Rybin, sang Russian romances by Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, Taneyev and Musorgsky, and in the early evening, the remarkable piano virtuoso Alexander Karpeyev presented a recital entitled ‘The Last Flowing’. The main evening recital, by baritone Andrei Bondarenko and Gary Matthewman, focused on a dozen songs by Tchaikovsky, prefaced by a selection of romances by Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Sviridov, and as the day came to its exhausting, but exhilarating end, soprano Ilona Domnich, accompanied by the festival’s founder and artistic director Sholto Kynoch, filled the darkened vaults of New College chapel with the sounds of Rachmaninov.

In the context of Creative Multilingualism and my particular collaboration with the Oxford Lieder Festival, this day was a heaven-sent (if the Revolution can be said to have been heaven-sent…) opportunity to promote the Russian song repertoire and take audiences deeper into an often unfamiliar culture. Much of this took the form of introductory talks to Russia’s history and culture, allowing audiences to listen to the concerts with some helpful contextual background. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of my work was a request to provide new English translations of all of the songs performed during the day.

Now, translating poetry is always a challenge, as any linguist will confess. Not only are there issues of how to deal with meter, rhyme and poetic language, but poetry often trades in abstract imagery and indirect metaphor, which can all too easily sound banal and trite in a new linguistic guide. In Russian, the challenges can be even more extreme. As a language, it is extremely rich in rhyme – far more so than English – and simply reproducing that can lead to doggerel. It also has an extremely flexible approach to word order, something that can pose problems for the English translator, who has nothing like that freedom.

But translating song texts proved to be an extremely liberating experience, precisely because it wasn’t a form of translation in the conventional sense. My versions appeared on the page next to transliterated versions of the original Russian, allowing listeners to compare my versions with the source texts. Even if they didn’t understand Russian, they could potentially see sound patterns, rhymes and shapes on the page and didn’t need to rely on my version to do all the work.

Some listeners may well have had some knowledge of Russian, and whilst that instils the rookie translator with an overwhelming sense of anxiety that you might have committed some terrible howler, it also allows you to think of translation as an ongoing dialogue with your readers. But most powerfully, my versions were not just disembodied English versions on the printed page, or shadowy doubles of the original Russian, but coexisted with a live performance of the song as conveyed by the singer and pianist on the stage.

Although we sometimes think of language as a purely linguistic phenomenon – and language-learning as the process of understanding and assimilating new rules, patterns, paradigms and vocabularies – language is also a kind of performance. The singer is well placed, through facial expression, bodily gesture and the production of sound, to support and complement a ‘literal’, ‘verbal’ understanding of the song’s lyrics with a whole series of powerful clues. It is this multifocal form of cognition that makes song such a powerful experience in its own right, as well as a novel and creative way of engaging with poetry itself.

Philip Ross Bullock is Professor of Russian Literature and Music at the University of Oxford and Director of TORCH, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. He is Senior Researcher on our 4th strand, Languages in the Creative Economy.


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