Recordings/Discussions
Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Accent / German

Learning German to make sense of Bach

David McKay wrote (November 5, 2011):
Any suggestions for good websites, iTunes U sites, Youtube resources, books, stuff for beginners, who want to learn to read German in order to make more sense of Bach's texts?

I learnt French at school and Greek and Hebrew at theological college. Years ago i bought German For Musicians by Josephine Barber but didn't pursue it.

This website looks interesting: http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/steps/german/

How much would modern German be helpful to understanding the German of the 18th century?

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 5, 2011):
David McKay wrote:
< How much would modern German be helpful to understanding the German of the 18th century? >
I can see learning German to enjoy the poetry of Heine and Schiller in 19th century Lieder, but the poetry of the cantatas? (grin). However, it is well worth the effort to study the German of the two Passion narratives with a close English translation. Not really studying the language, but it increases comprehension and thus appreciation in performances.

I'll have surtitles for my six hours of "Siegfried" today.

"So schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!"

The curtain falls quickly.

Emile J. wrote (November 5, 2011):
[To Douglas Cowling] This is exactly what I am doing: learning German to listen to Bach. (Well it's not the only goal, but...)

Honestly I can't see that much difference with modern German. There are some archaic words like *itzo*("now,"* jetzt *in modern German) but they aren't a great problem. I can communicate to a basic level with modern Germans and read German books (with a dictionary) so...

And also, since most of them are religious texts, there is a lot of recurring vocabulary, so that makes things easier.

Of course it makes the experience completely different... In my opinion, vocal music are not just music but also a form of literature, just like how films are not just images but also words. If you do not understand the words, you understand only half of the piece! Of course I cannot understand (yet) fully the subtle nuances of the German text... all the more reason to continue learning :)

And also it gives access to the vast German musical tradition such as the works of Brahms, Buxtehude, Schubert, und so weiter...

 

BACH's cantatas and GERMAN

Continue of discussion from: Acoustics - Part 2 [General Topics]

Michael Cox wrote (November 9, 2011):
Thanks to Julian for his comments: he writes: "I'd like to comment on the subject of 'new' and 'old' German which was recently raised. I had some experience of this when working on the cantatas."

Some members of the group have been learning German in order to understand Bach's texts - something very much to be applauded and encouraged. Some have found little difference between modern German and Bach's German. However, there are a number of dialectical differences, even between different librettists. E.g. St. Matthew Passion "Jüden" and St. John Passion "Juden" Jews. They say that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," but might I share just a few points that have come up in my studies - for what they're worth.

A few years ago our choir joined up with another choir to sing Bach's "Easter Oratorio" in German. In the final rehearsal a member of the other choir asked whether we should sing "kömmen" or "kommen" in the final chorus. Until then everyone had sung "kommen" - the umlaut was very difficult to see. As far as I understand "kömmen" is Saxon dialect.

In rehearsing Actus Tragicus BWV 106 (Bärenreiter edition), which we are to perform next Sunday, there have been several discussions about pronunciation and meaning. A few examples:

1. The English translation does not follow the German very closely. It is intended for performance rather than as an exact translation.

2. "In ihm leben, weben, und sind wir" is a quotation from the Bible "For in him we live, and move, and have our being" Acts 17:28 - in fact a proverb from a Greek philosopher. In modern German weben means to weave (the name of the composer Weber means "Weaver". If this was the meaning here, we might expect Bach to compose an interweaving fugal passage. One of the basses sitting next to me was of the opinion that Bach's setting of the word "weben" was wave-like, and that in this context the verb is related to the English word "wave" (as in the sea) : "in Him we live, 'move like waves' and are".

3. "dem Heilgen Geist mit Namen" in the final chorus. There was a discussion in choir practice. Some were trying to sing "Heiligen Geist", which is normative German, but doesn't fit the music. In later German poetry such omission of the i-vowel would be indicated as Heil'gen, just as in English poetry and hymnody we might write "heav'n" pro heaven.

4. "Die göttlich Kraft" the divine power. In modern German "die göttliche Kraft".

5. ""Die göttlich Kraft" - "macht uns sieghaft" "The divine power makes us victorious"- The German poetic rhyme is imitated by the English "translation": "The strife is done, the battle won".

So, I conclude, you can't always rely on performing editions to give accurate translations, and dictionaries of modern German do not usually give obsolete meanings of words in older dialectical German if they differ from standard modern literary German.

Perhaps others of you might share some of your experience in this respect.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 9, 2011):
Bach's Saxon accent

Michael Cox wrote:
< So, I conclude, you canąt always rely on performing editions to give accurate translations, and dictionaries of modern German do not usually give obsolete meanings of words in older dialectical German if they differ from standard modern literary German. >
We had a heated discussion here years ago on the question of whether modern German pronunciation was operational in the first half of the 18th century or whether Bach's singers sang in their Saxon accent.

Modern native German speakers recoil at the thought. It seems Saxony is the Alabama of accents in Germany.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (November 9, 2011):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< We had a heated discussion here years ago on the question of whether modern German pronunciation was operational in the first half of the 18th century or whether Bach's singers sang in their Saxon accent.
Modern native German speakers recoil at the thought. It seems Saxony is the Alabama of accents in Germany. >

I asked my friend Johannes Pausch about this subject (a native of Hamburg, and one of the world's leading Telemann musicologists this. Here is his reply:

Quote:
Now, 1st thing to note is why would you use a modern German dictionary to deal with baroque language? We've got a very fine baroque one (Adelung Woerterbuch, online at University Bielefeld), that represents the German of the time. If you look for something much bigger, you would have Zedler Universal Lexicon (~60 vols. in big folio), online at Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (BSB).

The translation problem in performance editions is just the same as in any other translation: There is never a really 1:1 translation, and to make a good paraphrase, you should know what you were talking about . . .

In respect of the German Alabama, we've got plenty of them. In baroque time, I guess Saxonian 'dialect' had been merely a model of well spoken German. You may know that Luther had choosen Weimarer Kanzleisprache "Weimarian Office language" as model for his NT translation, so it could not be seen as THAT bad. It rather might be the case with 'modern' Saxonian, particularly that one spoken out of Dresden (or Weimar).

End quote.

I hope that helps some.

Michael Cox wrote (November 10, 2011):
Now, 1st thing to note is why would you use a modern German dictionary to deal with baroque language? We've got a very fine baroque one (Adelung Woerterbuch, online at University Bielefeld), that represents the German of the time. If you look for something much bigger, you would have Zedler Universal Lexicon (~60 vols. in big folio), online at Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (BSB).

How many peolearning German primarily to appreciate the texts set to music by Bach would a) start their language study with a baroque dictionary without knowing any modern German; b) would have access to the dictionaries mentioned?; c) would know how to use them even if they did?

For my part, thank you for the tip!

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (November 10, 2011):
Michael Cox wrote:
< How many people learning German primarily to appreciate the texts set tomusic by Bach would a) start their language study with a baroque dictionary >
Like he asked, why would you use modern since Bach was writing during the baroque?

< without knowing any modern German; b) would have access to the dictionaries mentioned? >
They're online.

< c) would know how to use them even if they did? >
How hard is it to use a dictionary?

< For my part, thank you for the tip! >

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 10, 2011):
Kim Patrick Clow wrote:
<< Like he asked, why would you use modern since Bach was writing during the baroque?
without knowing any modern German; >>
Apologies for the unclear thread. I would like to add that only German I know comes from accessing on-line dictionaries, to add some clarification to translations of Bach texts.

MC/KPC
<< b) would have access to the dictionaries mentioned? >>
< They're online. >
I will make it a point to find them.

MC/KPC
<< ; c) would know how to use them even if they did? >>
< How hard is it to use a dictionary? >
Sometimes more difficult than it first appears? As Apuleius (thanks, Francis) might have inferred, extra effort benefits the user. Perhaps a mixed metaphor, but close enough?

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (November 10, 2011):
<< How hard is it to use a dictionary? >>
< Sometimes more difficult than it first appears? As Apuleius (thanks, Francis) might have inferred, extra effort benefits the user. Perhaps a mixed metaphor, but close enough? >
I agree, a person who can't figure out a dictionary is going to have a harder time learning the German language from Bach's time.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 11, 2011):
Kim Patrick Clow wrote:
< I agree, a person who can't figure out a dictionary is going to have a harder time learning the German language from Bach's time. >
Or any language, from any time. But there is a treasure trove of information in dictionaries which often requires significant effort to discover.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (November 11, 2011):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< Or any language, from any time. But there is a treasure trove of information in dictionaries which often requires significant effort to discover. >
Yeah, and knowing how to use a dictionary requires rudimentary knowledge. A is first......then B is next....

Michael Cox wrote (November 11, 2011):
[To Ed Myskowski]
< How hard is it to use a dictionary? >
To clarify a little (I hope). Learning a language from scratch is not a matter of using a dictionary. One needs first to learn the grammar and syntax as well as pronunciation. A beginner in learning German will start by learning a little vocabulary and a little grammar. A dictionary is not a great help if you don’t know, for instance, how verbs are conjugated and nouns are declined. German-English dictionaries are only useful when the basics have already been learnt. German-German dictionaries require a basic knowledge of German. Not all have access to university libraries nor do all, even in this day and age, own a computer.

I have heard of university professors who have taught themselves foreign languages from books but have no idea how to pronounce them properly.

So, I would encourage those people who are learning German in order to understand Bach’s texts better to learn a little modern German first before tackling older German.

Incidentally, I once heard an Argentinian preacher preaching in London in King James Bible English – it was really rather hilarious! If you speak Bach-style German in Germany, you might get laughed at!

Mit freundlichen Grüssen

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (November 11, 2011):
Michael Cox wrote:
<< How hard is it to use a dictionary? >>
< To clarify a little (I hope). Learning a language from scratch is not a matter of using a dictionary. One needs first to learn the grammar and syntax as well as pronunciation. A beginner in learning German will start by learning a little vocabulary and a little grammar. A dictionary is not a great help if you don’t know, for instance, how verbs are conjugated and nouns are declined. German-English dictionaries are only useful when the basics have already been learnt. German-German dictionaries require a basic knowledge of German. Not all have access to university libraries nor do all, even in this day and age, own a computer.
I have heard of university professors who have taught themselves foreign languages from books but have no idea how to pronounce them properly.
So, I would encourage those people who are learning German in order to understand Bach’s texts better to learn a little modern German first before tackling older German. >
Who has said anything different?

Remember, the original question was about Bach's dialect of German and understanding that. A friend in Germany who is a music scholar offered suggestions along with some concrete things and references to help understand the German of Bach's time; and he wasn't making suggestions on how to learn conversational German for that once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Leipzig. I assumed what was offered as good resources was "understood" in the context of Doug's statement or query; my comments (or my friends) were not meant as some universal rule for "German 101." And it's not an "either/or" situation anyway. If you don't have access to the things offered, fine. Learn modern German, most people will anyway. If they want to look into the baroque German, I gave them suggestions and links for finding those resources. Sheesh.

Michael Cox wrote (November 12, 2011):
[To Kim Patrick Clow] I'm sorry if I misunderstood where the debate started - what I remember reading was that some of the group stated their intention to learn German from scratch specifically in order to understand the Bach texts they were listening to or singing. That was my starting-point. And I wrote something about kömmen being Saxon dialect. Wires crossed - again!

Julian Mincham wrote (November 11, 2011):
Michael Cox wrote:
< I'm sorry if I misunderstood where the debate started - what I remember reading was that some of the group stated their intention to learn German from scratch specifically in order to understand the Bach texts they were
listening to or singing. That was my starting-point >
Agreed and that is what I responded to suggesting that a variety of translations plus access to native German speakers AND the use of a good dictionary were the three components that helped me along the road to do just that.

What was meant by all this stuff about the use of dictionaries lost me along the way. It seems to me crass not to have one on hand as and when needed.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 14, 2011):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< What was meant by all this stuff about the use of dictionaries lost me along the way. It seems >to me crass not to have one on hand as and when needed. >
I hope the thread is reasonably clear. I believe there was some input from Michael Cox here, as well, hence the *Re: VS VS* in the subject line. A bit of dictionary humor and/or misunderstanding of its own, with Yahoo and Finnish eMail providers not well coordinated, and no shortage of Latin scholars ready to provide help.

Alas, I can probably take responsibility for starting the dictionary issue by misreading the original post from Michael, with respect to Beethovens lack of a German language Bible in his library. I responded as if the statement were that Beethoven did not have a German language dictionary, and I made a brief comment implying agreement with Julians description (crass).

Michael and I quickly sorted out my misunderstanding, although that exchange was easily overlooked.

I expect that Beethovens reputation survives my error undamaged. My own reputation is long since damaged beyond repair, so no worry ther. I did enjoy the contribution from Doug Cowling, to the effect that Beethoven took special care with his Latin mass texts.

With reference to Bach and dictionaries, these points seem easily agreed upon:

(1) Baroque German (including Saxon dialect) is significantly different from modern German.
(2) There are good references available regarding the distinctions
(3) It is not easy to use a German-German dictionary, baroque vs(!) modern, without knowing modern German.
(4) The general operating principle of a dictionary is as simple as ABC.

Henner Schwerk wrote (November 17, 2011):
for me as a native german its an interesting and in some cases a funny discussion about te german language and the saxon accent.

For germans also its not so easy to understand the baroque words of the Bach Cantatas.

Most cantatas need to be explained

Viele Grüsse

Julian Mincham wrote (November 17, 2011):
[To Henner Schwerk] Not unlike the English speaker coming to terms with Shakespearian language I suspect--some people are put off by having to make the effort.

Even more of a challenge is the coming to terms with Chaucer although to learn enough Chaucerian words to be able to read and speak aloud the Canterbury Tales is a real pleasure.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 17, 2011):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< Not unlike the English speaker coming to terms with Shakespearian language I suspect--some people are put off by having to make the effort. >
It has been estimated that even an educated audience has not much more than 65% comprehension during a performance of Shakespeare, and that's with modern pronunciation. Period pronunication, which sounds like a trip to a West Country pub, reduces modern comprehension even further.

Closer to Bach's time, the performance of a Restoration play, say Sheridan, still has considerable intelligibility problems, similar, as Henrich pointed out, to the problems which modern German speakers have with the syntax and vocabulary of Bach's librettos.

I'm still curious whether the accent which Bach's singers used differed from modern "stage" Hoch Deutsch. For instance, the original first line of BWV 82 is "Ich have genung" which is always modernised to "Ich habe genug." Does the earlier spelling indicate that it was pronounced differently?

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 18, 2011):
Henner Schwerk wrote:
< for me as a native german its an interesting and in some cases a funny discussion about the german language and the saxon accent. For germans also its not so easy to understand the baroque words of the Bach Cantatas. >
Often it is not so easy to understand what your spouse means, over the dinner table?

HS:
< Most cantatas need to be explained >
EM:
Plenty of honest effort to that end on BCW, and some fun in the process.

My post was a repeat, sent in error. I promise not to take encouragement (to repeat posts) from the interesting responses.

 

Introduction | Cantatas | Other Vocal | Instrumental | Performers | General Topics | Articles | Books | Movies | New
Biographies | Texts & Translations | Scores | References | Commentaries | Music | Concerts | Festivals | Tour | Art & Memorabilia
Chorale Texts | Chorale Melodies | Lutheran Church Year | Readings | Poets & Composers | Arrangements & Transcriptions
Search Website | Search Works/Movements | Terms & Abbreviations | Copyright | How to contribute | Sitemap | Links



 

Back to the Top


Last update: ýNovember 26, 2011 ý21:37:23