J. S. Bach’s Worldly Concerts
I have been listening through Bach’s Worldly Concerts (der Weltliche Kantaten). As I listen I read the notes and mark the distinctive features on the music files on the computer for later enjoyment. It’s amazing how much more interesting a bit of information makes a piece of music, and it becomes a obsessively interesting when this compelling music is going on in the background, demanding you make some sense of the actual structure of the music from the meagre cd notes and track listings.
In between constant typing I take a moment to reflect on how anally retentive the classical music world seems to be. Instead of translating “Weltliche Kantaten” as “Worldy Concerts”, it needs to be “Secular Cantatas”.
The German librettos remain untranslated. The sensible thing would be to post translations online and provide a link to the non-German speakers, even if they had to use Babelfish to autotranslate it’s better than battling with German dictionary in one hand and track info in the other. (Incidently, in the cantata ‘Hercules at the Crossroads’ (BWV 213) the cd notes translate ‘Wellust’ as ‘Vice’, and the German dictionary gives it as ‘Lust and lasciviousness’. Hm!)
Few of the Bach cantatas are given sensible titles – sensible in that they are easily identifiable to almost anyone. So I name the concertos after the topic – for instance, Worldly Concert BWV 203 is now known as ‘Bach’s Italian Lovin’ Concert 203’. Much better, that.
I also go through and change “recitativo” to “recital”. I was tempted to change “aria” to “song”, but the more precise translation would be an “air” which is in English is an archaism as repulsive to the ear as pretending to be a drunk Scot at an Anglican wedding, and in any case the word “song” shears off enough extra meaning to justify keeping “aria”.
The cd notes scatter the relevant information far and wide – what character is singing is in the text notes, and whether the singer is alto or tenor or whatever is on the back cover of the cd. They couldn’t have made it harder to follow the story without actually omitting the information. I put all the information together as a new title for the song, so I can actually enjoy it more later on.
I messed around with BWV 36, BWVs 201 to 210, and BWVs 213 to 215. They all rock, and they are all rendered inaccessible in various ways to various audiences by snobby or ignorant notes and complete lack of any guidance as to their enjoyment.
Classical music companies, hello? Classical music companies, do you honestly prefer to give snobby names to great music OVER speaking plainly at the risk of attracting a huge listening audience of excited common folk?
How long before we see “Bach’s Worldly Concerts” coming out? Let's just hope the Cantatas survive into the civilisation after ours.
My favorite at the moment is the alto song from the worldly concert 207; I call it the Jagged Song, because the violins do this unusual jiggering-jaggering sound throughout the whole piece while the flutes and alto do a slow swinging motion around one another like I don’t know what. The alto plays the role of ‘Gratitude’, but I have no idea what’s grateful about the piece – it just sounds weird. And that’s why I like it.
In all Bach’s work there’s nothing like the Jagged Song. Check out the alto aria in BWV 207… it’s a real trip.