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The Valkyrie / Die Walküre (English National Opera Guide 21) (1983)

by Richard Wagner

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Richard Wagner

Die Walküre
The Valkyrie

English National Opera 21

Calder, Paperback, 1993.

8vo. 112 pp. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs.

First published, 1983.
Reprinted, 1993.

Contents

List of Illustrations

A Conflict of Power and Love Geoffrey Skelton
Chronology of the Composition of 'The Valkyrie' [sic]
An Introduction to the Music of 'The Valkyrie' Barry Millington
New Myths for Old George Gillespie
Translating 'The Ring' Andrew Porter

Thematic Guide

'Die Walküre' poem by Richard Wagner
'The Valkyrie' English translation by Andrew Porter

Act One
Act Two
Act Three

Bibliography
Discography David Nice

==================================================​

This is one of the best ENO guides I have come across so far. All three of the major essays are well written and thought-provoking (a rare occasion indeed!), there are two marvellous bonuses, and the lucidity and readability of Andrew Porter’s translation are hard to beat. The Bibliography and the Discography are perfunctory, as always, but both were updated for this 1993 reprinting, and both are good starting points. The illustrations are not of any spectacular quality, again as always, but in this format it is unwise to ask for more; their number (39) and variety (from the late nineteenth century to the early 1980s) redeem their shortcomings.

The three main essays are concise, informative and well-researched pieces. All are written by renowned Wagnerian scholars. All make for an enlightening read.

Geoffrey Skelton investigates the action and the characters with great perspicacity, especially the outer acts and Wotan’s bleak mind respectively, and he builds a powerful case that it is precisely “A Conflict of Power and Love” that makes Die Walküre the most emotionally charged and the most popular part of the Ring. He reveals Wotan as a fallen creature beyond redemption, torn between his vanity and lust for power, on the one hand, and his affection for Brünnhilde and the Wälsungs on the other, ultimately “unable to grasp the nature of that love that alone can bring him salvation.” Seldom did Wagner employ such brutal dramatic contrasts. The romance between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I, Scene 3, is far and away his finest depiction of passionate love so far – not quite on the Tristan-und-Isolde plane, but not far below either. The very next scene, the chilling collision between Wotan and Fricka, is the epitome of lovelessness, hardly an isolated case among long-term couples, married or not. It is left to Brünnhilde, the daughter who knows her father better, and has a greater capacity for understanding, than he does, to experience the noblest form of love, the compassionate and selfless desire to help others at your own expense. Unlike Wotan, she willingly and completely sacrifices her power, including severing forever the once affectionate bond with her father, by disobeying the rusty old god and helping the Wälsungs.

In short, Wagner has surpassed himself, dramatically as well as musically, in Die Walküre. It is difficult – for me at least – to imagine how anybody could remain unmoved by some of the most shattering scenes in this work. The opera stage has seldom seen such combination of intensity and depth. Mr Skelton’s essay is the shortest but the most stirring of the three. It will bear a great deal of re-reading.

Barry Millington starts with a fine introduction that explains (thus complementing the previous essay) why Die Walküre is such a smashing success musically. To put it briefly, because it was not an apprentice work like Das Rheingold. The opening night of the Ring was Wagner’s first opportunity to test in practice the theoretical concepts he had recently “laid out in formidable detail” in his prose writings, most notably the mammoth Oper und Drama (1851). He postulated a complete equality of music and poetry, and he hoped to create a new kind of vocal line that was to be like a heightened speech, strictly dramatic and always relevant to the action or the characters, far removed from the artificial and gratuitous rhymes, repetitions, tunes and cadenzas of regular opera. Extremely revolutionary ideas for 1851! Das Rheingold was their first and most tentative incarnation. That’s why it’s the least popular part of the Ring, even though it’s the shortest by a wide margin. But in Die Walküre, especially Act I, Mr Millington argues that the “synthesis reaches its peak.” In the later acts, not to mention the later music dramas, the music constantly gets the upper hand. Wagner quickly came to realise that all arts in the ideal Gesamtkunstwerk may be equal, but in the real world some arts are more equal than others.

It is perhaps worth quoting Mr Millington on the highly controversial issue of labelling leitmotifs in Wagner’s music dramas. The subject has been discussed to death for the last nearly 150 years, but seldom has it been summarized so well. I might only add that the following paragraph is entirely valid for other composers, most notably Puccini, who made an extensive use of the same technique but are, in fact, much more harshly criticized because of that:

Commentators frequently complain about Wagner’s inconsistency in his use of leitmotif: the Valhalla motif [8], for example, is subsequently applied to Wotan himself, and the ring [6], sword [27], spear or treaty [9] motifs are sometimes sounded for not apparent reason – that is to say, the object has not been mentioned specifically in the text. But to reduce Wagner’s system of motifs to a kind of aural semaphore is drastically to circumscribe his means of expression. While some of the labels that have been attached to motifs are appropriate, others are convenient but ultimately useless. As soon as a leitmotif is given the label ‘dejection’, ‘futility’ or ‘ambition’, the possibility is closed off that the motif is actually representing more than a single than a single psychological impulse. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that an identical dramatic situation can ever re-occur: with the gaining of knowledge and experience, the characters’ attitudes must be capable of altering with them. As the tetralogy unfolded Wagner found that he needed more and more flexibility to do justice to the immense complex of associations that he was setting up.

By the way, in the next paragraph, Mr Millington argues that it was “to increase the available range of sonorities for the delineation of character and mood, and for tone painting,” that Wagner increased his orchestra to unheard-of before size. He even went as far as demanding the invention of new instruments, most notably the now famous “Wagner tuba”. The usual theory of Wagnerohaters is that this was pure self-aggrandizement and nothing else. Such people, like those reducing the leitmotif technique to “calling cards” (to borrow Debussy’s acclaimed phrase), remind me of those kindred spirits whose idea of machine is the steam engine, rather than the computer. To them I dedicate this quote from Arthur Clarke, taken outrageously out of the context yet strangely appropriate metaphorically:

By the word ''machine'', far too many otherwise educated people envisage a contraption of cogs and cranks and levers; they are still mentally in the steam-engine era. They cannot imagine the subtlety and sophistication of the great computers…
[From “Of Mind and Matter”, reprinted in The Challenge of the Spaceship, 1959.]

Having set the stage, Mr Millington goes through the whole music drama scene by scene, providing perceptive musical commentary at the most important points. My only complaint is that the author skips a lot, including virtually the complete Wotan’s Farewell. Then again, he is fully justified in doing so for at least two reasons. Firstly, he has a very limited space at his disposal, quite insufficient for anything more than a brief introduction (note the title of the essay). Second, the music of Die Walküre is, for the most part, so eloquent as to make even erudite musical analysis look crass. In the tremendous final scene Wagner nailed the text to the last comma – including the stage directions. Many of Mr Millington’s bold speculations are open to debate and disagreement. But that’s what makes them valuable: they stimulate imaginative interpretation of the score (and of the text, for that matter). The inquisitive student of Wagner would do well to study this essay carefully. Here is a little hors d’oeuvre; in square brackets are the mentioned leitmotifs from the Thematic Guide, so an ability to read music is desirable but, in most cases, not obligatory as the motifs are strikingly audible.

The work opens with a turbulent prelude depicting at once a raging storm and the mental convulsions that are soon to shake the participants of the drama. A tremolo on a single repeated note is kept up by the second violins and violas for 60 bars, while underneath cellos and double basses rampage up and down a series of notes that are clearly intended to recall the motif of the spear [9]: that symbol of Wotan’s power and authority is evoked immediately because the whole of this first act is contrived, in a sense, at the instigation of his will.

[…]

The duet [between Siegmund and Sieglinde] gets under way (Wagner still true to his principles at this point does not allow the couple to sing together) but there is a temporary slacking of pace for Siegmund’s celebrated ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnenmond’ (‘Winter storms have vanished at Spring’s command’). This has become famous as a tenor song extracted from its context and performed separately. Indeed it begins like a conventional operatic aria: the A section is twenty bars in length, and a contrasting key appears to introduce a B section, but after only nine bars the second part of [30] bursts in and we are swept off in a different direction. Incomplete and hybrid structures of this kind are absolutely typical in Wagner’s music dramas; recognizable forms are continually evolving into something different.

For the remainder of the act, an ecstatic declaration of mutual love, we may choose to sit back and not worry unduly about the motifs flitting past, though a more careful study of the musico-poetic line and the harmonic structure certainly repays itself. It is necessary to mention just one point that has been the cause of much agonising. As Siegmund pulls the sword out of the tree, he intones the motif [7] often known, after its appearance in
The Rhinegold, as the renunciation of love. What is the meaning of this? Siegmund is clearly doing anything but renouncing love. Is this a serious flaw in Wagner’s system? Complicated and contorted explanations have been offered, but in essence the matter is simple. The love that has been awakened in Siegmund seems at this juncture to be what is needed to restore a world order based on compassion rather than the wielding of power. Nothing could be more relevant at this point than the recollection of Alberich’s sacrifice of love in order to gain power. Siegmund may be unaware of the existence of Alberich but we, the audience, are allowed a timely reminder of the struggle of the opposing forces of love and power that underpin the drama.

[…]

In the ensuing exchanges between Fricka and Wotan, Fricka devastatingly exposes the flaw in the guilty god’s argument: Siegmund is not able to act as a free hero so long as he is protected by Wotan. As Wotan trashes about in despair, much use is made of [36], a motif which Ernest Newman labelled simply ‘Dejection’, but whose contorted melodic shape and kinship to the spear motif [9] suggest something more specific: the frustration of Wotan’s will. Fricka extracts from Wotan an oath that he will no longer protect his son.

George Gillespie’s “New Myths for Old” examines Wagner’s numerous mythological sources and especially what use he made of them. Nobody does this better than Deryck Cooke, but Mr Gillespie is no slouch either. As a dramatist, Wagner is still woefully underrated. If you think his plots are ridiculous, his characters cartoonish, and his verse amateurish, you should see his sources. These are inane beyond imagination. How Wagner transformed them into a coherent and highly dramatic story is a miracle of epic proportions. He made numerous changes. He expanded, merged or eliminated characters, he compressed or extended time spans, quite a few things he actually invented himself (Fricka’s intervention, for instance, or indeed the ring that wields world power). Mr Gillespie traces Wagner’s ruthless manipulation of his sources with impressive clarity and impeccable scholarship. If he doesn’t convince you in the composer’s genius as a dramatist, then have a look at Deryck Cooke’s I Saw the World End (1979). If he fails too, there is no hope for you.

The Chronology is very short but very helpful to obtain a quick overview of the 26 years (1848-74) that passed between Wagner’s first sketches about music drama on the Nibelungen myth and the last note in the score of Götterdämmerung. Whatever the table of contents tells you, the real title of the piece is “Principal stages in the composition and production of The Valkyrie and The Ring cycle”. So the Chronology follows the complex genesis of the whole work. It is nicely organized into three main columns, “Life and Synchronous Events”, “Prose and Poetical Works” and “Musical Works”, aligned to a fourth column with the years. Many things thus become immediately visible.

For instance, Wagner finished the poem for Tristan und Isolde in September 1857, only two months or so after he had completed the second act of Siegfried. When he did resume the work on his fearless hero, after eight years, he had completed Tristan but not the music of Die Meistersinger. The Ring started tentatively in November of 1848 as Siegfried’s Death, the future last part of the cycle. So carried away did Wagner become that, after several years of intensive prose writing, he extended Siegfried’s pre-history for two generations and three music dramas more. By 1853, he had completed, and even privately published, all four poems. Little did he know that he would work on the music more than 20 years! One important caveat, however, is that the Chronology omits a good many details, some of them relevant to the Ring. For example, it is not mentioned that Wagner revised the text of Götterdämmerung, its closing scene in particular, several times before he finally set it to music. Nevertheless, this little table is fantastically informative and repays careful study. I really don’t know why it’s not reprinted in the other three ENO guides dedicated to the Ring.

Andrew Porter (b. 1928 in Cape Town, South Africa) is probably best known as a translator of operas, but he is great deal more than that. He is also a fine writer and meticulous scholar, not to mention music critic, opera director and organist. His essay here is the same that appears as “Introduction” to his complete translation of the Ring, first published in 1976. It’s a wonderful exploration of the perils of translation and the amusing consequences it has led to as regards Wagner’s peculiar poetry, supported by 17 notes with sources that testify to the author’s exhaustive knowledge on the subject.

The variety of cranky would-be Ring-translators in pre-Porter times is truly bewildering. Some attempted to convey Wagner’s loftiest rhetoric in the most gorgeous English verse they could manage, caring nothing about the musical nature of the work. Others, equally unmusical, went one better and dispensed altogether with both the poetry and the depth, lapsing into mighty torrents of colloquialisms. One fellow (John Updike, no less) even turned the whole thing into a “bedtime tale for children clearly and quickly told”. Let Mr Porter regale you, in his deliciously witty style, with some of the more colourful moments (I omit his endnotes for the sake of clarity).

The translator who chooses his own meter has an easier task. In blank verse (varied by ‘lyrics’ for the Rhinemaidens, the forging Siegfried, the Woodbird, the awakened Brünnhilde, and the Norns), Oliver Huckel endeavoured ‘to transfuse into English the very spirit of Wagner’s lofty thought’. In his preface he declared that “The usual English librettos of The Ring are totally inadequate and confusing as translations of Wagner’s text. They are made to suit the musical requirements rather than to present the thought in literary form. It is often a perplexing task rather than a pleasure to read them. Tenfold more involved and obscure than Browning, they have none of his redeeming grace of thought and speech.”

[…]

Huckel’s Ring, published in New York, appeared between 1907 and 1911. In England, Reginald Rankin, B.A., of the Inner Temple, Barrister-at-law, had already produced a version in blank verse (1899), and Randall Fynes another (two volumes, 1899 and 1901), interspersed, like Huckel’s, with a few lyrics. Fynes declared it “astonishing… that the attempt seems never to have been made before’; earlier versions are either fettered to the original metre or else mere paraphrases ‘in most cases… told in the language of the nursery’.

[…]

Early paraphrases ‘in the language of the nursery’ I have not examined. In 1903, E.F. Benson produced The Valkyries, a rendering in flummery prose. Two prose versions of the thirties are hardly worth examination. C.L. LeMassena’s begins: ‘“Time for our morning dip,” exclaims Woglinda’. Gertrude Henderson’s mingles baby-talk with fancy words: ‘Clump, clump. The black heads of the Giants lifted above the shag of the mountain side. Clump, clump they came, until they stood in the presence of the Aesir.’ John Updike’s more recent version is a bedtime tale for children clearly and quickly told. It takes ingenious advantage of Wagner’s ‘recapitulations’, jumping from the end of Das Rheingold to the Mime-Wanderer riddle scene; the action of Die Walküre is related in those questions and answers and by the Wanderer’s informing Siegfried, at the foot of the mountain, that he has ‘fired’ Brünnhilde – a nice word-play – for insubordination. Götterdämmerung gets only three sentences: Siegfried and Brünnhilde ‘did not live happily ever after. No human beings do. In time they died, and in dying returned the Ring to the mermaids of the Rhine.’

[…]

What of singing translations? When Albert Forman sent his first (privately printed) translation of The Walkyrie to the Master, in 1873, he said: ‘I trust that the day is not distant when an edition of the music with English words will become necessary… I have compared the whole with the music, and I think a very few alterations of the words would fit them to appear with the score.’ But when the first German/English vocal scores of The Ring appeared from Schott, in the early 1880s, the translation was that of H. and F. Corder. F. was the composer and conductor Frederick Corder, and H. his wife Henrietta Louisa, née Walford.

Forman’s first aim had been to keep the alliteration. It led him to lines like these:

on the steadfast pair of thy eyes, –
that so oft were stars of my storm,
when hope was fierce
in my heart like fire,
when world’s-delightwards
my will has lifted
from dread wildering darkness, –
for latest healing
here I must lean
in last farewell
of lingering lips!

(Dr Huckel’s comments quoted above are plainly not unfair.) The Corders also strove to preserve the
Stabreim – but less rigorously, and with happier results:

these effulgent, glorious eyes
whose flash my gloom oft’ dispell’d
when hopeless cravings
my heart discouraged,
or when my wishes
toward worldly pleasures
from wild warfare were turning: –
their lustrous gaze
lights on me now,
as my lips imprint
this last farewell!

The Corders’
Valkyrie was sung six times at Covent Garden in 1895, with a largely American cast. The following season the opera was done there in French!

Wagner himself is said to have disliked the Corders’ translation. At the end of the century, Schott published new bilingual vocal scores, with English words by Frederick Jameson, and the Jameson version has remained in the Schott and, in America, G. Schirmer editions ever since. It was heard in 1908 when Hans Richter gave Covent Garden its first complete English
Ring, and as late as 1948, in a Valkyrie there with Kirsten Flagstad and Hans Hotter; and it has often been performed elsewhere. Jameson’s version sings well and sounds well:

those gleaming, radiant eyes
that oft in storms on me shone,
when hopeless yearning
my heart had wasted,
when world’s delights
all my wishes wakened,
through wild, wildering sadness:
once more to-day,
lured by their light,
my lips shall give them
love’s farewell!

When all of Wagner’s music entered the public domain, in 1914, Breitkopf & Härtel undertook a new, complete edition, and for the Breitkopf vocal scores Ernest Newman made a new English translation, along lines similar to Jameson’s:

those unclouded glorious eyes,
that oft have lighted my gloom,
when hopeless longing
my heart had wasted,
when worldly pleasures
I wished to win me,
by fear fettered and maddened –
their gleam once more
gladdens me now,
as my lips meet thine
in love’s last kiss!


[At this point, it is instructive to give Mr Porter’s own version of these shamelessly over-the-top, yet curiously affecting, lines from Wotan’s Farewell. It is, indeed, an illuminating comparison. Mere eleven lines, but they reveal both Mr Porter’s great originality and the (not so great) debt he owes to his predecessors.

yes, these gleaming, radiant eyes,
which shone so bright in the storm,
when hopeless yearning
consumed my spirit,
and worldly pleasures
were all I longed for –
when fear fastened upon me
their glorious fire
gladdens me now,
as I take this loving,
last farewell!


Wagner’s original, virtually untranslatable, text runs as follows:

dieser Augen strahlendes Paar,
Das oft im Sturm mir geglänzt,
wenn Hoffnungssehnen
das Herz mir sengte,
nach Weltenwonne
mein Wunsch verlangte,
aus wild webendem Bangen:
zum letzenmal
letz es mich heut,
mit des Lebewohles
letztem Kuss!


Don’t forget to listen to these words, especially when sung by a fine bass-baritone. I recommend the stunning rendition of Thomas Stewart in his studio recording with Herbert von Karajan.

A little later, Mr Porter continues:]

The first significant and independent singing version produced in America is Stewart Robb’s, of 1960.

Robb set out ‘to translate
The Ring into clear, understandable modern English, avoiding obscurities of expression and archaic words… yet preserving the rhythms of the original German where possible, and even some of the alliterative effects… Here’, he concludes, ‘is a new English version of Der Ring des Nibelungen which can be enjoyed by the general reader as well as sung on the opera stage… Withal, it does not sound like a translation, but as though already written in English.’ (Or written in American, an English reader may remark, as he comes across ‘slowpoke’, ‘fraid-cat’, a Mime who has ‘fixed’ soup for Siegfried, and – for Waltraute’s ‘Bist du von Sinnen?’ – ‘Have you gone crazy?’) I admire Robb’s work but find it mixty-maxty: his vocabulary ranges from the colloquialisms quoted, through ‘Frolic, good fellows’ and ‘He blows a rollicking horn’, to ‘Wish-maid’, ‘lot-chooser’, and ‘hest’. Wagner’s tone varies widely, but Robb’s more widely still. Fricka’s measured ‘Die Walküre wend auch von ihm!’ becomes ‘Just keep Brünnhild out of his way’; but in the previous act of The Valkyrie, when Sieglinde pushes the hair back from Siegmund’s forehead, her diction is surprisingly formal:

How wide and open
gleams your brow.
Your temple displays
all the interlaced veins.
I tremble and my captive
holds me entranced.
A wonder takes my attention:
Before this time we met
my eyes had seen your face!

Some of the differences between Robb’s modern version and mine can be more readily shown by quotation than defined. My Fricka says ‘The Valkyrie leaves him to die!’, and my Sieglinde:

Your noble brow
is broad and clear;
its delicate veins
with my fingers I trace!
I tremble with the rapture
of my delight!
A marvel stirs in my memory:
although you came but today,
I’ve seen your face before.


[Wagner’s original text of Sieglinde’s rapturous contemplation of Siegmund’s brow is the following:

Wie dir die Stirn
so offen steht,
der Adern Geäst,
in den Schläfen sich schlingt!
Mir zagt es von der Wonne
die mich entzückt!
Ein Wunder will mich gemahnen:
den heut zuerst ich erschaut,
mein Auge sah dich schon!


Mr Porter concludes the first part of his essay thus:]

My indebtedness to the Corders, Jameson, Newman, and Robb is great, and gratefully owned. I worked in full knowledge of their translations. When I was stuck, I turned to see what they had done. They suggested useful words, turns of phrase, syntactical short-cuts out of the thicket, and sometimes – not often, though I have chosen to quote an example above – whole lines that I could steal for my own purposes. I hope the next translator of The Ring finds my version similarly useful.

It has been known for ages that “the translator is a traitor”. And with good reason. Even highly specialised non-fiction is hard enough to translate accurately. When we enter into the realm of the so-called “creative writing” – fiction, drama, essays, a great deal of not so highly specialised non-fiction – the loss in translation becomes considerable. The original sound of the words is entirely lost, and so is the rhythm, the pulse, the pace, call it what you will, of the prose and the dialogue. Inevitably, subtle nuances of the meaning are also gone. It goes without saying that all this is even more so in the case of poetry – and still more so in the case of Wagner’s alliterative, archaic and, most important of all, designed for singing verse.

Mr Porter is well aware of all this. “All translation is a matter of weighing gains and losses”, he wisely remarks. This is what the second part of the essay is dedicated to, although much earlier, in the very beginning, Mr Porter bluntly says that his translation “was made for singing, acting, and hearing, not for reading”, is anything but literal, and its main purpose is to fit the music as closely as possible. It’s a little surprising to learn that the final text was the result of massive brainstorming, with continuous input from the whole production at the ENO (then Sadler’s Wells Opera) who had commissioned the translation for their production; Mr Porter graciously, and gratefully, acknowledges the feedback from the cast, Reginald Goodall (the conductor) and Desmond Shawe-Taylor. He explains his credo as a translator so beautifully, with impeccable clarity and subtle humour, that only another extensive quote would do him justice:

When the Sadler’s Wells (now English National) Opera invited me to prepare a new English text for The Ring, I looked at these earlier singing versions to see whether there was really room for a new translation – and decided that perhaps there was. I thought it might be possible to try for something a little more fluent and direct, a little easier to understand, than Jameson or Newman had been, and also – this is where my version differs from most of its predecessors – a translation more closely bound to the details of the music, more accurately reflecting and not contradicting the melodic and harmonic ‘articulations’ of its phrases.

[…]

I began work on The Ring without theories, almost instinctively – holding the sound of a German phrase in my ears and the literal sense of it in my mind, and rejecting version after version until I hit on English words that seemed to fit. Much later – when The Valkyrie was almost finished – I realised that I had been guided by six different, linked, and for the most part mutually unachievable intentions.

(1) To provide a translation that is close to the original and at the same time makes audible sense at first hearing, without needing to be ‘worked out’ by a puzzled listener. Towards the close of
The Rhinegold, Fricka, hearing the name Walhall for the first time, asks what it means. The Corders’ Wotan replied: ‘What might ‘gainst our fears my mind may have found, if proved a success, soon shall explain that name.’ And Forman’s: ‘What, in might over fear, my manfulness found, shall matchlessly live and lead meaning to light.’ Both are fair representations of some tortuous German. But I felt that unless the meaning could be led to light a little more directly than that, the speech might as well be left in German. So, natural words in a natural order.

[“Natural words in a natural order” indeed! Mr Porter’s version is this:

When all that I’ve dreamed
and planned comes to pass,
when victory is mine,
you’ll understand that name!


The versions by Forman and the Corders are ridiculously literal translations of Wagner’s original – and quite tortuous indeed – passage:

Was, mächtig der Furcht,
mein Mut mir erfand,
wenn siegend as lebt,
leg es den Sinn dir dar!
]

(2) To keep important words – such as Liebe, Leid, Ring, Rhein – and especially the proper names exactly where Wagner placed them. Their sounds and rhythms often have a motivic significance; they coincide with particular harmonies.
[…]
(3) To keep, wherever possible, the Stabreim, as an essential part of the patterning in the score’s structure.

(4)To echo the sound of the German – the ring of bright, forward vowels, the full shadows cast by dark ones, the attack of hammer-stroke consonants, the hiss and splutter of certain sibilant sequences.
[…] Sound sometimes took precedence of literal sense. For Alberich’s ‘Zertrummert! Zerknickt!’ (literally ‘Destroyed! Crushed!’), Jameson has ‘Defeated! Destroyed!’ I made him ‘Defeated! and tricked!’

(5) To reflect the differing tones, ranging from the elevated and rhetorical (notably Wotan’s harangues in Act Three of
Die Walküre), through Froh’s – and Fasolt’s – lyricism in Das Rheingold, to Loge’s airy wit and Siegfried’s boisterous sallies; to let such jokes as Siegfried and the Wanderer make be heard as such. The gods, Desmond Shawe-Taylor told me early on, shouldn’t talk like the people next door. I hope mine do nor – but I know he thinks that they have shed some of their dignity together with the second person singular. The form offered to the old translators a syllabic flexibility – thou dost or doest, didest or didst – denied to a modern translator who has decided, rightly or wrongly, against its use.

[…]

(6) Most important of all – sometimes I felt that, like Brünnhilde, im Auge das eine ich hielt and ignored all other imperatives – to find words that fit the music closely. […] Or take the opening words of Brünnhilde’s immolation scene, ’Starke Scheite/schichtet mir dort’. One old translation, ‘Mighty faggots’, will plainly not do today. But for other reasons Jameson’s ‘mighty logs I’ (log’s eye) and Robb’s ‘Let great logs be’ (Great Logsby, inflected like The Great Gatsby) must be deemed unfitting. […] Insufficient care about such points of declamation, I believe, has done much to give opera-in-English its reputation of ‘sounding awful’.
[Mr Porter’s solution in this case is “Sturdy branches / building his pyre”.]

[…]

A seventh requirement is conspicuously absent from those above: any attempt to reflect what Martin Cooper has called ‘the cloudy, archaic literary style that was an organic part of Wagner’s mystique.’ Deliberately so. For I felt that anyone who wanted to listen to The Ring not-quite-understanding what is said could well listen to it, unspoiled, in the original cloudy German; what would be the point of devising yet another translation ‘tenfold more involved and obscure than Browning’? So this is not a text acceptable to those who believe, with Mr Cooper, that the listener’s attention should be ‘lulled rather than altered by the words’, that ‘only the suspension of the intellectual processes will make him accept the time-scale which Wagner imposes’. It is a belief that I understand but do not fully share. From my first encounter with The Ring, I wanted to know exactly what all those characters were saying.

In any case, a translator cannot do everything. A glance at the following pages will reveal how very, very seldom even my ‘six points’ could all be met. Phrase by phrase, it was a matter of deciding which of them, in that particular place, should be deemed paramount, of discovering which were achievable at all, and then of settling for the least unsatisfactory, most singable English. Often but not always the
Stabreim was the first thing to go; intelligible and otherwise accurate words were usually preferred to fancier alternatives that happened to begin with the right letters. […] On the whole I have left the names and the puns that are made upon them untranslated. Siegmund and Sieglinde could hardly be Victor and gentle Vicky.

[Most of the puns are totally resistant even to the silliest translations. Famous example is “Rhein” (Rhine) and “rein” (pure). Though the “Rheingold” certainly belongs to the Rhine, it’s anything but “pure”. Or is it actually the purest substance imaginable, corrupted by the greedy minds of gods, dwarfs and humans? A nice example how far-reaching may be the consequences of one simple pun.]

I would not presume to judge Mr Porter’s work, but it seems to me that he did an outstanding job on all six counts. I only wish more translators would take their work that seriously. But perhaps they are incapable of doing this. They are blue-collar workers, craftsmen at most. But translation is an art. And Andrew Porter is an artist.

Having quoted all that, it should come as no surprise that Mr Porter’s translation is excellent. I have never heard it sung, but I suppose it sounds just fine; try some famous phrases yourself, inside your head or under the shower, and you will find them no less singable than Wagner’s originals. It’s amusing to think that in some cases Mr Porter actually improved on the composer, pronunciation-wise; “Whom I love so” is evidently a better-sounding line than “dich, die ich liebe”. Indeed, the translation inspires me to seek at least some highlights from the recording with Reginald Goodall which was made at the time when Mr Porter’s “English Ring” was first produced.

It is best to finish the part about Mr Porter’s essay, the finest in the book, by one last quotation from his concluding paragraphs. He is rather apologetic about mentioning “these large matters in summary form”, but I do find his brevity uncommonly stimulating. I cannot but agree with his jibe at modernistic anti-Wagnerian delusions on the stage:

The Ring is on the first level a rousing and splendid old tale of gods and dwarfs and men, of giants and dragons, loves and hates, murder, magic, and mysteries, unfolded amidst vast and picturesque scenery. Beyond that, it is about (among other things) man’s conquest of the natural word for his own uses (the first action recorded is Wotan’s tearing a branch from the World Ashtree); about men’s dominion over men (well-intentioned oligarchy and capitalist tyranny are both condemned); and about man’s understanding of himself (the forces influencing his action, at the start located in gods, are finally discovered to lie within himself). By intention, Wagner patterned his drama on Attic tragedy but chose as his symbolic matter the ancestral myths of the North.
[…]
Each of the clauses above has been the subject of many books; I mention here these large matters in summary form only to make the point, that believing all these things about The Ring to be true, I have not endeavoured to translate it with special reference to any of them. This is not a particular ‘interpretation’. Such interpretations – usually they are the work of ambitious producers, who have determined to disassemble the components of the Gesamtkunstwerk – can cast exciting new light on aspects of the work. They can be maddening. And, however brilliant, they are achieved only by diminishing the force and richness of the whole.

What about Ring-translators in the post-Porter era? There has been only one (worth mentioning anyway). This is, of course, Stewart Spencer whose work is highly recommended if you want an accomplished literal translation that cares nothing about the score. It can be found in the Ring Companion (Thames & Hudson, 2000, first published in 1993) co-edited by Mr Spencer and Barry Millington. It is a must for your Wagnerian shelf. The essays are indifferent and the musical guide is not the most helpful, but the translation alone is worth the full price. Besides, Mr Spencer provides a degree of textual scholarship way above the ENO standards.

The original German text of the libretto, as reprinted here, has its share of minor, unnoticed and unfixed, errors, including the notorious “liebte” in Wotan’s Farewell. It is the present tense – “liebe” – that you hear on virtually all recordings. It makes much more sense. Wotan still loves his daughter. If he doesn’t, why is he singing such a heartrending Farewell? Never mind. Otherwise the libretto follows the usual practice of the ENO guides. English and German run in parallel, with plenty of space in the margins for the copious notes of your future production in Bayreuth; the stage directions appear in the middle and in English only; the numbers of the 43 musical examples from the Thematic Guide, none of them named, are printed in square brackets at the most notable places of their appearance. Archaic spelling and excessive punctuation are silently fixed, but the original verse layout is preserved. In short, the libretto is perfectly reliable and infinitely more convenient than anything you may find in CD booklets.

(One interesting detail. The libretto contains as a footnote Wagner’s original, longer text for the confrontation between Wotan and Fricka in Act II, Scene 1. This is the only part translated by Elizabeth Forbes. Wagner didn’t set this version to music, but he did retain it as a footnote in the edition of his Collected Works.)

All in all, this ENO guide is one of those rare books whose slimness is out of proportion with its merit. Just about the perfect introduction to the most accessible of the four music dramas that comprise Der Ring des Nibelungen. The whole series of ENO guides has recently been – is still being? – re-issued with dashing portraits of the composers instead of the unspeakably hideous old covers. The price for a new copy may be a little steep, but in this special case, I assure you, it’s worth every cent. (I do advise you, however, not to believe the Amazonian dissimulation that the biography and the discography are “updated at each reprint”; furtive Looks Inside suggest that they certainly are not.) ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Dec 31, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0714540196, Paperback)

The English National Opera Guides were originally conceived in partnership with the English National Opera and edited by Nicholas John, the ENO's dramaturg, who died tragically in an accident in the Alps. Most of the guides are devoted to a single opera, which is described in detail—with many articles that cover its history and information about the composer and his times. The complete libretto is included in both the original language and in a modern singing translation—except where the opera was written in English. Each has a thematic guide to the most important musical themes in musical notation and each guide is lavishly illustrated. They also contain a bibliography and a discography which is updated at each reprint. The ENO guides are widely regarded as the best series of their kind and excellent value.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:05 -0400)

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