John Harbison’s first experience of singing Bach cantatas came in the early 1960s, when he was a student in Berlin. There he sang with a church school choir called the Spandauer Kantorei and was an assistant to its director, Hanns-Martin Schneidt. Harbison remembers Schneidt’s insistent focus on the cantatas’ words, and the impression those words made on his fellow singers, all of whom spoke German as a native tongue.
“The kids were very involved with the texts — they understood every word,’’ Harbison says during a phone conversation. “And to me, that marked my whole experience of [the cantatas]. Because it was their own language, [the students] were having a kind of visceral connection, right into their bodies, with what was going on in those pieces. And I’ve found that hard to re-create with a choir that does not, to every last person, speak that language every day.’’
That’s why every so often, especially during guest conducting stints at Emmanuel Music, Harbison likes to perform some of the Bach cantatas in English. It’s a sort of ongoing experiment in trying to re-create the linguistic immediacy of that early experience. He’ll try it again this weekend at Emmanuel Church, where a Bach cantata is heard at each Sunday service. He’s chosen the Cantata BWV 9, “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her’’ — or, in Harbison’s own translation, “Now is salvation come to us.’’
As he acknowledges, performing a work in any language other than the original is a risky proposition — especially at Emmanuel, whose experience with the Bach cantatas runs so deep. “My esteemed colleagues have never been enthusiastic about his idea,’’ he admits. “Craig [Smith, Emmanuel’s founder] was dead against it.’’
The pitfalls are many, especially for singers, for whom the experience is almost that of relearning a familiar work from scratch. Audiences, too, have strong reactions. “People are strongly for and against — not always for and against the way particular lines come across but just about the whole enterprise.’’
Against the odds, though, Harbison thinks it’s a worthwhile endeavor, especially in the context of the liturgical service. “My idea has been centered around proselytization — trying to have the congregation listening in a different way to see whether when they picked up some words, whether they engaged with the subject matter of the cantata differently.’’
He chooses carefully which cantatas work well in this situation. More than once he’s performed an English version of Cantata 163, in which Jesus teaches that one must pay taxes to the government but reserve one’s heart for God. “That one I usually try to do around April 15,’’ he notes wryly.
Cantata 9 is unique — or at least distinctive — because, Harbison says, “it’s the only Bach cantata text I’ve encountered that is a straight-out statement of the most distinctive issue of Lutheran theology.’’ That issue is known as “justification by faith’’ — whether salvation is earned through faith alone (as Martin Luther believed) or through faith and good works, as the church taught at the time. Bach’s adherence to Lutheran doctrine was steadfast, his knowledge of it thorough. The text of Cantata 9 reads like a primer on this idea. “Deeds can never help, they cannot protect us/Faith beholds Jesus Christ’’ reads a couplet in the opening chorus, in the translation by Emmanuel mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal.
In a way, Harbison is testing the effect on listeners of hearing these familiar concepts emerge from the music in their own language. For a translation to be effective, though, the words must not only render meaning but fit the music as well. “Everybody who’s translating makes those decisions on their own biases,’’ he says. Among his biases is the idea that “I would change a rhythm in the music under the greatest duress only. I would rather shade a little off the exact meaning and get the rhythms.’’ He’s also attentive to keeping vowel sounds constant and rhyme schemes intact where possible.
As an example, he points to a soprano-alto duet written in canon form that’s both a formal marvel and a light, almost euphoric piece of music. The German text is: “Nur der Glaube macht gerecht/Alles andre scheint zu schlecht.’’ A literal translation might read: “Only faith can make it right/Everything else appears too meager.’’
Harbison renders the passage: “Only faith can justify/All the rest is just a lie.’’ “That’s not exactly what the German says,’’ he explains. But it preserves the meter and the rhyme scheme, “because that kind of sonic thing is very key to the way the piece is structured. That would be a particular case of knowing that I was slightly off line but being willing to accept it.’’
Whether the whole endeavor turns out to be worthwhile is something that Harbison and others plan to explore in a post-service discussion, a forum for airing views that he’s found helpful in the past. “There have been people enthused about the idea, feeling that it was a good, different experience of the music, and then other people who really feel that it somehow invades the piece. . . . I’ve been down this road quite a few times and I expect all kinds of ideas about this.’’
David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com.