Bach Cantatas

I’ve been toying with the idea of producing a new translation of the texts to all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas for over 10 years now. Their poetry is neither particularly lovely nor, to modern ears, inspiring -but I think having an understanding of what texts Bach used as the foundations to his glorious music is nevertheless important. From them, you get a profound sense of how the Lutheran theology of the day (and no doubt the rotten state of 18th Century medicine and social provision) set a cast upon Bach’s mind, and the minds of his contemporaries: a peculiar-to-us longing for death, a trusting relationship in a God who might chastise but would not be cruel and so on. Above all, I think, a quite fatalistic outlook on life: it’s beyond our control, what will be will be, it’s all for the best and God’s ordaining it behind the scenes anyway.

Just as an appreciation of Dickens’ literature is enhanced in not-particularly concrete ways by having a broad understanding of the social context of his times in mid-nineteenth century England, so I believe one’s appreciation of the music of Bach’s cantatas can be enhanced by an understanding of the words he was setting.

For which purpose, naturally, I looked around at all sorts of other translations. Alfred Dürr’s monumental work The Cantatas of J.S. Bach has a complete set of cantata texts in a translation by Richard Jones (which I nevertheless refer to as ‘Dürr’ translations), for example. They are certainly reasonable -but they have moments of complete madness and long hours of convoluted syntax that really doesn’t help comprehension!

Assorted translations are available from the Bach Cantatas website, too. Those by Z. Philip Ambrose (who appears to have some Emeritus connection to the Classics faculty at Vermont University) are syllabically-equivalent translations in suitably 18th Century-sounding language… but I am afraid the results are often hysterically funny, bizarrely meaningless or incredibly convoluted. In few cases are they actually comprehensible to the modern ear, I think -though I find their poetry helpful at illuminating the nub of many profound theological subtlety or other at times.

The Bach Cantatas website also has translations supplied by one Francis Browne, about whom I have found no other details. His translations are very competent, using straightforward language and largely sticking to the original German word-order, without attempting to be metrically-equivalent. I have found them very helpful at times. But… sometimes, I think they are a little prosaic, with no sense of ‘higher’ poetry about them. To take just one example: the closing movement of BWV 100 he translates as “What God does, that is done well: with this belief I want to stay firmly in agreement.” Which isn’t bad as such… but does sound a little like the legalese you might find in a credit card contract! This he freely confesses to, of course, so it’s no real insight on my part: as he wrote, “To this end I have avoided archaic diction and ‘sacred’ language (thou, ye etc) and have often chosen a flat, banal or verbose translation in the interests of clarity.” Admirable sentiments, but sometimes I find he’s been a bit too effective in the flat and banal departments!

There are lots of other translations out there, of course, and I can’t mention each and every one I’ve read; but I should explicitly mention the Emmanuel Music ones, which seem mostly to have been done by Pamela Dellal. These are also very competent, but (as is inevitable, I expect) they have their moments of madness. Take these lines from BWV 87, for example: ‘If Jesus loves me, all pain to me is sweeter than honey; a thousand kisses of sugar.’ Speaking personally, I’ve never known sugar to kiss me and the imagery used here therefore doesn’t work very well for me… whereas “a thousand sweet kisses’ makes a lot more sense to me! In other words, there is a tendency in the Dellal translations to take words literally when their metaphorical sense would work much better.

None of which is to doubt the skill, competence or commitment of the various translators mentioned, nor those countless others whom I’ve not picked out for comment, I hasten to add! But if a translation -or several translations- don’t quite ‘do it’ for you, what are you to do, but roll your own?!

Which is why I’ve long wanted to produce my own translation, but have spent the past 8 years or more fiddling round the edges and never actually tackling the big job itself.

Until Covid-19, of course. Once we were in lock-down and I had a lot of time on my hands, it seemed wilful on my part not to actually knuckle down to finally doing the job… and the first fruits of my handiwork are now substantially available. This morning, I reached the milestone of translating BWV 100, which means I’m slightly more than half-way through the entire set of around 192 sacred cantatas (and with an additional 20 or so secular cantatas, it means I’m slightly under half-way through). I have aimed for modern language where possible, but with quotations from the King James Version Bible whenever Bach’s texts quoted from the Lutheran Bible of his day. If Bach’s text quotes the words from a hymn, I’ve tried to find 19th Century English translations of those hymns and used those words, too. I’ve not tried to be metrically correct (so you can’t sing my translations!), but I’ve generally tried to follow Bach’s word-order whenever possible. In all cases, I’ve tried to “elevate” the language to match the serious and sacred nature of what it was that Bach was producing. I hope my translations are infused with an awareness of English literature conventions and an awareness of Church rites and Biblical exegesis -but I claim no especial skill in any of those disciplines, so my achievements may fall short of my aspirations!

Albeit I’m only half-way through, I have nevertheless found the translation process to be fun -and enlightening. I certainly feel I have a better sense of how Bach and his contemporaries saw their lives, and their place in the Universe, as a consequence. Whether that has yet enhanced my enjoyment of the cantata music itself, I’ve yet to determine! But I have already acquired an enhanced appreciation of BWVs 30, 50, 82, 95 and 100!

Anyway: at my current rate, I expect to have completed the entire set of translations by mid/late September. At this stage, I haven’t attempted to add “analysis of the music” sections to most of the cantata pages: I’m just getting the translations sorted for now. Commentary on the musical language of the cantatas comes later… and will likely not be completed for several years. So don’t hold your breath!

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