The highlight of my week is Wednesday, not only because I have no English classes to teach, but because it’s rehearsal night for my male voice choir. Twenty-five men, strong and true, plus me, participating in a sublime act of collective solidarity.
To me, singing in a choir is the apotheosis of democratic principles. Nobody is more important than anybody else in a choral ensemble – age, social class, economic conditions, sexual orientation, status – all are rendered meaningless. The prince and the pauper can stand toe to toe and neither must give ground, they are absolute equals, the differences between them becoming indistinguishable (except that the prince probably wears dandy threads and the pauper rags, and the pauper’s bodily odours probably aren’t anything to write a poem about when contrasted with the prince’s fragrant Old Spice.)
One thing troubles me, however. This week we have been given seven days to complete the unenviable task of memorising two stretches of German composer Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (Ecce Gratum and Fortune Plango Vulnera, to be precise.) To give a flavour of what this entails, consider these fragments from Orff’s masterwork:
Qui conantur ut utantur premio Cupidinis,
Quicquid enim florui,
Nam sub axe legimus Hecubam reginam.
The obvious question is, why write a serious choral work in Klingon? Just to assure your place in the trendy vanguard? Those damned Trekkies have a lot to answer for – I challenge anybody to give even one example of how they have contributed to human progress with their sinister conventions and suspicious disguises, not to mention their cloven-footed talking in tongues.
A wider subject for enquiry is why more classical composers didn’t write in English. Were they so lacking in foresight that they failed to appreciate the unstoppable march of our beautiful language towards its status as the global lingua franca? Was TEFL held in such low regard even back then? Imagine how much greater Mozart’s influence might have been had he spent a little less time on his ditties and dedicated a little more energy to making some progress through the Headway course.
History tells us that there were a few visionary exceptions. George Frideric Handel (Friday 23 February 1685 – Saturday 14 April 1759) was born in Germany, but moved to England in 1712, clearly aware that only by living with a Host Family was he to master the language of the future and achieve true reknown. His undisputed masterpiece Messiah, based on the King James Bible, was written in English, making it one of the most accessible works in classical music, provided that you speak the language, of course.
Beethoven’s insistence on writing his lyrics in German has caused untold strife for subsequent generations. When we attempt to sing a certain phrase from his shiver-down-the-spine-inducing Welten Singen (from his oratorio “Christus am Ölberge”), each of us baritones interprets the stretch in our own unique way. As we reach the heartstopping crescendo at the end of the scale, I habitually have at least three syllables left over. All because Beethoven was linguistically lazy.
There is a lesson to be learned in all this. If anybody knows what it is, please enlighten me.