Multilingual music

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playing alone and together

This post is inspired by a beautiful initiative presented by a philharmonic orchestra of Grand Canary, La Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria. Last Sunday, its 79 musicians played and recorded themselves from their homes, apartments, and gardens. Their technicians mixed and edited the audios and videos, to give a magical impression that the orchestra played together.

The performance is stunning musically, technically, and also humanly, and you can watch it here.

One additional aspect struck me as I was reading the final credits: how multilingual the whole endeavour was. The orchestra is Spanish, the conductor is British, the soloist is Latvian, the musicians, judging by their names, are from all over the world, and the music is Gustav Mahler’ Resurrection Symphony.

Classical music is one of the fields where multilingual is normal. A question is often asked whether having a musical ear (which is definitely not my case) helps one to learn foreign language. Singers have to learn texts in a variety of languages paying particular attention to pronunciation and enunciation, and these techniques can be used by simple mortals to improve their accents. Still, between being able to perform in a language differs from speaking it, thus researchers are not certain about the relation between musical and language learning abilities.

More significantly, I think, is that many musicians lead truly multilingual lives: they study abroad, perform all over the world, travel to competitions and festivals, and have international friends, colleagues, and often families. For example, the soloist in the video, Elīna Garanča, who is my favourite opera singer, probably masters at least five languages: Latvian, Russian, English, German, Spanish, and sings also in Italian and French.

On a completely different note, multilingualism in the music world is satirically reflected in a film Prova d’orchestra (‘Orchestra Rehearsal’) by Federico Fellini, where Italian musicians revolt against the conductor, who speaks with a heavy German accent.

Don Quijote on a bus

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se vuelve a ver la figura de Don Quijote pasar

On a bus in Madrid, this poster caught my eye. It contained a poem about Don Quijote by an author unknown to me.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar.

Y ahora ociosa y abollada va en el rucio la armadura,
y va ocioso el caballero, sin peto y sin espaldar,
va cargado de amargura,
que allá encontró sepultura
su amoroso batallar.
Va cargado de amargura,
que allá «quedó su ventura»
en la playa de Barcino, frente al mar.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar.
Va cargado de amargura,
va, vencido, el caballero de retorno a su lugar.

¡Cuántas veces, Don Quijote, por esa misma llanura,
en horas de desaliento así te miro pasar!
¡Y cuántas veces te grito: Hazme un sitio en tu montura
y llévame a tu lugar;
hazme un sitio en tu montura,
caballero derrotado, hazme un sitio en tu montura
que yo también voy cargado
de amargura
y no puedo batallar!

Ponme a la grupa contigo,
caballero del honor,
ponme a la grupa contigo,
y llévame a ser contigo
pastor.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar…

Vencidos (“Defeated”) was written by León Felipe (1884-1968) whom Encyclopedia Britannica describes as a poet of the Spanish Civil War. This poem, however, appeared in his first book, well before the war. You can read an interpretation of the poem, in Spanish here.

The vocabulary is pretty straightforward. Barcino refers to Barcelona, to its name  in the Roman period. Abollado means ‘dented’, armadura, peto y espaldar are ‘armor’ and its  parts, but you do not need to know the meaning of these words to enjoy the poem. Grupa (f) is ‘rump’ or ‘croup’ of an animal, such as horse (whereas grupo (m) is ‘group’).

The only curious and obscure word is rucio:

Va en el rucio la armadura

Rucio literally means ‘pale grey’, and that is how Sancho Panza affectionately calls his donkey, a sort of ‘my grey buddy’.

If you are into memorisation, this poem, with all its rhythm, rimes, and repetitions, is an excellent choice.

You can listen to a wonderful recording by the poet himself in this blog post. If you are into songs, listen to this version or this one by Joan Manuel Serrat. An extra benefit: you will remember the imperatives singular haz, pon, and also llévame forever.