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.

Multilingual Spinoza

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Castilian Spanish

A new post under the hashtag #multilingualisnormal, in which I will talk about multilinguals, polyglots, and language learners, mentioned in books I am reading or encountered otherwise.

This passage comes from a book Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, into the Portuguese-Jewish family that settled in the city fleeing the Inquisition. He received traditional Jewish schooling in Hebrew, but his interest in science and philosophy propelled him to learn Latin, in which he later wrote his major works.

Never mind how welcoming Amsterdam was, one cannot imagine Spinoza’s young life without the shadow of exile. The language was a daily reminder. Spinoza learned Dutch and Hebrew, and later Latin, but he spoke Portuguese at home, and either Portuguese or Castilian Spanish at school. His father always spoke Portuguese at work and home. All transactions were recorded in Portuguese, Dutch was used only to deal with Dutch customers. Spinoza’s mother never learned Dutch. Spinoza would lament that his mastery of Dutch and Latin never equalled that of Portuguese and Castilian. “I really wish I could write to you in the language in which I was brought up,” he wrote to one of his correspondents.

Operating in multiple languages, using different languages for different purposes, and working in a language that one knows well enough to appreciate its beauty and power but not well enough to achieve them — I can certainly relate to this.

Blue prince

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blue princes

Twenty years ago, my first Spanish teacher, to teach us the subjunctive, used to play this silly song:

Si una lámpara mágica tuviera  / y me diera un príncipe azul
no podría desear jamás / a un hombre mejor que tú.”

(If I had a magic lamp / and it would give me the prince charming
I would never want / a better man than you.)

The method worked. I still remember the lines and know the words for  ‘magic lamp’ and ‘prince charming’, although these are not the words I use daily!

The ideal man, whether you mean it seriously or ironically, is called in English ‘prince charming’;

in French prince charmant

in German Traumprinz (‘dream prince’) and Märchenprinz (‘fairytale prince’)

in Latvian sapņu princis (‘dream prince’)

in Modern Greek πρίγκιπας του παραμυθιού (‘fairytale prince’)

in Czech pohádkový princ (‘fairytale prince’) and princ na bílém koni (‘prince on a white horse’)

in Russian прекрасный принц (‘beautiful prince’) and also принц на белом коне (‘prince on a white horse’). (The appearance of a white horse in two Slavic languages needs to be investigated further.)

A popular Russian songs goes:

Так чего же ты ждёшь? Ты ждёшь чтоб я извинился.
Прямо здесь чтобы я, чтобы я вдруг стал прекрасным принцем.

(So what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for me to change?
For me to become a prince charming right here right now.)

But in Spanish the ideal man is  príncipe azul, that is, ‘blue prince’ (as in the song I remember from 20 years ago), and also in Italian, principe azzurro.

Although the colour blue is associated with aristocratic origin, as the expression ‘blue blood’, which exists in many languages, attests, today only in Italian and Spanish (of the languages I know), the prince is blue. Where does this expression come from?

I have searched various sources, but did not find a clearcut answer.

The most comprehensive explanation comes from the Accademia della Crusca, the research academy for Italian language.  An article entitled Da dove arriva il Principe Azzurro? (‘Where does the Blue Prince come from?’) traces the first appearance of the expression, in both Italian and Spanish, to the late 19th – early 20th century, and the existence of an equivalent French expression, prince azure or prince bleu (which is not used today) even earlier, to the mid 19th century.

There is also a German tale, Himmelblau und Lupine (‘Prince Skyblue and Fairy Lupine’), by  Christoph Martin Wieland, a German man of letters of the 18th century, published in his collection Dschinnistan (1786 – 1789).  Can it be that this Prinz Himmelblau, portrayed as the ideal man, is the ancestor of our Spanish and Italian blue princes?

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.

 

 

Why 19 languages?

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Why 19 languages? 19 is the number of languages I have decided I wanted to learn in this life.

I had a language wish list for decades, but last week, on a flight from Madrid, I actually sat down, thought about it methodically, and came up with three groups.

Group alpha includes 7 languages: English, French, Italian, Latvian, and Russian, all of which I master at different levels of fluency, plus German and Spanish. For these languages I want to have excellent passive knowledge and pretty good active knowledge.

Group beta included 4 languages: Czech and Modern Greek, which I studied and used to be able to speak, plus Polish and Portuguese, which I don’t know at all. I would like to have good passive knowledge of these four, and be able to converse.

Group gamma included Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, and Japanese, for which I know the bare basics, plus two additional languages I want to learn but have not quite decided which ones. Current favourites are Swedish and Catalan.

A special case is Ancient Greek and Latin, my field of specialisation at university, which I want to continue to read.

That’s 19.