10 June 2010

ein mort vil grimmec unde grôz

Bettina Blidhauer has published a excellent review ("Better than Wagner") in TLS of a new English prose translation by Cyril Edwards of the Middle High German epic poem, the Nibelungenlied.

I've never read the Nibelungenlied in whole or in part (heck, I've hardly read any Shakespeare; that's what a modern education will fail to provide you). The Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs) is notoriously one of the inspirations for Wagner's extended mythological potboiler, Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Bildhauer reproduces in her review one pair of couplets from the poem in the original Middle High German:
Dô sluoc daz kint Ortlieben / Hagen der helt guot,
daz im gegen der hende / ame swerte vlôz daz bluot.
und daz der küneginne / daz houbet spranc in die schôz.
dô huop sich under degenen / ein mort vil grimmec unde grôz. 
I haven't studied Middle High German, but Edwards's translation is enough for me to figure out nearly all of the correspondences to modern German:
Then Hagen, the worthy hero, dealt the child Ortliep such a blow that the blood shot back along the sword up to his hand, and the boy’s head flew into the queen’s lap. Grim and massive slaughter began then among those knights. 
Thus, for example, the line "und daz der küneginne / daz houbet spranc in die schôz" would correspond in modern German (but keeping the original word order) to "und daß der Königin das Haupt sprang in die Schoss" (literally "and that to the queen the head sprang into the lap").

Beats the heck out of Wagner's turgid attempts to imitate this style.

Makes me wish there were an edition with the original text and an annotated prose translation on facing pages (maybe there is; I haven't looked).

Speaking of Wagner, here's an entertaining post by Jaime Weinman at Macleans.ca, pondering whether (in light of the large sum that the Metropolitan Opera is paying to shore up the stage so that it doesn't collapse under the weight of Robert Lepage's set for the new production of the Ring) Wagner is really worth it. He cites a wonderful, and I think very astute passage by Tchaikovsky, which I reproduce here:
Since opera, in [Wagner's] view, is nothing other than drama accompanied by music, and since the characters in a drama are supposed to speak rather than sing, Wagner irrevocably banishes from opera all rounded and self-contained musical forms, i.e. he does away with arias, ensembles, and even choruses, which he uses episodically and very moderately only in the last part of his tetralogy. That is, he banishes that conventional element of opera which to us had not seemed offensive or false merely because routine had made us quite insensitive to it.
Since in the moments of passionate intensity to which people living in a social community are subject nobody would think of striking up a song, arias are to be rejected; and since as a rule two people do not speak to one another at the same time, but rather one will let the other speak out first, there can be no duets either. Similarly, since people in a crowd do not generally all utter the same words together at the same time, a chorus must also be out of the question, and so on and so forth.
Wagner, by apparently forgetting in this context that the truth of life and the truth of art are two quite different truths, is in effect striving after rationality. In order to reconcile these demands of truth with the requirements of music, Wagner exclusively recognizes the form of the recitative. All his music—and it is a music which is profoundly conceived, always interesting, often splendid and exciting, though at times also a bit dryish and unintelligible, a music which is astonishingly rich from the technical point of view and equipped with an instrumentation of unprecedented beauty—all his music, I emphasize, is entrusted exclusively to the orchestra. The characters sing mainly just completely colourless successions of tones which are tailored to the symphony being performed by the invisible orchestra.
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