Quotation of the day

A footnote to yesterday’s post on the classical music aura, from Richard Pevear’s introduction to the rightly acclaimed new translation of War and Peace (which he made in collaboration with Larissa Volokhonsky):

The first thing a reader today must overcome is the notion of War and Peace as a classic, the greatest of noveIs, and the model of what a novel should be. In 1954, Bertolt Brecht wrote a note on “Classical Status as an Inhibiting Factor” that puts the question nicely. “What gets lost,” he says of the bestowing of classical status on a work (he is speaking of works for the theater), “is the classic’s original freshness, the element of surprise…of newness, of productive stimulus that is the hallmark of such works. The passionate quality of a great masterpiece is replaced by stage temperament, and where the classics are full of fighting spirit, here the lessons taught the audience are tame and cozy and fail to grip.”

Beautifully put. I hardly have to draw the parallel with classical music. And one of the many great virtues of the War and Peace translation is that, in Pevear’s and Volokhonsky’s English, the book hardly reads like a classic at all. 
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  1. says

    I haven’t read their War and Peace, but I have read their Chekhov and (part of) their Brothers Karamazov and I certainly liked them both. In both cases, they profess that the inflated density of other translations comes from not hewing closer to the original sources. They take great pains to tell us how closely the translation mirrors the original. Not speaking Russian, I’m not in any position to verify this.

    But in classical music, most people in the business have agreed for years that we adhere too closely to the original sources. Apparently the act of making us adhere closely to the urtext isn’t a guarantee of stripping the varnish away.

    Ultimately, it’s difficult to imagine that there is an alternative to the belief that real talent will out and that charismatic performers will find their own ways to sell music to their publics. What that way will be, who’s to say?