Language Barriers: Foreign Titles Intimidate the Uninitiated

I have written often about the various ways in which classical music has managed to distance itself from the public, including potential new audience members.  Focus groups over many years now, when talking to people who go to the theater and to museums, and even opera performances, have found that those same people resist attending symphony concerts because they feel intimidated. Phrases such as "well, I don't know enough about that music to appreciate it" are repeated over and over again.
There are many ways in which the classical music business has done that, but one of the most obvious--and easiest to fix--is the language we use when giving the titles of pieces of music.  This isn't as simple as it sounds--but I have noticed that some orchestras and presenters have a practice, if not an official policy, of listing all titles in their original language. 

When I managed the Chicago Symphony (and I believe it is still the case there) our policy was to use English unless the piece was so well known in the original language that it necessitated using that language.  Debussy's La mer would be an example of the latter.  Obviously, that is a judgment call, but I would urge always erring on the side of English.  For example, "A Hero's Life," rather than Ein Heldenleben.  If you don't know classical music, and are reading an ad in a newspaper, or hear an ad on the radio, or have even managed to get yourself to the concert and are reading the program page, you are likely to ask "What's a Heldenleben?"  I would much more welcome an all-English policy--even to the point of rendering Debussy's work as "The Sea"--than an all-original-language policy.  The point of printing titles is to render information, not to show how smart we are.

Whether we want to admit it or not, this use of foreign language titles is an act of distancing: it creates a barrier, a sense that you need extra knowledge to even understand the name of the piece of music. Le nozze di Figaro, Ein Deutsches Requiem, La gazza ladra--all of these are titles known to already committed music lovers, but incomprehensible to people who feel left out of this art form. In other cases, the original language might even befuddle some experienced concertgoers: Tableaux d'une exposition is far less clear than "Pictures at an Exhibition," and the same is true of "Nights in the Gardens of Spain" vs. Noches en los jardines de EspaƱa. I cannot see a single rational justification for insisting on using foreign-language titles, other than to demonstrate the line between those "in the know," and those not. We need to think about everything we do, every way in which we speak about and present music, and examine whether what we are doing is taking down barriers, or erecting them.

August 7, 2009 10:38 AM | | Comments (4)



Hello Henry - well said, and I would tend to agree with you.

I wonder, though, how you feel about this issue with regard to indications of tempo - which, after all, are usually also in foreign languages.

We seem to generally behave as if everyone "knows" Italian terminology, but German or other languages, not so much. "Allegro vivace" is always assumed to be OK, but "Sehr langsam," for example, is often translated. (I don't just raise this issue because my name is Helfrich).

It's especially vexing when you have someone like Mahler who mixes Italian terms like "tempo primo" in with his largely German indications.

Shouldn't these terms - all of them - also be given in English, if we are REALLY serious about removing barriers?

Paul, I absolutely agree with you. I should have included the subject of musical terminology other than the names of pieces. I would like to see the tempo markings given in the original language and English - which would please the purists and the newcomers, and only upset those who like to keep knowledge exclusively to a few.

Another issue that distances classical music from many is the dress. The only place I see white tie and tails is in the old Fred Astaire movies and on the stage for symphony concerts. Many conductors and soloists have abandoned that formal attire for more stylistic and humanizing dress. Why not have the orchestra members in black or grey suits with a simple shirt with or without a tie or simple dresses of a similar hue. The clothing should not detract from the music but neither should it artificially make it more difficult for the newer audience members to connect with the people on the stage.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am definitely in the senior category and the formal attire does not offend me personally, but we are a shrinking part of the audience.

In my program notes, I avoid latin or italian plurals, always employing "concertos" for "concerti," etc. I'll immediately translate the tempo markings heading a movement to take the mystery out of them. (A bit off topic: I also like to add references to the popular culture--e.g., "Asking Tchaikovsky to write a variation movement is somewhat like asking the cast of 'Friends' to discuss Kierkegaard." That's more than a bit unfair to Tchaikovsky, thinking of his trio, but people do respond to those things. )

I love your the "Friends" reference - even if you're right, it is unfair to Tchaikovsky.

I whole heartedly agree! I am concerned about attendance at the NHMF classical concerts and think it might help attendance if media releases contained info about the composer's background and the picture he is trying to portray musically with each piece. We need to make classical music more relevant to the common man. This should be done in media releases, not just at your Words on Music where you're probably "preaching to the choir." We need to reach potential concert-goers BEFORE they get to the concert hall, or we may never get them there in the first place! I love opera, for example, but many people view it as some sort of erudite art form rather than the music of the common people as it was originally written and performed. As you have said, we need to break down any barriers, real or perceived, in order to attract more concert-goers.


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