Disappearing into the Past

Le sacrifice d’Iphigénie, Jacopo Amigoni c. 1740.

In the summer of 1997, I bought an opera recording—Iphigénie en Aulide. The German-born composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) wrote the opera in 1772 and produced it in Paris in April 1774. It was his first opera with a French libretto. The libretto was written by Marie Francois Louis de Roullet based on the play Iphigénie by Racine. The Paris performance was well-received, as was my hearing the opera for the first time in 1997. 

There are many things to like about it: the overture, the airs, the chorus, the recitative passages. But two pieces moved me so profoundly that I had to listen to them in small amounts initially. The first one occurs at the end of Act II and is sung by Agamemnon: “O Toi, L’Objet Le Plus Aimable.” The goddess Diana has demanded that King Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter to ensure the Greeks enjoy fair winds on their way to Troy. It is a request, as one might expect that the king finds repulsive.

Here is an excerpt from the relevant section of the libretto that I found almost unbearably painful. 

O toi, l’objet le plus aimable,
Que tant de vertus sont chérir,
Pardonne à ton père coupable,
En faveur de son repentir.
Hélas! c’est toi qui la première
D’un nom si doux sut m’appeler.

John Sidgwick translates the passage (1987) used for Erato/Radio France’s 1990 recording as follows:

You, most loveable of beings,
Cherished for your myriad virtues,
Forgive your guilty father,
Mindful of his repentance.
Alas, ’twas you who first
Called me by so sweet a name.

The second one that I found difficult to listen to was “Il Faut, De Mon Destin,” sung by Iphigénie in Act III. She sings of her acceptance of her fate. She is singing to Achilles—her promised husband.

Il faut de mon destin
Subir la loi suprême:
Jusqu’au tombeau
Je braverai ses coups;
Oui, sous le fer de Calchas même,
Je vous dirai que je vous aime,
Et mon dernier soupir
Ne sera que pour vous.

Sidgwick’s translation:

I must submit
To the supreme law of my destiny:
To the very grave itself
I must face its cruel blows.
Yes, beneath the very knife of Calchas
I shall say that I love you,
And my last breath
Will be for you only.

At the time, I wrote to my former father-in-law, a professional musician and orchestra conductor. I told him how much Gluck’s opera had affected me. He responded with what, at the time, I couldn’t understand. It seemed a puzzling answer. He said that we could no longer write music like that; it wasn’t possible. I was too much in awe of him to ask him to explain his answer to me. Recently, I stumbled across a hint of what he might have meant.

This past week, I completed reading Adam Nicolson’s book God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. In the book’s last chapter, Nicolson compares the KJB translations of some passages with other translations of the same text. One notable comparison is taken from the New Testament, a passage describing Jesus’ appearance to his apostles at the Sea of Galilee after his death. Nicolson details several advantages the KJB has over the modern version. Then he says this.

Again and again, the seventeenth-century phrases seem richer, deeper, truer, more alive, more capable of carrying complex and multiple meanings, than anything the twentieth century could manage. It happens in linguistic history that languages lose aspects of themselves, whole wings of their existence withering, falling off, disappearing into the past. Has it now happened to English? Does English no longer have a faculty of religious language? [p. 236]

Nicolson doesn’t answer the question, but what an intriguing question it is. Perhaps we can’t produce satisfying English translations of the Bible today because that faculty, the sacred understanding present in English over four-hundred years ago, has disappeared.

If so, might not the same thing happen in music, painting, or any art? Maybe what my former father-in-law was telling me is that the ability to write music as Gluck did is no longer possible because what he could call upon to produce his music is not a part of the contemporary music vocabulary. Technically, of course, we can write music that sounds like Gluck. The problem is that we can’t compose music that feels like Gluck.

I can personally attest to the difficulty of trying to get a poem published that uses syncope—the intentional shortening of a word by removing letters. I submitted a poem several times to publishers, all of whom rejected it. I believe it was because the first line read: “Sometimes a sickness o’er me comes.” “O’er” is an example of syncope. I was using it to limit the line to eight syllables. I liked the meter. The use of “over” pushed the syllable count to nine. In the end, I surrendered. I changed the line to read: “Sometimes a sickness comes over me…” Read it: short-long (sometimes) short-long-short (a sickness) short (comes) long-short (over) long (me). It works ok. And I found a publisher.

Sometimes, if a poem sounds like a poem, publishers avoid it. And often, they have good reasons for doing so. One could say of my example using o’er that we no longer speak that way; it is better to write as we speak now. Maybe.

But in the case of translating the Bible, maybe not.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

One thought

  1. “The problem is that we can’t compose music that feels like Gluck.” I feel this deeply.

    I have a few posters and postcards of old artworks around my house. Friends often ask me what’s so great about Picasso or ‘why don’t the people in that diner scene (Nighthawks by Hopper) look like Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart?’ These things make me smile – once upon a time they made me cry – so that’s an improvement!
    Will any contemporary artist ever feel as deeply about their art as Frida? or Vincent?
    Perhaps it’s the money that must flow that stops the real art from coming?
    I think about these things a lot.
    Great, thought provoking read as always.

    Liked by 2 people

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