A young email friend asked me some questions:
- What is your method for choosing songs? I have noted that you’ve chosen common as well as rare songs in previous “Gateway” books.
- How do you research the translation of the words? What are your resources?
Flattered by the interest of a young person, I expounded as follows:
Your observation is correct: I try to include some really famous songs in each book because I have watched singing teachers at the NATS conventions as they browse the displays. If they see some song they know, they have an expectation of what the surrounding songs will be like. I hear them say “I have been looking for that song” or “I have two students that need a duet.” I try to think of a famous song that is not in other collections. For instance, years ago I was bewitched by Janet Baker’s performance of Gounod’s “Sérénade” (text by Hugo), but I have not seen it in an anthology. So I put it into the new collection in the hope that someone else may be looking for it. “Lungi da te, ben mio” is in Italian Arias of the B and C Eras for much the same reason. Having included some well known songs, then I am free to put in personal favorites, esp. by women composers, that are not well known. Practically no one will go to a music store looking for songs by Josephine Lang or Francesca Caccini, and that is the very reason why I sneak them into my collections.
Beyond those few clues, I cannot tell you much about my choices. They are capricious, personal, heavily influenced by chance and coincidence. Of course, I’ve always made personal choices, for better or worse. It baffles me when a student says she can’t pick out her own music because she doesn’t know how. I always have. First, the words. If I don’t sympathize with the poet’s feelings, or if I couldn’t sing the words in public with a sincere heart, the song is a no. After that, I hear the music in my head to the extent that I can and judge whether it interests me. Often I’m wrong, but one has to try.
When I was doing my original research in Rome, I leafed through solo cantatas, probably a thousand of them. I could always hear the initial melodic idea in my head, and I quickly decided whether the piece deserved a “+” in the margin of my notes or whether I could pass it up with no regrets. If I looked at a piece a second time and still liked it, then I might copy it out by hand– photocopies were not allowed back then. I came home with at least a couple of dozen solo cantatas that are still unpublished, but I still like them.
On to your second question, about translation. I started modern languages late, at 19 and 20, so I still have to work at them. I try to read a book every year in German, French and Italian, but I don’t always succeed. On the shelf over my computer screen are three German dictionaries + 2 for pronunciation, 2 Italian dictionaries + 1 for pronunciation, and 3 French dictionaries, all of which include pronunciations. I still make mistakes. I caught one in Italian recently: I had translated “la fonte” as fountain rather than source or spring (of water from the ground). Of course, every tourist in Rome knows that fountain is “la fontana”, as in Fontana di Trevi. Other resources: Books of translations that I can use for comparisons, never for copying. Bi-lingual books of poetry, when you can find them.
Indispensable: friends who know the language better than you do and can answer questions out of their inborn knowledge. I need them for pronunciations also. E.g., I could not find in any of my books whether it is correct to say the T in Saint-André or the N in Jean-Antoine. Only French friends could help me. Answers: the T, yes; the N, no.