Take zat, Pablo Neruda

Something about the French crooner Charles Aznavour is lost in translation

Radio 2’s excellent four-part series on Charles Aznavour (Bonjour Mr Aznavour, which started 22 May, 7pm) has taught us, among other things, that the great man once sold chocolate and stockings to the Nazis. Aznavour, who has since recorded more than a thousand of his own songs in a 60-year career, learned his trade at the feet of Édith Piaf, whom he met at a nightclub in Paris when he was 23 and followed to a party that basically went on round at hers for the next 18 years.

“She was a special person,” said Charles. “You can’t do what she ’as done, drinking like she is drinking, and come on stage like zat and sing for two hours, you just can’t do it . . .”

No Charles, you can’t. This muddling of tenses made him a wonderful interviewee, suggesting a jumping around of the decades, to those tender summers, those faint-hearted winters, that despondent Wednesday afternoon. Your reviewer went quite weak with sentiment.

Still, it seems that nobody really understands from precisely which breeding ground Aznavour gets his ideas, which lucky fairy it was, so to speak, that crashed his particular christening (there was some talk among commentators about his being the Zola de nos jours), but the programme came most alive when the singer simply sang (the confidence! – even when very young, a man seemingly strolling around the museum of his achievements) or spoke for himself: “I give you my heart like a rose and songs like zat . . . And then here comes this guy singing après l’amour – after loving you, when our body relaxes and . . . er . . . uh . . .”

The third episode contemplated how tricky it has been for lyricists to translate Aznavour into other languages (he often sings in German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese). One such translator said: “I may be a slave to the original text and be a dog chained to its master, but . . . not necessarily chained to a leash,” which gave some insight into what it’s like to shadow the mental processes of a man who is impelled essentially to whinge, albeit at the highest levels. I mean, just take the song “You’ve Let Yourself Go”, in which Charles unsmilingly complains about a woman standing with her stockings wrinkled round her ankles, showing him up in front of all his friends. “Your ’air in curlers ’anging down/What can I be sinking of?/I gaze at you in sheer despair/And see your mother standing there.” It’s scarcely Pablo Neruda’s “I cast my sad nets towards your oceanic eyes”.

In another song I had always assumed to be, if not worshipful, then at least as delicate as the padding of cats, Charles turns out to be complaining about having to go out for a slap-up anniversary meal, but then his wife’s zipper breaks and “you’re so cross and abrupt so I don’t say a word/I ’ave seats for a show!/Now I’ve got an ’eadache that’s quickly getting worse!” The lesson being that, with the exception of the song “She”, which is clearly perfect – ingeniously just that touch too short, forcing you to play it over and over, desperately scraping the ice-cream tub clean – one must only ever listen to Aznavour in the foreign.

Else it’s eternally a repeat of the moment that I heard a great aria in La Bohème at Chichester with surtitles and realised that the most passionate line basically translated as: “Who’s at the door? Oh fuck, it’s the landlord.”

Pick of the week

Performance on 3
15 June, 7pm, Radio 3
Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed by the great Canadian interpreter Angela Hewitt.

The Essay
15-19 June, 11pm, Radio 3
Antony Gormley reads a series of essays on five sculptures that have influenced him profoundly.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis