Babel (Genesis 11:1–9, a tale of human ambition to godlike-ness and God’s efforts to thwart same) paints language as a kind of powerful super-weapon. By causing a linguistically (and we imagine culturally) uniform society to be ‘struck’ with many different tongues, God renders humankind unable to finish its tower-project, and scatters it along with its new languages to form the nations, cultures, ethnicities and ideologies that so beautifully colour – and in some cases so sharply divide – our world today.
Language is indeed a powerful weapon, but not because there are so many. The phenomenon of thousands of languages and dialects may have given little help to our construction projects, but it has allowed cultural encoding of a rich kind. In other words, language is able to communicate much more than the semantic ‘meaning’ of the words: it teaches us much about whoever wrote or said them, and sometimes why. And at the vanguard of unlocking this treasure trove of hidden information is the art of translation.
Take the title of Brahms’ Geistliche Lied. I first encountered this beautiful piece when I was a teenager, and recall our choirboy’s humor about what was, literally, a ‘ghostly song’ (and as an aside I still often seek a way to program it on the nearest appropriate Sunday to Halloween). But unlike ‘Lied’ which translates more-or-less literally to ‘song’ in English, ‘Geistliche’ in German means, not as we supposed ‘Ghost-like,’ but ‘Holy’. To miss or ignore this allows us a childish joke; to know it offers an admittedly non-specific, but reverent title for its gorgeous music and beautiful sentiment of trust in God’s plan over the fear and worry we so often substitute.
The word ‘Amen’ is shared by both languages: it means (to borrow Lennon & McCartney’s paraphrase) ‘Let it be.’ Arguably no single word in any language has been treated in more diverse musical ways, from the plagal two-chord Amen that was once a custom at the close of Protestant hymn-singing to the several-page “Amen Chorus” concluding Handel’s “Messiah”. In Geistliche Lied the elaborate setting of this word is easily the work’s most beautiful moment – indeed you may occasionally hear it sung, without the rest of the anthem, at the end of our services.
“What a great man, what a great soul…yet he believes nothing!”– Antonìn Dvoràk, speaking of Johannes Brahms
In vocal and choral music having a text, the music itself also encodes a great deal of information – yet one thing you might not spot looking at this piece is that Brahms was an avowed atheist (his friend Antonín Dvoràk lamented, “What a great man, what a great soul…yet he believes nothing!”). Geistliche Lied displays Brahms’ passion and skill – even his Germanic style with its Lutheran Chorale-like entries (spiced here and there with shorter rhythmic bits and a polyphonic treatment), and tradition of elaborate ‘Amen’ settings. Yet it is not hard to imagine Brahms, with his famously lonely life (typified, according to some, by his love for Clara Schumann) finding comfort in Paul Flemming’s reassuring text, even without a belief in “God’s plan” to back him up. If the text touched him sufficiently to inspire this beauty, perhaps his relationship with it is not so different from that of a Christian similarly comforted, perhaps as St Paul and Timothy might have been had they ever read or heard it.
We are grateful this week to RPC chorister Nancy Olfert, who undertook a new English translation of Geistliche Lied, which in turn allowed me to create the new RPC edition we sing this morning.