Sunday, 13 March 2011

Hearing a poem in Russian confirms it’s the world’s most beautiful language

I enjoyed an  intriguing aesthetic experience last week, at the Acton Pass On A Poem gathering. One of the readers, a young Russian woman, recited “I Loved You” by Pushkin – in Russian! It was utterly beautiful and the audience seemed genuinely entranced.

Perhaps because none of us could understand a word she was saying, it was more like listening to a hauntingly lovely piece of music – rich and plashy, with lots of rolling, lolling-tongued “l” sounds (it reminded me of a town in Cornwall called Luxulyan, a name which rolls off the tongue so lushly that there’s something vaguely obscene about saying it out loud). 

The reader then recited the poem in English – first apologising needlessly for her heavy Russian accent – but I’m sure no one took in a word: in English, the magic promptly evaporated. (I can think of nothing more pointless than translating poetry, unless the translator is a brilliant poet in their own right  – in which case he or she has basically produced a brand new poem..)

It won’t be the same as hearing it as part of a hushed audience, but here is the poem in Russian – I particularly enjoyed the overlaid advert for Pushkinvodka!

I’m a sucker, in any case, for the sound of the Russian language. Last year I visited the Russian Orthodox Church in Chiswick to hear a recital by a quartet of monks from St. Petersburg: again, I couldn’t understand a word of what they were singing, but, by God! the noise they made was poignant and thrilling and full of meaning.

I wonder if one’s enjoyment of Russian films – especially that hymn of praise to the vilest, most brutal dictator in history that is Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible – is partly based on the dark majesty of the language (it certainly isn’t down to the laughs or the naturalistic acting). 

I’ve always presumed that the type of music a country produces is at least partly a function of of its language (at least, from the start of the 19th Century). Could Verdi or Puccini have been anything but Italian?; could any language but German have produced Beethoven and Wagner?; could anyone have produced Debussy or Ravel’s delicate subtleties than a French speaker?; and then there’s Mussorgsky and Prokofiev, not to mention the sublime, mystic glories of Russian Orthodox liturgical music – if you locked Richard Dawkins in a room and piped in those God-drenched voices for a few hours, I’m pretty convinced he’d emerge a believer (or barking mad – if he isn’t already).

I’ll admit I’m not presenting a water-tight case here – I’m sure many learned musicologists have written about this subject in depth. For me, it’s just a hunch. 

Followng the Pushkin, blow me down if a Dutch woman who’d lived in England for 23 years didn’t do the exact same thing five minutes later. The poem was “Herinnering aan Holland” (Memory of Holland) by Hendrik Marsman, which was recently voted the “Poem of the 20th Century” by the Dutch public. Apparently, the poet spent his career being quite rude about his native land, but this particular poem is a paean of praise to its landscape. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone to describe Dutch as a beautiful or poetic language, but the performance was equally enthralling. The Hollander’s characteristic throat-clearing sound was replaced by a sort of buzzy tremolo effect which made the voice sound like a sophisticated musical instrument (albeit one which a composer should resist overusing).

The night after this experience, I watched the latest two episodes of the Danish detective drama, The Killing (the best thing to be shown on British TV since The Wire) and was struck, for the first time, by what a strangely delicate, mincing, almost dainty language Danish is compared to the thumping solidity of Swedish and Norwegian. Listen to a German and you can imagine them stomping into neighbouring countries: listen to a Dane and you simply can’t conceive of them setting off in longboats wearing hairy waistcoats and horned helmets, intent on rape and pillage. I wonder what the language sounded like back when they used to indulge in that sort of thing?

I hope we get some more foreigners reading poems at our next meeting. Meanwhile, I’ll be watching foreign films and TV programmes with even keener interest in future, just to listen to the music of the language.


  1. Some languages lend themselves to poetry. German isn't one but songs sung in German, such as Mahler's Ruckert Liede, hit an emotional spot that Italian opera fails to approach.

    I can't see that any poem in a tongue not understood can connect other than through the rhythmic or musical quality of the language. For all you know, your Russian woman could have been reciting 1973 Belarussian crop yield statistics.
    Sunday, March 13, 2011 - 08:10 PM

  2. I’m just not sure that German isn’t a poetic language – as you say, it sounds beautiful in lieder, and I prefer The Magic Flute to any of Mozart’s operas written in Italian (even Don Giovanni). I wonder if we’re not blinded by too many documentaries about the Nazis and German officers in war films screaming ”Raus! Raus!”. When you’re actually there, hearing it spoken all the time, doesn’t it seem to lose much of its harshness?

    I agree that the only meaning one can extract from hearing poetry in languages one doesn’t understand has to come from the rhythm and the music of it: the voice becomes a solo instrument – but a very rich one.
    Tuesday, March 15, 2011 - 05:00 PM

  3. Sibelius and the Scandinavian landscape is another good example. Or whoever wrote "Ma Vlast".

    German is not a harsh language. It is spoken by a people who tend to be rather aggressive and arrogant. Listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Elizabeth Schwarzkopf [who expressed her arrogance by choosing nine of her own recordings on Desert Island Discs]. Or Hans Hotter in the Karl Bõhm recording of your favourite Mozart opera in his role as Der Sprecher. British film has always portrayed Germans as running around like wet hens barking commands. I lived in Germany on and off for 3 years and never heard a voice raised in anger. Sinister, dark, quietly threatening - that does not make a language unpoetic. Listen to the love duets in Wagner.

    Italian. I have had the unfortunate experience of attending La Boheme in Danish, La Traviata in Norwegian and Madame Butterfly&The Marriage of Figaro in English. Apart from my bum going numb in the first five minutes they were all ghastly. Don't translate librettos - they don't travel because they are rooted in their language and built around the music.Thankfully English opera is hardly ever translated or performed outside the Kingdom [why should the rest of the world suffer? Adrian Bloody Birtwhistle.]

    Danish. I know a few Danes. They will not appreciate their language being characterised as "mincing". The correct term is "West Friesian Glottal" [ie the Dutch as well]. How would the Vikings have sounded? Possibly like Armstrong and Miller's Neanderthals. Well, between the pillaging and wassailing and the fact that the Romans never got up there what do you expect?

    The Dutch lady you mention. Did she have sandy hair, big white teeth and answer to the name of Ditte Olij. Just thought I'd ask.
    Friday, March 18, 2011 - 02:39 PM

  4. Translating opera into the local language is utterly and totally pointless. After sitting through quite a few ENO productions, I can say with absolute certainty that it’s impossible to make out what they’re singing in any case – what’s worse is imagining you can hear them sing things like “You always were a turd, my lord!” or “Fetch the plump aardvark, Leroy” “. As it’s also aesthetically pointless, why do it?

    It definitely wasn’t Ms Olij – and I never knew it was spelled like that!
    Saturday, March 19, 2011 - 06:57 PM