Combien de langages parlez-vous?

One of the great things about composition in today’s world is the vast social library of styles and media. In a short span of about 100 years, we have gone from mere national stylistic differences to ‘isms’ for any and everything that comes along.

I recently read a passage written by The New Yorker music critic, Alex Ross, that made clear to me the value of these enormous stylistic differences. In preparations for translations of his popular book The Rest is Noise, his goal was to include all quotes in their original languages in order to obtain the best translation. Here is an example:

Il y a trop de musique en Allemagne,” Romain Rolland wrote, back in the heyday of Mahler and Strauss. Something was lurking, the French writer suspected, in these humongous Teutonic symphonies and music dramas—a cult of power, un “hypnotisme de la force.” Germans themselves recognized the demonic strain in their culture. During the First World War, the not yet liberal-democratic Thomas Mann wrote a manifesto titled Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, in which he praised all the backward German tendencies that he would later come to lament in the pages of Doktor Faustus. In the earlier work, Mann states that die Kunsthat einen unzuverlässigen, verräterischen Grundhang; ihr Entzücken an skandalöser Anti-Vernunft, ihre Neigung zu Schönheit schaffender ‘Barbarei’ ist unaustilgbar…

To me, the text is enriched by the insertion of original-text quotes. How better could one understand the content or ideas behind these statements than to look at the words that were used to describe them.

On the other hand, there are those authors that use foreign words without necessity. T. Maretic, the great Croatian linguist, formulated the rule, “Do not use unnecessary foreign words, that is those for which good substitutes can be found in the vernacular.”

The parallel to music is nearly direct. The use of one style within the context of a different style may be extremely beneficial in order to best express the intent of the composer. It may simply be that what must be said can only be expressed a particular way.

Back on the other hand, Maretic may have said, “Do not use unnecessary foreign styles, that is those for which good substitutes can be found in the familiar (i.e. first-employed) style.”

For this, I am thankful to have so much to draw on. Like no generation before, composers today have endless possibilities. So, how multi-lingual can we be?

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