Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Of Operas and Language

Mary Cassatt in de Loge
What are the chances of having mentioned in conversation, twice in the same day by two different people, the composer Wagner?  I am no musician, though I've dabbled in various instruments.  And, I generally do not go around talking about composers or operas.
Yet, on that very same day, I struck up a conversation with an older fellow at the bookstore (which, I must emphasize, is quite extraordinary in and of itself as I usually have my headphones on...).  At first, it was the spiral staircase in Chambord designed by Leonardo da Vinci, then it was Wagner, the German composer and his militant style of music.  He was convinced that Wagner's music could only have come from the German language with the majority of its words in consonant endings as opposed to the Italian operas which are far more beautiful, owing, of course, to the Italian language with its vowel endings.  I have never studied Italian, but truly, thinking of the few words I know, it does seem that there are many words which end in vowels (fettucine, alfredo, spaghetti...).  The reason for Italian being the most suitable language for opera is that operas tend to need long extended notes.  Vowels lend themselves quite well to being extended indefinitely (one can sing aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh) while consonants end most abruptly and cannot be so extended.  He is absolutely correct.  Of course, when I mentioned this to a friend, she said, of course, I thought this was common knowledge.... Well, maybe to Europeans who must as a matter of course be polyglots!  But to an American, who generally isn't... I thought it was a poignant observation. Add to that, that Italian operas are more beautiful.  Besides, Americans are biased when it comes to language; we do not like to strain the language centers in our brains and thus pronounce that  the world should only have to learn English, it being the "universal" language.  I'm sure the French thought the same thing once when the French language was considered to be the educated language.  According to wikipedia, "from the 17th century to the mid 20th century, French served as the pre-eminent international language of diplomacy and international affairs as well as a lingua franca among the educated classes of Europe."  And, where will we English speakers be tomorrow?  Are there great operas in our future?  Nope, too many consonants!


  1. Beautiful! Just passing through. Great blog and up-to-date! Keep it up!

  2. Many would dispute your views of Wagner and his "militant style of music" (whatever that might mean). As for his words, they are among the most poetic ever to have been written for opera (though it helps if you can understand them). His work is among the first Western works of Buddhism, as I write on my blog: http://www.pauldoolan.com/2010/02/wagner-and-buddha-tristan-and-isolde.html

  3. Thank you Paul for pointing out this connection with Buddhism. Like I said, I am no musician in any sense. This was just an interesting connection between language and opera which I had never thought of. I am not a particular fan of Wagner, maybe because I do find his music a little "militant"... but that is certainly a personal reaction that I have that, as you say, many might disagree with. Let's just say, he's not exactly my cup of tea, Buddhist philosophy or no. And, just because someone studies and writes on Buddhist thought does not make one any more "enlightened" about the world than someone who does not. ditto for Buddhism and music. That is not to lightly dismiss Wagner and his philosophy, but it neither makes his music any more enjoyable for me personally either.