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«Bach St Matthew Passion (Novello edition ed. N. Jenkins) “The first translation of the St. Matthew Passion: Helen Johnston’s lasting legacy” A ...»

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Bach St Matthew Passion (Novello edition ed. N. Jenkins)

“The first translation of the St. Matthew Passion:

Helen Johnston’s lasting legacy”

A talk given by Neil Jenkins on the 150th anniversary

of the work’s 1st performance in England

Today I should like to consider the very first translation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion

into English, by Helen Johnston, and see what are the strengths and weaknesses of this brave attempt to make it possible to sing Bach’s masterpiece in our native language.


The translation was prepared for Sterndale Bennett’s performance one hundred and fifty years ago, on April 6th 1854. This was only some 25 years after Mendelssohn’s ground- breaking performance of the rediscovered work on 12 March 1829, in Berlin.

So, Johnston was working at an interesting time, when the piece which we now view as a masterpiece was performed infrequently and inadequately, and Bach’s reputation as a great choral composer was still being reestablished. It is remarkable that she was able to produce something which has proved so durable, when there were so few guidelines for her to follow in approaching such an undertaking. Translations of Oratorios into English were few at this period, and were mostly supervised by the composer. Haydn had proved himself unequal to the task with his Creation and Seasons, even though they were inspired by the Handel oratorios that he had heard in London in the 1790s. He left the preparation of good, singable, English texts to Baron van Swieten - the author of the original German text; the mess that he, with a faulty command of English, made of the translation of these two masterworks was corrected with varying degrees of success by subsequent publishers. Mendelssohn’s command of the English language meant that he was able to supervise more satisfactory English versions of The Hymn of Praise [Lobgesang, 1840] and even composed Elijah simultaneously in Julius Schubring’s German and in William Bartholomew’s English translation (1846).

see: Preface to Mendelssohn Elijah ed. Michael Pilkington, [Novello, 1991] So, apart from popular oratorios such as these, the only models available to Helen Johnston when she set about her task would have been translations of Hymns (particularly from the Lutheran canon), and the rather different requirements of Opera.

The works of Mozart and Rossini were being performed in English translation at Covent Garden and The King’s Theatre; but the translations of these were in the safe, professional, hands of such theatrical versifiers as Edward Fitzball, T. Holcroft, S.J.Arnold and J.R. Planché.

see: A History of English Opera, Eric Walter White, [Faber and Faber, 1983]


–  –  –

That Helen Johnston could come from nowhere and make such a creditable effort with her first translation is remarkable. But, although she could hit the mark on the one hand with a powerful verse that conveyed the same intent as the original German text, she could also fail, on the other, to come up with anything memorable at all, as can be shown by a comparison between two of her texts.

Firstly let us consider her translation of Chorale no. 53. This is her exact text from the published Sterndale Bennett edition [Novello, 1862]: EXAMPLE 1

–  –  –

The style of this is rooted in sturdy English hymnology, allied to a Shakespearian sense of elision (where the subject of lines 5-8 is “He who gives the winds their courses....)

To see from where she derived this unusual syntax, compare Shakespeare Othello III iii :

“Who steals my purse steals trash;

‘tis something, nothing;

‘twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands...” Later editors baulked at the complicated structure of lines 5-8 and endeavoured to make it more readily comprehensible;

EXAMPLE 1 (second half) Elgar/Atkins (Novello, 1911 revised 1938) Commit thy ways to Jesus, Thy burdens and thy cares; these four lines are as in He from them all releases, the original translation He all thy sorrow shares.

He gives the winds their courses, changes in bold type And bounds the ocean’s shore, He suffers not temptation changes in bold type To rise beyond thy pow’r.

Elgar/Atkins lose some of the felicity of Johnston’s original by turning the complete sentence, with sub-clause, which runs through lines 5-8 into two rather banal sentences

–  –  –

linked by an inappropriate comma. Because I personally feel that anyone who can read and understand Shakespeare and the King James Bible - two of the great cornerstones of our English language - will have no difficulty in understanding the Helen Johnston original, I have returned once more to her exact version in my recent edition for the New Novello Choral Edition (1997).

But now, secondly, let us consider some verse where she was not successful.

Here is her translation of a notoriously tricky Bass aria, full of cross-rhythms and

displaced stresses:

–  –  –

The problems inherent in this translation are the reason that Helen Johnston’s translation is only intermittently good. There is a sense of desperation in her need to translate a repeat of the German text of both sections with new verse. She ignores the original rhyme-scheme, and replaces it with a new one of her own devising. She alters notelengths freely, and ignores the cross-rhythms that Bach’s tied notation implies. It would be worth hearing both versions.

1ST MUSICAL EXAMPLE (Bass solo) No. 29

a) in original version (German text)

b) in Sterndale Bennett/Johnston version In some other places Johnston’s translation nearly works, and is worth preserving, especially if it can be made to fit underneath the German text more accurately. Such an aria is the ever-famous “Jesus, Saviour, I am thine” no. 19. This has been preserved in later editions, such as Stanford’s (1910) and Elgar/Atkins (1911 revised 1938) completely unchanged. It has been sung by every soprano who has ever sung the work in English.

–  –  –

The first thing to note is the change in rhyme-scheme. Bach’s poet, Christian Friedrich Henrici, known by the pen name of ‘Picander’, has supplied a verse rhyming ABABBB.

Johnston provides an unsuccesful half-rhyme in lines 1& 2, A [A], followed by BBCC.

She also alters the 8 syllables of lines 1 & 3 into 7 syllables. This occurs frequently throughout her translation and one can see why. The German language is much fuller of trochaic endings than English. A quick glance at a hymnal will show that most English verse-lines end with a single syllable (When I survey the wond’rous cross, Immortal, invisible, God only wise etc). One has to hunt quite hard to find a good example set to an English tune with a trochee at the end of the line. Although there are several trochaic texts in the English Hymnal (e.g. 280: Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness, 407: Lord, thy word abideth, 85: Jesu, meek and lowly) these are all set to German melodies. The obvious inference is that German hymn-texts were largely written in such a metre.

Conversely, the English hymns which have trochaic lines use them in conjunction with

single syllable rhymes in metres based on 8787. Obvious examples are:

–  –  –

So, it is hard to mirror the German rhyme-scheme exactly, without falling back on a few well-used double-syllabled words (viz: ‘dwelling’ above) or participles (‘excelling’). But Johnston compounds her fault by not setting her text under the German in those places where it will actually fit rather well. Today we are all too aware of Bach’s wonderful rhythmic invention, and of the importance of the ‘hemiola’ in temporarily displacing the rhythm. This must have sounded awkward in the 1850s - perhaps even wrong. One has to assume that either Sterndale Bennett or Johnston thought that they were improving Bach when they destroyed the inherent hemiolas in the middle section of the aria “Jesus, Saviour” by the repositioning of the text.

Before we hear this aria sung, let us also look at the disappearing act that has happened in Johnston’s 5th line. Bach’s rhyme word ‘allein’ is present in bar 46 [see example] but

–  –  –

Johnston’s ‘beside’ has disappeared. Bach has naughtily tacked on the first word of line 6

- ‘mehr’- to his setting of the 5th line, and this has thrown Johnston. As a compromise, consider what can be done when Johnston’s rhyme word is reinstated, (even though the omission of the first word of line 6 is almost inevitable). It is so much more satisfactory for the flow of the music to preserve the rhyme. N.B. In order to make her text fit I have preserved everything apart from the beginning of line 4, where the insertion of some

further syllables allows Bach’s notation to be heard very nearly as he wrote it:

–  –  –

2nd MUSICAL EXAMPLE (Soprano solo) No. 19 middle section

a) in Sterndale Bennett/Johnston version (also re-used by Elgar/Atkins)

b) in Jenkins revision of “ “, showing original hemiolas.


Every subsequent translator has been aware of the work of his predecessor, and has stated the need to improve on the existing translation(s). As a better understanding of Bach’s style developed each one found something inadequate in the versions currently available to them, either in the translation of the poetic text, the chorales, or the biblical text. For

the task of such a translation is threefold:

to translate the chorales as memorable hymns, that can be sung by a large body of voices to translate the arias and non-biblical choruses in a way that preserves the feeling and meaning of the original, but gives the singers good clean vowels to sing on to translate the biblical text in a way that preserves the Gospel story in a language not far removed from that of the accepted text.

G.A.Macfarren, writing in his Preface to Sterndale Bennett’s edition, saw the problem facing the translator of the Biblical text, but thought that Johnston had arrived at an

acceptable compromise:

“.... A task of singular, I might almost say unparalleled difficulty was that of the translator who had to adapt an English rendering of the text to the notes which Bach set to the Lutheran version of the Gospel. It is the especial excellence of this setting, that in it every word is given with such vocal inflection as draws forth its nicest and fullest meaning. In substituting English words for the original, it was of course desirable to take the authorised English version of Scripture as the standard, in order that, so far as possible, the familiar story should be related in the very syllables in which our familiarity with it was involved, and which command from us a kindred if not equal respect to that we owe to the story they embody. To follow this version implicitly was incompatible however with fidelity to the musical accentuation, to the emphasis this lays upon

Neil Jenkins – www.neiljenkins.info 6

particular expressions, nay to the composer’s great purpose of making his music all that is aimed at in the highest style of elocution, whose merit should consist, not in its melodious beauty, but in its exalted declamation of the words and its equivalent enforcement of their meaning. Much consideration is due to the writer who had to steer through the perpexing strait between the desirability of adhering to our biblical version and the necessity for copiously altering it....” In fact, Johnston is as erratic in her approach to the Biblical text as she is in the Chorales and Arias that we have examined. After 32 years it was definitely time for someone else to have a go. It was the Rev. John Troutbeck, minor canon of Westminster Abbey, who took up the challenge in his 1894 edition for Novello. He had cut his teeth on hymnals and psalters, and progressed to oratorios by Beethoven and Weber. After the success of his St. Matthew Passion translation there was no stopping him, and he turned to Mozart opera (Il Seraglio and Cosi fan Tutte) as well as to the later oratorios of Brahms, Liszt, Dvorak and Gounod.

In his Preface Troutbeck states:

“32 years have elapsed since the publication of the first English edition, and faithful to its original as that edition may have been, it has been felt that closer adherence to the accepted standard text is attainable, and, as far as it is at all practicable, should be attained. With this view the present edition is issued. The chorales, choruses, and solos have been newly and independently translated from the original German words, and the adaptation of the narrative of the Evangelist, a task rendered perhaps somewhat less difficult by the aid of the Revised Version of the New Testament, has been carefully reconsidered, and rearranged so as to preserve unaltered, as far as may be, the musical text of the original...” In fact, Troutbeck is better at setting the English to Luther’s German version, as will be shown. He also produces some fine Aria translations:

- no. 47 “Have mercy, Lord, on me” as we all know it - is completely his, as is the Chorale “O Lord, who dares to smite thee”.

Large portions of arias nos.18, 25, 26, 33, 57, 61, 66, 67, 69, 70, 75 and 76 retain most of his verse.

But within a few years there was more editorial activity, and Charles Villers Stanford produced an edition in 1910 [for Stainer and Bell] which ignored Troutbeck, and improved on Johnston where the translation was thought to be weak.

–  –  –

In his Preface Stanford states “...This edition has been prepared to preserve, as far as possible, the translation.... of Miss Helen Johnston. The recitatives have been considerably revised in order to reproduce, as far as the English version will allow, the

–  –  –

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