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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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declamation of Bach; and one or two of the lyrical portions have been altered the better to suggest the original German verses, and to conform to the composer’s characteristic word-painting”.

So let us now look at a portion of the recitative, and see how Johnston, Troutbeck and Stanford differed in their attempt at fitting the English to it. Since German often has more syllables, the overriding problem is whether to fill up with make-weight words, or to leave great gaps in Bach’s notation. Over the years succesive editors came to realise that it was increasingly important to respect Bach’s notation, and to be more flexible with Holy Writ. But it was not always so.


From this it can be seen that Troutbeck is a great improvement on Johnston, and manages to fill up the gaps with judicious, though spurious, quasi-biblical text. There is nothing jarring about it, and the flow of Bach’s notation is preserved. Stanford, using Johnston as his basis, adopts Troutbeck’s plan in order to fill out the missing text in the penultimate bar.

Let us hear the Bach, followed by Johnston and then Troutbeck.



One year after Stanford’s edition appeared there was yet another offering, the third to date, from Novello. This was the famous collaboration between Sir Edward Elgar and Sir Ivor Atkins [1911]. They enjoyed the ability to look and learn from the other two

published Novello translations, as they make clear in the Preface:

“Two translations were placed at our disposal by the publishers - those of Miss Johnston and Dr. Troutbeck. This edition aims at retaining all that is best in both.” Before looking at the implications of this statement for the Arias and Choruses, let us turn back to the recitatives, and see what these two eminent musicians were to make of the underlay of the text here. Let us compare another portion of no. 54.

4th MUSICAL EXAMPLE FROM RECITATIVE NO. 54 The most noticeable thing about the Elgar/Atkins version is their endeavour to fit as much text in as possible, even by the means of using triplets and quintuplets (quite unknown to Bach) if necessary. This is the manner in which the St Matthew Passion was passed down to the present generation, for - with the exception of a revision of this edition in 1938, when Ivor Atkins incorporated readings from the Revised Version (like Troutbeck) and The English Hexapla - this is the most recent publication of the work prior to my edition for the New NovelloChoral Edition [1997].

Neil Jenkins – www.neiljenkins.info 8

A similar desire to add in extra notes occurs in the short recitative of 2 bars, which concludes no. 71 describing Jesus’ death on the cross. Here the decision to retain the poetry of St. Matthew 27: 50 makes for a more memorable account than the earlier translators had achieved, even though they were nearer Bach’s notation and the simplicity of the German.

5th MUSICAL EXAMPLE FROM RECITATIVE NO. 71 Let us hear them in chronological order.

MUSICAL EXAMPLE FROM RECITATIVE NO. 71 excerpt TENOR The Elgar/Atkins edition held preeminence throughout the larger portion of the twentieth century. Apart from an English edition published by Breitkopf and Härtel in 1906 (of which more anon) and several American editions which failed to cross theAtlantic, there was nothing to challenge it. In the years after the Second World War the increased familiarity of performers and conductors with Bach’s German text - which, following the lead taken by Dr. Paul Steinitz, was being increasingly performed - led to a ferment of disquiet with the failings of even this much revised edition. [A further revision in 1948 introduced the chorale which had originally closed Part 1 (no. 35a) in an appendix].

Performers began to make their own translations, which were soon being handed informally around. The Bach Choir of London set up a committee to revise the Recitatives, and leading Evangelists of the day, such as Eric Greene, Peter Pears, and Robert Tear, all took a hand in the slow evolution of an ideal performing version. This lengthy process reached its ultimate conclusion when Sir David Willcocks invited me to look at the unpublished Bach Choir version, together with the sub-committee’s working papers - as well as all earlier translations - in order to provide a new, singable translation for the 21st century.

What I discovered was the immense damage that had been done to the integrity of the Johnston and Troutbeck translations when Elgar and Atkins sat down to view them side by side.

Because, what they did was to make a sandwich of portions of lines from each. In the process the earlier translators lost their individual voices; whilst their rhyme-schemes unsatisfactory as they may have been - were almost completely erased.

This can best be shown by viewing an aria text as it evolved out of the two preceding versions. I have used a different type face for each, and they appear in chronological order.

EXAMPLE 4 No. 25 J. O grief! Now pants his agonising heart: it sinks within, how pale his countenance!

–  –  –

T. Behold, how throbs the heavy-laden breast! The spirit faints, with agony oppressed!

E/A. O grief, how throbs his heavy-laden breast! His spirit faints, how pale his weary face!

In this, the first line of the movement, the Elgar/Atkins begins with Johnston, wanders across to Troutbeck, and then back again to Johnston - as the underlining makes clear.

Further on we have:

J. The powers of darkness now assail him, while murd’rous men prepare to seize him.

T. The powers of darkness overtake him, His very friends will soon forsake him.

E/A. The powers of darkness now assail him; His chosen friends will soon forsake him.

Again, the line begins with Johnston (which Troutbeck has also cribbed) and then moves over to Troutbeck.

This is the manner in which Elgar and Atkins proceeded in their translation. In order to see how the rhyme-scheme is affected let us consider a longer passage: EXAMPLE 5 SOPRANO ARIOSO No. 18

–  –  –

Troutbeck’s is better than Johnston’s, and even preserves Picander’s original German AABBCDDC pattern. Then, by comparing the typeface of the Elgar/Atkins lines it is possible to detect which author provided which line. Interestingly Troutbeck plagiarises Johnston twice (lines 4 & 8) and Elgar/Atkins follow suit. Elsewhere there is one further Johnston line (line 1), two from Troutbeck (lines 2 & 6) and three original lines (lines 3, 5 & 7). The rhyme-scheme, after a good start with AABB disentegrates completely. Most noticeably Johnston’s final rhyme-word ‘end’ (which had half-rhymed with ‘hand’) is improved by Troutbeck to make a good rhyme with ‘friend’. Despite adopting the complete line themselves, Elgar and Atkins close the text lamely with no rhyme at all.

Occasionally they improve on a rhyme by a lucky stroke. Aria no. 10 is a case in point.

Whereas ‘Picander’ rhymes the opening two lines, Johnston gives us none:


–  –  –

The meaning is not identical to the German : ‘rends the guilty heart in twain’ is the Stanford improvement on Johnston, and is completely accurate; and yet it. too, fails in the same way as her original.

The translation proceeds in this hybrid manner, throwing up further interesting examples of cross-fertilisation. For example, in the favourite Aria with Chorus from Part 1 no. 26 “I would beside my Lord be watching” we have the interesting situation where the tenor soloist sings words principally by Troutbeck (I would beside my Lord be watching etc) and the chorus replies with Johnston’s refrain “And so our sins will fall asleep”.


And so successive editors and translators have played around with variants of all these

original texts. I myself found much to admire in them. In my Preface I say:

“...My concern has been to restore the rhyme-scheme where possible and to make sure that each of Bach’s syllables has an English syllable of similar stress. Wherever possible.. I have tried to keep to the translation of either Johnston or Troutbeck within an individual movement. When they are good they are very good. For example, numbers 19, 31, 48, 53 and 70 are the work of Helen Johnston who was particularly good at translating the chorales; whilst numbers 28, 33, 44, 47 and 74 are by John Troutbeck who

Neil Jenkins – www.neiljenkins.info 11

had a way with telling phrases in the arias. In many other places the work is principally by one or the other, with only minor modifications having been made. Where neither Johnston or Troutbeck sound right to our... ears I have also taken note of Claude Aveling’s work: in this I am following in the footsteps of the Bach Choir, whose text for its annual performances contain several variants from his 1906 version”...

This Aveling translation is the one contained in the Breitkopf and Härtel edition mentioned earlier. The particular aria which interested me in this version was the Tenor Aria no. 41 which none of the earlier editions did well. The Bach Choir had a good translation which I, as the soloist, often sang; and yet noone could remember where they had got it from. Well, Aveling, as I discovered, was the source. The reason that some of the arias were not well translated by Johnston or Troutbeck seems to have been that - in early performances - some numbers were traditionally omitted. They still often are. No.

41 calls for an athletic ‘cello soloist, and 66 requires a viola da gamba which was not available in the 19th century. Early performances simply omitted the ‘problem’ movements. For the sake of completeness they were included in the published editions, but very few singers must have performed them. Consequently there was no feed-back from the performers on how they could be improved. These are the unsingable texts

Johnston and Troutbeck provide for no. 41:

–  –  –

Claude Aveling now appears as the source for Steuart Wilson’s lines. Although the source is not identified by Novello as coming from the Breitkopf and Härtel edition, this

is his 1906 translation and its Bach Choir derivative:

–  –  –

In conclusion let me state that no edition, from 1862 until my own of 1997, is without its faults. Each new edition has sought to improve on the former, and very frequently succeeds. In the matter of translating the Biblical text we are probably as near as we will ever be to a good match with Bach’s original setting. This has been won by countless years of effort on the part of present-day performers, who have all been allowed their say, and have handed on their improved versions to others - and, ultimately - to me.

With regard to the Chorales: in those movements where Johnston and Troutbeck were perceived to be weak Elgar and Atkins did a very good service by bringing in excellent pre-existing translations of Lutheran Hymns from the Hymnologies of Frances Cox, Catherine Winkworth and James Alexander. In the case of chorale no.63, “O sacred head surrounded”, they were able to use Sir Henry Baker’s magnificent text, which he had written for the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern [1861].

The poetic text of ‘Picander’ will never be as good in English as it is in German. Many hands have been involved in continually shaping and reshaping this. The process will carry on. But always there will be a strong underpinning of that first translation, the one by the pioneer Helen Johnston, which we remember today, one hundred and fifty years after its first performance, and which is so strongly represented (often unacknowledged) in all later editions. As long as singers continue to sing “Commit thy ways to Jesus” and “Jesus, Saviour, I am thine” they will be honouring the durability of her pioneering translation.

–  –  –

Neil Jenkins – www.neiljenkins.info

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