I’ve just this afternoon come away from a Primary School in the centre of London where I sang to a couple of classes of eleven year olds and talked to them in general terms about classical singing and the world of opera. I always look forward to their questions as you never know what they are going to ask and what thoughts have been going through their heads while I’ve been singing at them. I try to reply as honestly as I can but there are times when I find myself stuck for an answer.

Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

So when one of the children asked me about language, I felt myself hedging and qualifying, a sure sign that I wasn’t sure of the answer myself. I felt it needed further thought.

Let me go back a little. When I responded three years ago to the challenge to learn and present all three of Schubert’s great song cycles in the 2017/2018 season at the Wigmore Hall in London, I was grateful to be able to schedule one cycle a year and concentrate solely on that in terms of my proffered song repertoire. During the course of 2016 I set about studying Winterreise with my first performances scheduled for July of that year.

By an extraordinary coincidence, it happened that Christopher Glynn, pianist and Artistic Director of the Ryedale Festival, had commissioned new, singing translations in English of all three of Schubert’s song cycles from polymath-song-lover, Jeremy Sams. And by a further stroke of luck, Chris thought to invite me to learn Winter Journey with him, unaware that I was studying the original at that exact same time. Even though learning both simultaneously would present me with quite a challenge, I readily accepted as I thought this would be a unique opportunity to get to know the work in my own language as well as in German.

I learned German in school up to O-level and now, of course, wish I had taken the subject, or indeed any language, further. How could I know that my future career would be so dependent on language skills? If only I could reach back in time and whisper in my schoolboy ear – “Pay Attention! This will become important!” I’m grateful though that even this first level of tuition gifted me a basic understanding of how the German language is constructed. But fluent as a speaker I am not (as a German might say). I can cope for a few sentences and then the conversation most often runs out of my control; I am left floundering.

However, I love the sound of German, particularly when recited by a native speaker. It strikes me as a wonderfully expressive language for the very reasons that some singers say they find if difficult, especially in comparison to Italian, for example. The clarity of diction, the insistence on pronouncing every syllable, every letter, gives great opportunity to explore the onomatopoeia of words.


However, and this is the thrust of my point, I still mostly filter German text through a prism of translation. I don’t have, cannot have the same emotional response to the words as I have to my mother tongue. Forging an emotional connection to the words I hear and sing can be done most truthfully and powerfully in my own language. Anything else I have to study; it is less instinctive.

So it is for that reason that I especially enjoy Jeremy’s singing translation of Winter Journey. It helps me connect to the emotional journey of Wilhelm Müller’s story and Schubert’s music on a fundamental level, without filter. Sharing this arc of emotion directly with an English-speaking audience, seeing the immediate comprehension in their eyes in the instant that I sing, is powerfully rewarding.

Jeremy’s skill in this translation, in my view, is in his compromise between fidelity to Müller’s exact text and a desire to have the English flow naturally. He has matched Müller’s deliberately limited and simple vocabulary and produced lyrics that would not sound out of place in a modern-day pop song. A musician and composer himself, he has also tried to find words and sentence structures that fit the shapes of Schubert’s melodies and I think this is where he has been astoundingly successful. It sometimes occurs to me that had Schubert been given these lyrics, he might easily have composed for them the melodies that we already know.

Let me illustrate the differences in the languages by comparing the iconic opening of the first song, Gute Nacht:

     Fremd bin ich eingezogen,
     Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus.     

     A stranger I moved in,
     A stranger again I set out.

Schubert’s melody starts high up on the first upbeat of “Fremd”, which has the effect of highlighting this particular word, a word that has connotations of weirdness, alien, foreign. (It is more of an adjective here, whereas the literal translation reproduced above has turned it into a noun in English.) Once the melody has dropped down towards the end of the first line, it hooks back up again for the upbeat to the second line, again on the word "Fremd".

Jeremy has had to ditch this internal repetition; his version begins thus:

     I came here as a stranger
     A stranger I depart 


Instead, he has gone for a shape that is quasi palindromic. What I miss on those high "Fremd" upbeats I feel is made up for with a different shape, something that helps to suggest the "going in" then "coming out" that is also contained in Schubert’s melodic shape. And, incidentally, I’m also grateful to Jeremy for easing me into those high-ish phrase openings with nice, open vowels. Clearly he had us singers in mind!

The compromises Jeremy makes are deft and sometimes daring. Take as an example the final poem, Der Leiermann, where Jeremy realises he needs to jumble the verses in order to include all the images while retaining the rhyme scheme, fitting the melodic shapes and so on. Here is the original German with a literal translation:

     Drüben hinterm Dorfe
     Steht ein Leiermann
     Und mit starren Fingern
     Dreht er was er kann.

     Barfuß auf dem Eise
     Wankt er hin und her
     Und sein kleiner Teller
     Bleibt ihm immer leer.

     Keiner mag ihn hören,
     Keiner sieht ihn an,
     Und die Hunde knurren
     Um den alten Mann.

     Und er läßt es gehen,
     Alles wie es will,
     Dreht, und seine Leier
     Steht ihm nimmer still.

     Wunderlicher Alter!
     Soll ich mit dir geh'n?
     Willst zu meinen Liedern     
     Deine Leier dreh'n?

     Over there behind the village
     Stands an hurdy-gurdy player,
     And with numb fingers
     He plays as best he can.

     Barefoot on the ice,
     He falters here and there,
     And his little plate
     Is always empty.

     No one listens to him,
     No one notices him,
     And the dogs growl
     Around the old man.

     And he lets it happen,
     Everything as it will,
     Cranks, and his hurdy-gurdy
     Is never still.

     Strange old man,
     Should I go with you?
     Will you to my songs
     Play your hurdy-gurdy?

You can see how the English does not attempt to rhyme or scan. You may also notice how simple the language is. From the repertoire of English (song) poetry that I know, I find myself most often likening it to the outward simplicity and sparseness of AE Housman. However, unlike Housman, there is no hint of subtext; the words and ideas present themselves at face value. (I wonder if there is a cultural difference to be explored and explained here!)


Compare this then with Jeremy’s singing translation:

     By the open road a hurdy-gurdy man
     With his frozen fingers plays as best he can
     Dogs are barking round him

     People come and go
     Still he plays his music
     Shivering in the snow

     Though he’s old and broken
     Though his feet are bare
     No one seems to notice
     No one seems to care
     Everyone ignores
     The saucer at his feet
     Just another madman
     Standing in the street

     I must journey onwards
     Will you come along?

     Play your broken music
     To my broken song.

So you can see here how Jeremy has borrowed the image of dogs barking and people passing by unnoticed from the original Verse Two and transplanted it to his Verse One, but then comes back in his second verse to mention the plate, empty of money. His simple, dare I say, almost predictable rhyme scheme (although it may not have seemed so predictable when Jeremy was searching for his solutions!) matches the German wonderfully and I find myself unable to read these lyrics without imagining Schubert’s melody to them. I especially enjoy how Jeremy has managed to fit the word "broken" in the last two lines of the song to the same two notes of the melody, creating a small internal rhyme that actually isn’t in the original German but which I find hauntingly attractive. And it also echoes the opening of Jeremy’s second verse too. Confining himself to a limited, recurring pallet of words also imitates Müller’s writing style for Winterreise (and Die schöne Müllerin, incidentally).


Now, of course I have felt an emotional attachment to this celebrated song when hearing it or singing it in German.  But I realise that part of that attachment is to the music, to the piano part, the drone in the pianist’s left hand, the despairing rise and fall of Schubert’s melody. The German words are part of that but, I suppose, on an equal footing with the music.

Singing this in English to an English-speaking audience for the first time (and subsequently too) awoke a wave of emotion in me for which I hadn’t been prepared. It is hard to describe but I guess it was a rush of empathy, of pity from one human being to the plight and suffering of another. It connected me to the sight of all the homeless people I see on the streets of our cities on any given day. My heart was touched… and I could barely sing. I realized later that I hadn’t experienced that so vividly when singing in German because there was a barrier, a filter in place; my conscious mind was concentrating on the job in hand rather than roaming freely.

It was an awareness of the present that I can carry through into my German language performances of the cycle. My readings of each of the songs in English has helped me to establish a much deeper connection to the journey that goes beyond merely translating each German word.

Roderick Williams
© Simon van Boxtel

So come on then, I hear that young pupil demand, answer the question! “Which language do you prefer to sing?”

Well, like any politician I gave a lengthy answer that effectively allowed me to claim… Both. I guess it depends on the audience, really. When I sing English language song to an English-speaking audience, the contact is thrilling and addictive. To see the comprehension in people’s faces, even when the poetry is quite complicated, but especially when that poetry is illuminated by a masterful setting, that is hugely rewarding. I might even say that I find that more rewarding than merely ‘singing well’. To be understood, to convey meaning through words and music, that for me is the greatest gift. So to have barriers between myself and the music or myself and the audience, such as language, pages of translations or suchlike, to have those barriers removed from the experience gives me a direct contact with my fellow human beings.

However, when I can fairly confident that an audience knows what I am singing, in whatever language, then singing in the original language, as the composer imagined and set it, is still the default option. Of course. And I would never seek to replace the original German of Winterreise; I only wish to be able to perform both versions, and as often as people will let me.

I’ve had some wonderful responses from English audiences to my performances of Jeremy’s text. I think they feel they have shared both a personal and a collective experience and have been allowed access to a masterwork on their terms. But this tends to be the reaction of people who do not know Winterreise well, perhaps have never heard it before. On the other hand, people who have expressed to me doubt or a dislike of these English performances have, after a little probing, usually admitted either to being very familiar with the piece, and/or being fluent in German. And I have come to realise that my Winter Journey was never really intended for them. Why bother if they have full access to the original?

I am about to embark on a schools project with Chris Glynn, to take Jeremy’s Winter Journey into schools around the country. My hope is that the removal of the language barrier will make this piece accessible to any and every child with ears to hear it. Who knows what they will make of it? But I am confident that, as a result of this fine translation, they will be as open to the words as they are to anything available to them in the pop music world.

I just have to be ready for their questions afterwards.


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