Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Learning Hungarian

Tonight, the little singing group that I'm in started working on the text for Bela Bartok's Cantata Profana. It's the first time most of us have ever sung anything in the Hungarian language. In recent months we have done German, French, Italian, Latin, Russian, and of course English. We've also done some pretty challenging music. But this piece is written in a very unusual language, musically and textually.

Cantata Profana is based on a Romanian folk tale, which Bartok himself translated into Hungarian (and also into English, for the liner notes), before creating his haunting music for choir, soloists, and orchestra. The story tells of an old man who doesn't teach his nine sons any useful, human occupation. So when they go into the woods to hunt deer, they are magically turned into stags. The father goes after them, sees the stags, and is about to shoot at one of them when the largest stag speaks. Don't shoot, he says (more or less). We're your sons! Father tries to coax the sons to come home to their mother, but they declare that they can never go back to civilization. Their antlers wouldn't fit through the doorway!

Every language we have sung in has been a delight and a challenge. We've had to spit out mouthfuls of consonants in a row (in Russian), master infinite shadings of schwa (in German), discover vowels we didn't know we had in us (in French), squish several vowels into a single note (in Italian), and sing gut-wrenching English lines such as, "I wanted to dig him out. I know just where he is" (the widow of a 9-11 victim, quoted in John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls). To say nothing of the notes that go with these words. So we're in good shape to meet the challenge of Bartok.

And I must say that, at first blush, the Hungarian language seems to be remarkably easy to learn. Its spelling is governed by very consistent and simple, though perhaps unusual, rules. Everything is spelled exactly the way it is pronounced (assuming you understand the rules). Every word is accented on the first syllable. There are no diphthongs. There are no schwas. It seems altogether elegant and well put together, as languages go. Wouldn't that be a nice thing for us to have?

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