Translations of early music texts
Here is a collection of Italian, Spanish and French early music texts with their translations into English. They are provided to aid musicians and audiences who are unfamiliar with these languages in their understanding of the lyrics and appreciation of their poetical and dramatic qualities.
For those unfamiliar with the term 'early music', it refers to music composed in the pre-Romantic period and includes Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music. It's origins are in popular folk songs and dances and religious choral music and we can trace how these were developed by composers into art song, ensemble music and early opera. This development was aided by the patronage of royal and ducal courts as well as the church, by advances in instrument making and the invention of the printing press which allowed the works to be notated and widely diseminated, and to survive as an inspiring force through to modern times.
We are so used to the multitudinous forms of modern music, from classical to jazz and all the types of popular music from rock to rap, that it's worth remembering that this was the only music that people had then. And, equally obviously, they could only hear it live in performance - whether this performance was in the splendour of a salon in a ducal court or by minstrels in the street. These venues were very different from the modern concert hall with its tiered rows of seats. This meant that the music had to have both immediacy and intimacy and secure the engagement of its audience.
This is one of the reasons for the appeal of this music today. It has the feeling of 'pure music', stripped back to its bones without the lushness of later sonorities as produced for example by the piano, the full orchestra or the engineered mixing of pop music.
Similarly the lyrics that inspired this music had to have an immediate impact on listeners. As you will see from the lyrics selected below, the texts seek to immediately transport the audience into a state of heightened emotion while evoking the rapture and vicissitudes of life and love. The power of language is one of the most useful assets that humankind has, and underlies all else, and its force is harnessed most intensely by the best poets. This was understood at the time, and one of the greatest of Renaissance composers, Monteverdi, is often quoted as saying that the music should be the servant of the words. Yet if the words are in a foreign tongue, the listener can be left without the full experience that a performance of these songs could provide. Where translations exist, and this is by no means always the case with these lyrics, they can in places be wooden or have vague obscurities that prevent them from making much sense. The art of translation is of course a balancing act between staying faithful to the original's tone and sense and its rendering in natural language; I hope that I have kept on the right side of this balance more often than not in the translations that follow below.
The translations are under copyright so reproduction is forbidden unless permission from the author has been first obtained and the work is attributed to him. This is also a matter of courtesy. Please contact Paul Archer regarding how you wish to use the work; permission will usually be granted.
Click on the song titles below to read the English translation and original text.
La bella noeva
Giulio Caccini (1551-1618)
Amarylli mia bella
Belle rose porporine
Marchetto Cara (active 1620's)
Io non compro più speranza
Zephiro spira e ‘l bel tempo rimena
Non è tempo d’aspettare
Sigismondo d'India (1582-1629)
Piangono al pianger mio
Andrea Falconieri (1585-1656)
Cara è la rosa
Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (c1580-1651)
Stefano Landi (1587-1639)
A che più l'arco tendere
Canta la cicaletta
La Passacaglia della Vita: Bisogna morire
Tarquinio Merula (1594-1665)
El me tira nott'e di
Biagio Marini (active 1620's)
Domenico Obizzi (active 1620's)
Hor che vicin mi sento
Francesco Patavino (c1478-c1556)
Un cavalier di Spagna
Giovanni Stefani (active 1618-1626)
Barbara Strozzi (active 1619-1677)
Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c 1470-1535)
Ostinato vo’ seguire
Francesco Ratis (1600?-1676)
Ciaccona di Paradiso e dell'Inferno
Adriano Willaert (1490-1562)
French and Spanish translations to follow.
Please contact Paul Archer if you would like to request a translation.