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Old 11-21-2009, 06:55 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Classical music lyrics

I am interested in classical music lyrics (and by "classical" I mean Western classical music from the 9th Century or so up to the present) because I feel words, combined with music, may reveal the spirit of the times...or at least the viewpoints and interests of writers and composers.

What are some classical music choral pieces or arias that interest you because of their lyrics, and what do you feel the lyrics mean?

For example, the lyrics of Johann Sebastian Bach's famous secular aria, "Sheep May Safely Graze" (from Contata BMV 208, composed in 1713) were written by Salomon Franck, who uses both a metaphor and surpisingly concrete language to say that good governments create peace and tranquility among the people. The lyrics appear to be a political commentary, since the contata was written for the 35th birthday of Prince Christian of Saxen-Weißenfels. I was surprised to hear political commentary in classical music from 1713...especially since the impression I get is that the rulers of European countries at the time were not too concerned about the welfare of the masses. Maybe the lyrics are a not-so-subtle reminder of what Franck felt good rulers *should* do.

Below are Salomon Franck's German lyrics (and my English translation), followed by a YouTube recording of Emma Kirkby singing the original German lyrics along with Bach's score. I translated the German lyrics that are part of the Bach score I downloaded from a wonderful online music library my dad told me about, the International Music Score Library Project, International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) Portal.

Two comments about the YouTube video: the famously beautiful "Sheep" aria starts at 0:36...and the accompanying old paintings of nudes don't have anything to do with the song in particular, but are an interesting reminder that people today are in some ways much more prudish than they appear to have been in the past. For example, all public sculptures of nudes in my Iowan city have been created so that the "privates" are covered! Not so in the video.

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"Sheep Can Safely Graze"--lyrics by Salomon Franck, 1713 (translated from German to English by Erica B.):

Schafe können sicher weiden, (Sheep can safely graze)
wo ein guter Hirte wacht, (where a good shepherd keeps watch,)
Schafe können sicher weiden, (sheep can safely graze,)
Schafe können sicher weiden, (sheep can safely graze)
wo ein guter Hirte wacht, (where a good shepherd keeps watch,)
wo ein guter Hirte wacht. (where a good shepherd keeps watch.)

Wo Regenten wohl regieren, (Where rulers govern well,)
kann man Ruh' und Frieden spüren, (one can feel the serenity and peace)
und was Länder glücklich macht, (and what makes countries blissful,)
wo Regenten wohl regieren, (where rulers govern well)
Kann man Ruh' und Frieden spüren, (one can feel the serenity and peace,)
Ruh' und Frieden, Ruh' und Frieden spüren, (serenity and peace, feel the serenity and peace)
und was Länder glücklich macht. (and what makes countries blissful.)
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Originally Posted by Neapolitan:
If a chicken was smart enough to be able to speak English and run in a geometric pattern, then I think it should be smart enough to dial 911 (999) before getting the axe, and scream to the operator, "Something must be done! Something must be done!"

Last edited by VEGANGELICA; 11-21-2009 at 07:16 PM.
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Old 11-22-2009, 06:20 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Very nice post...Enjoyed reading it.

I wish I was educated enough in the history of classical to make an intelligent reply to this, but for me, the only time I listen to classical is in the background when I'm doing something online where I don't wanna be distracted.
I do enjoy it though, and that site you linked seems pretty great, so maybe that's where I'll be going to get better educated.

Some good information though, and its cool that you went to the trouble to translate it. Would love to see more of this.
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Old 11-22-2009, 07:19 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Dieselboy View Post
Very nice post...Enjoyed reading it.

I wish I was educated enough in the history of classical to make an intelligent reply to this, but for me, the only time I listen to classical is in the background when I'm doing something online where I don't wanna be distracted.
I do enjoy it though, and that site you linked seems pretty great, so maybe that's where I'll be going to get better educated.

Some good information though, and its cool that you went to the trouble to translate it. Would love to see more of this.
Hi Dieselboy,
I was rather pleased with my post, too (!) so thanks for your comment . I don't know much about classical music or their lyrics, either, other than most that I hear are religious (and I kind of blank them out when I listen to the music), but the lyrics to Bach's piece were different...almost like a modern folk music song, I thought, especially with the political subject matter.

I'll root around in my spare time to try to find more old lyrics that interest me. I've noticed that when most people write about classical music, they don't often seem to analyze the lyrics and meaning of them closely...so I thought perhaps this is a niche that can be filled (especially since I'm a big fan of poetry and lyrics in music). I like the way lyrics can get you directly into the minds of people long dead so that you can know quite closely what they were thinking. Your new avatar is cute, by the way! It reminds me of a book I read all about underwear...the book said very few people in the past (18th century, etc.) wrote about their underwear, alas. If I could ever find some song lyrics from the 1700s that mention underwear, I will be quite pleased.
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Originally Posted by Neapolitan:
If a chicken was smart enough to be able to speak English and run in a geometric pattern, then I think it should be smart enough to dial 911 (999) before getting the axe, and scream to the operator, "Something must be done! Something must be done!"

Last edited by VEGANGELICA; 11-22-2009 at 07:26 PM.
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Old 11-23-2009, 04:16 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Great post on "Sheep May Safely Graze", Erica! Although I'm hardly educated on classical music and its lyrics, "Sheep" is my favorite classical piece. And you're right: it is almost like a genteel folk protest song. Never thought of it that way before. I'm usually carried off to bucolic dreamscapes when I listen to this composition. Many thanks for the link to that great classical music portal.

P.S.: Underwear = "Air On the G String"? Ha!

Last edited by ribbons; 11-23-2009 at 04:48 PM.
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Old 11-23-2009, 11:51 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Great post on "Sheep May Safely Graze", Erica! Although I'm hardly educated on classical music and its lyrics, "Sheep" is my favorite classical piece. And you're right: it is almost like a genteel folk protest song. Never thought of it that way before. I'm usually carried off to bucolic dreamscapes when I listen to this composition. Many thanks for the link to that great classical music portal.

P.S.: Underwear = "Air On the G String"? Ha!
Ha ha, Liz! That was a very funny joke! That made me laugh. I will never listen to "Air on the G String" without images of thongs in my mind now, thanks to you .

I wish "Air on the G String" had vocals...but it is such a lovely piece that now I am even more inspired and determined to look through Bach's many, many contatas and other classical works of his era to find something funny and peculiar in the lyrics. Surely the lyricists must have had quite a bit of humor in themselves as people...I just wonder if their humor got out through the lyrics as well as the music itself, which can be quite playful. People usually think of classical music as serious, when it isn't necessarily serious at all...although "Air on the G String" does sound like it is supposed to be beautiful and moving rather than playful! It is hard to imagine it as a thong song. Goodness...I just listened to the orchestral version again (below) and now I feel seriously contemplative again...his music really does sound almost divine.

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Originally Posted by Neapolitan:
If a chicken was smart enough to be able to speak English and run in a geometric pattern, then I think it should be smart enough to dial 911 (999) before getting the axe, and scream to the operator, "Something must be done! Something must be done!"
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Old 12-05-2009, 11:52 AM   #6 (permalink)
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I should think that the composer chose such powerful words, because he knew that they would penetrate the heart of the Prince, because of the music and word coupling. Music has a powerful way of penetrating even the thickest of walls, warming cold hearts, and changing old ways.
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Old 12-11-2009, 06:57 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by bandteacher1 View Post
I should think that the composer chose such powerful words, because he knew that they would penetrate the heart of the Prince, because of the music and word coupling. Music has a powerful way of penetrating even the thickest of walls, warming cold hearts, and changing old ways.
Hi bandteacher1,

Yes, I agree with you very much about music's capacity to change people.

I wonder what Bach felt about the lyrics of the contata I mentioned earlier, since they cater so much to the prince for whom the lyricist wrote them. Was the lyricist hoping to change the prince in some way, or mostly just praise him? Other portions of the Bach contata BMV 208, which I quoted in the first post, praised the prince so profusely that the stroking of vanity was almost embarassing. If I had been that prince, I would have felt uncomfortable to hear such adoration (that was paid for). And if I were writing such a song, I would have felt uncomfortable writing such lyrics unless the praise was genuine. Any time some opinion is paid for, I question whether the opinion is true.
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Originally Posted by Neapolitan:
If a chicken was smart enough to be able to speak English and run in a geometric pattern, then I think it should be smart enough to dial 911 (999) before getting the axe, and scream to the operator, "Something must be done! Something must be done!"
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Old 01-31-2010, 08:03 AM   #8 (permalink)
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i absolutely love etta james's songs. they're beautiful
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Old 02-01-2010, 05:17 PM   #9 (permalink)
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John Dowland's stuff is incredible.. but he's not really classical It's almost like Elizabethan sonnets put to music. I hope it's not too far off of what you would be interested in but I thought I would share.



The lyrics, I feel, are about a man who finally finds a woman that he sees as constant; doesn't change her mind, says one thing and does it, etc. (I don't feel this about women but I guess that's the stereotype). BUT she isn't interested in him and is obviously upset but knows that "love is free" and he can't change her.
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Old 02-25-2010, 05:03 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by CanwllCorfe View Post
John Dowland's stuff is incredible.. but he's not really classical It's almost like Elizabethan sonnets put to music. I hope it's not too far off of what you would be interested in but I thought I would share.



The lyrics, I feel, are about a man who finally finds a woman that he sees as constant; doesn't change her mind, says one thing and does it, etc. (I don't feel this about women but I guess that's the stereotype). BUT she isn't interested in him and is obviously upset but knows that "love is free" and he can't change her.
A belated thank you, CanwllCorfe, for your post, which I didn't realize you had made until today! I have never listened to John Dowland before...though now I know more about him from wikipedia: John Dowland - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The song you shared actually sounds quite humorous to me, with all the reptitions of "no no no no" etc. Thanks for bringing Dowland to my attention!
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Originally Posted by Neapolitan:
If a chicken was smart enough to be able to speak English and run in a geometric pattern, then I think it should be smart enough to dial 911 (999) before getting the axe, and scream to the operator, "Something must be done! Something must be done!"
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