Classic makeovers and poetry in translation: the case in favour … with Rob Cowan on Classic FM


Another site (Friends of Radio 3) has commented that when it comes to programming music I have a noticeable penchant for arrangements. And it’s true, Carmen as reinvented by Vladimir Horowitz, Franz Waxman or Sarasate; Liszt taking on Don Juan (and countless other operas); Schubert arranged by Berio, Mottl or Koechlin (Wanderer Fantasy); Art Tatum’s Massenet or Dvorák, or Stan Kenton deconstructing Wagner (of which a New York Times critic apparently wrote ‘now I know what Wagner lacks …. bongos!), all have a strong appeal. Last night between 7 and 9 on Cowan’s Classics at I played Bach orchestrated by Percy Grainger, Mussorgsky arranged by Shostakovich not to mention Beethoven’s Second Symphony re-thought as a piano solo by Liszt and a great new recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet played on two pianos (and sounding uncannily like Bernstein). All this can be accessed via CFM’s Listen Again facility. Just so that you know, to access the programme on the CFM website click ‘Listen’ in the top right hand corner which opens a new window; after the advert, you’re then clicking onto ‘Listen Again’ which brings up an alphabetised list; and you can see Cowan’s Classics with Rob Cowan And, yes, I’ve more arrangements planned for Saturday nights on CFM, that’s for sure.

On a similar subject I think of poetry in translation, especially the wonderful ancient Chinese T’ang Dynasty (618-907) poems as reinvented by Arthur Waley or Ezra Pound (in Cathay), or as magnificently set to music – in German – by Mahler. What they provide us with is in effect another set of poems, something entirely new, rather than translations in any literal sense. Stephen Mitchell’s Rilke offers numerous other excellent examples of how those ‘without the [relevant] language’ can experience the hub of a poem’s meaning as transmitted and transformed by another sensitive poet. Both issues I think are well worth discussing.

17 thoughts on “Classic makeovers and poetry in translation: the case in favour … with Rob Cowan on Classic FM

  1. Mark

    Delighted with the “listen again” function Rob, this means you are once more my companion at work on a Monday morning – they don’t seem so bad now! Looking forward to the Stravinsky piano arrangement.

    Re poetry in translation it was pointed out to me recently that the majority of people who read Shakespeare now do so in non-english translation (he is read in almost every country in the world). The upshot of the translation is that Shakespeare now appears in “modern” language setting. ie he is not translated from 16th century english to 16th century Russian, but 21st century Russian.

    How do you feel about Shakespeare or Chaucer being “translated” into modern english? Just a thought.


    1. Thanks so much Mark. Speaking personally I’m against Shakespeare being ‘translated’ into modern English but think that with Chaucer too many people find the original intimidating and it’s important to have the modern option to hand. But ideally you should make the extra effort in both cases, just as you would at the centre of Mann’s Dr. Faustus and, in a different sense, in the big works of Joyce or Wallace Steven’s poetry. Very best. Rob


  2. David Edwards

    Absolutely – what’s good enough for Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky,the 2nd Viennese School and Birtwistle (Bach Measures, Machaut à ma manière) – not to mention the Swingle and Kings Singers’ repertoires –
    is OK by me. And thank goodness Liszt arranged other people’s music; at least that way we get some decent melodic and indeed musical invention (sorry, I’m not the world’s biggest Liszt fan). I thought the Beethoven 2nd symphony arrangements in last night’s programme were inspired programming. One might almost claim that the orchestral version of The Rite is the arrangement! These things can often shed a fascinating new light on the music – think how Strauss tone poems can be transformed in their piano versions. As for poetry, yes, wonderful too – provided the poet doing the translating is a genius. Luckily we have had quite a few recently: Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney just to list the most obvious among the Hs. To be savoured as wonderful recompositions using some of the elements of the originals. Since all translations will inevitably be marked as products of their own time, it’s probably best to exploit the freedom this implies and aim for something different but with its own logic and brilliance. The thing is impossible anyway, as anyone who has ever translated anything knows!


  3. Thanks so much for that David. ‘As for poetry, yes, wonderful too – provided the poet doing the translating is a genius.’ Totally true, and the three you mentioned are fine examples. So glad you listened last night but I have to confess to an error, regarding the Conus Violin Concerto (Mark please take note too). There were three Conus brothers and before the Concerto (though not after) I credited Georgi has being the composer of the E minor Concerto rather than Julius …. many apologies for that. But I will at least credit myself with (rightly) pronouncing his name ‘Konyus’ rather than ‘cone – us’. What a performance, though! Very best. Rob.


    1. David Edwards

      Oh dear Rob, now why did you have to spoil it by bringing up the concerto? Because that’s where our tastes differ I’m afraid. It was the first time I’d ever heard the piece, so I’m very grateful to have now done so, but I found your remark about film music spot on, plus passages of technical wizardry for violin fanciers. But as music I could not take it seriously at all (a collection of stale or absurdly ‘period’ gestures for me). And when the slow movement interrupts proceedings, which in theory is an interesting thing to do, the upward swoop and sad theme just brought a smile to my face and an involuntary ‘Oh God!’. Heifetz is an amazing technician but he lost me at the beginning, that first note with the vibrato already going strong… it reminded me why I can’t take contemporary Russian string quartets seriously as they do the same thing, only more blatantly. I guess I was just born a few decades too late for Conus – ‘shouldn’t there be an r before the n?’ would sum it up for me. I love lots of contemporary stuff which 99 people in a hundred hate and this was the other side of the coin. Please forgive! (By the way, the playlist would seem to have got the first name wrong too.)


      1. ‘Shouldn’t there be an r before the n?’ Shades of ‘more corn than gold’ when people talk about Korngold David. I guess we have to agree to disagree here, which is rare. The Conus is I suppose a Russian equivalent to Vieuxtemps VC 5, similar scale and design, though with the heat full on. Heifetz plays the fearless virtuoso, fast-tracking to the tear ducts but listen to his peerless Beethoven Concerto (under Munch rather than under Toscanini) or his many high-octane chamber music recordings – including the so-called Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts – and you have a great player who although still fairly intense is as capable of subtlety and deft, throw-away gestures. I’d start with the middle movements of Mozart’s G minor Quintet K516 where the sense of tragedy is palpable, or the dazzling finale of Mendelssohn’s Octet. Very best. Rob


  4. BertieRussell

    There’s a wonderful essay by Christopher Hitchens titled ‘The Acutest Ear in Paris’, where he compares two different translations of À la recherche du temps perdu into English. It’s obvious that creativity is required, and is employed to great effect. Also there are great translations of Shakespeare into Greek by Vasilis Rotas. I remember hearing the passage:
    Now entertain conjecture of a time
    when creeping murmur and the poring dark
    fills the wide vessel of the universe
    rendered into Greek, and being absolutely ravished. One could derive pleasure from both versions: a new form of beauty had been added to the world.


    1. Bertie! Just to let you know that you lot are costing me a small fortune (also Jonathan Gharraie on a more recent thread). I bought the Hitchens book and agree entirely about the article on Proust translations (not to mention other first-rate essays in the book). One of my other ‘obsessions’ is John Ruskin who Proust translated. In fact there are books on the subject, one by Dr.Cynthia Gamble who I’m fortunate enough to know – she’s a great authority on Proust. I’m hoping to acquire her ‘Proust as interpreter of Ruskin: the Seven Lamps of Translation’. Next year is Ruskin’s bicentenary so if you’re interested we must launch into some sort of dialogue. Very best, Rob


    1. BertieRussell

      Hello Rob!

      It’s included in his book of essays: Love, Poverty and War, but is also free on the web. His essays on Anthony Powell are also a pleasure to read (free on the web too). I listened to Koechlin’s orchestral version of the Wanderer Fantasy after your recommendation on this blog. Quite excellent! Thank you,

      All the best,



  5. BertieRussell

    Isn’t the famous jazz standard ‘Autumn Leaves’ a set of (marvelous) variations on a theme, appropriated from Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture ? The melody is first given to the oboe and then to the orchestra at the end of the composition.


  6. Brian Astell

    With about 10 recordings of Debussy “La mer’ i still return every time to Guilini on EMI.Superbly recorded and performed. Brian Astell


  7. BertieRussell

    I’ve stumbled on a couple of marvelous examples, of how translated poetry sometimes might even be better than the original. The first one is Pushkin’s ‘The Poet’, translated by Antony Wood. Please look it up. I first became aware of it, from a concert of a selection of Tchaikovsky’s songs broadcast from Wigmore Hall. The actor Ralph Fiennes performed the recitation of the texts that P.I. T. set to music. The beautiful last lines of the poem often float into my consciousness of their own accord. The second example, is Cavafy’s poem ‘The Trojans’, translated into English by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. It ends with the quatrain
    Yet we’re sure to fail. Up there,
    high on the walls, the dirge has already begun.
    They’re mourning the memory, the aura of our days.
    Priam and Hecuba mourn for us bitterly. 
    The penultimate line, is a thoroughly-almost irreverently- creative rendering of the original Greek: “των ημερών μας οι αναμνήσεις κλαίν και αισθήματα”. Which could roughly be put into prose as: our days’ memories and feelings are weeping for us”. It’s always moving in Greek, in English however, its unforgettable.


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