I just listened through to the Schubert song cycle Winterreise which has some wonderful tunes in it.

The program notes say it is a deeply melancholic and in parts terrifying work, but as a non-German speaker, I've no idea what's being sung about.

Was Schubert composing using the concepts of the poem or using the actual vowel and consonant sounds of German? Should we treat the original language of repertoire songs like this as sacrosanct, and would it no longer be Winterreise if sung in English?

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    Have you tried 'Ascendo'; - they're good German speakers..? – Tim Jun 25 '20 at 14:53
  • @Tim - It hadn't occurred to me that Schubert might sound better through German audio equipment… – Brian THOMAS Jun 25 '20 at 15:11
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    I, for one, could never much appreciate Schubert's songs, despite being German. – leftaroundabout Jun 25 '20 at 20:27
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    @KilianFoth I am a physicist and statistician, and I assure you that your statement is purely opinion and cannot possiblly be fact -based. – Carl Witthoft Jun 26 '20 at 13:33
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    Dumb answer: No, of course it does not matter where your speakers were manufactured. – user253751 Jun 26 '20 at 15:36

Any vocal work can only be fully appreciated by listening to it in the original language, whether that language is German (Schubert's "Winterreise", or any Wagner or Strauss opera) or Italian (Puccini, Verdi etc.), because a translation nearly always loses some of the detail of the original. In extreme cases the whole meaning can be lost, particularly because of the need to fit the rhythm of the lyrics to the music. If you don't understand the language you have no choice but to rely on a translation but you can get very close to the original experience by reading a good one along with the music. Most major opera houses perform works in the original language with supertitles for this reason.

There are plenty of translations of "Winterreise" available on the net probably at least some of which will be good. There are also recordings performed in English (note: this recording illustrates my point from the previous paragraph, the meaning of the text has been changed). It's up to the listener to decide whether to listen to them.

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    The question can be extended on all kind of songs and poems composed in music! I’ve rarely found an english song - pop song or religious hymn or musical lyrics - translated in german that touched me like the original version, and never ever that the translation would have been even better. It is worth to learn a language to understand the full essence and soul of a song. mind also chanson français or canzone italiana. – Albrecht Hügli Jun 25 '20 at 13:41
  • @PiedPiper I accept it's a widely held view that the original language is the best. But would you explain why? It seems to me I'd get more from hearing English, even if it's only a paraphrase of the original text, even if that offends the purists! For instance, I'd get far more out of a modern translation of "Canterbury Tales" than I would struggling through the language it was originally written in... – Brian THOMAS Jun 25 '20 at 14:35
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    @BrianTHOMAS A translation nearly always involves some loss of nuance, in extreme cases the whole meaning can get lost. Obviously if you don't understand the language then you have no choice but to rely on a translation. Chaucer's English is effectively a foreign language for speakers of modern English, it only makes sense to read the original if you understand it. – PiedPiper Jun 25 '20 at 18:02
  • @AlbrechtHügli The exception being (at times) songs that have been written knowing they would be translated, by the original group that performed the original song. – Mast Jun 26 '20 at 7:27
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    How can you possiblly claim that "only in the original language.." ? There is no a priori reason to expect that a translation, be it music, poem, or sci fi novel might not be more enjoyable than the original. – Carl Witthoft Jun 26 '20 at 13:32

To add to some already good answers, one reason it can be so worthwhile to know the original language is to fully appreciate the text–music relationships that the composer set.

There's a technique known as text painting (or word painting) where a composer makes a musical reference to the text being sung. Perhaps there's a chilly wind that passes the protagonist, and Schubert accompanies it with a swirl in the right hand of the piano; perhaps a new heroic character is mentioned, and here for the first time Wagner uses one of his most famous Leitmotive ever; or perhaps there's some foreshadowing where a character will eventually die, and we can know this because Verdi slyly inserts a tonality he so often uses for death.

As others have said, translations often miss nuance. But they also destroy the location of the text in the music, which can cause non-native speakers to miss some of the most clever compositional feats of these great composers.


The trend is clearly against translating. While operas were frequently translated into the local language still in the 20th century, this sharply declined with any historically informed performance.

Schuberts melodies have easily an impact on the interested listener (no matter, how hard they are to play or to sing). The poems he chose were of widely varying quality: from friends, who would probably be unknown to most of us, if there was no Schubert song connected, up to the masterworks of Goethe and Heine.

A good intermediate solution between original language song and translated song may be, to get hold of a poem translation (CD booklets have them typically or the labels provide them online as Naxos here.) Without the necessity to match the melody and to rhyme, more precise translation is possible. The linked booklet has the added benefit, to mention, where Schubert deviated from the poets original.

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    That's right. A translation which has to fit the scansion of the original setting will never be as accurate as a free translation. Rigoletto ends with the words La Maledizione!. Correctly translated as The curse! it can't be sung to Verdi's music and has to be bulked out to seven syllables. This results in daft lines like, The demon's curse has crushed me! – Old Brixtonian Jun 25 '20 at 16:26

I think this is unanswerable, because there's no way to quantify appreciation.

I suspect the authors of the other answers have valid points when they point out that translations crippled by the requirements of scansion will often not be as good as the original text, but I'm fairly sure that there are exceptions. Scansion notwithstanding, some non-English idioms are pretty much impossible to translate into English with any degree of poetry (Così fan tutte, for example). But I'm not convinced that more and deeper knowledge always adds to enjoyment, and certainly not to a sufficient extent to justify the pain of its acquisition.

Take Shakespeare. I'm a native English speaker, and a fairly literate one at that, and I love Henry V; but I was really surprised to learn from Bill Bryson that some of the heavily-accented pseudo-English words spoken by Catherine in Act 3, scene 4 would have been gross (and hugely comical) obscenities to an Elizabethan/Jacobean audience. Is my appreciation less than theirs, because that passes me by? I don't know (though I'd wager that watching it without that knowledge but also without toothache, kidney stones, bladder stone, or lice, and with an actual woman playing Catherine, I have the better deal).

My point, such as it is, is that you can overthink this. If you can love Winterreise as a piece of music with accompanying random vocal sounds, do so. If you feel you need to know what the vocal sounds mean in order to appreciate it better, by all means follow a translation as you listen, or listen to a decent English version (I don't know of one, but then I also really don't like Schubert's music). If you feel you must learn German, then by all means do so. But don't spend your life feeling you're being cheated because at any given time you can only like a thing that you like in the way that you can, at that time, like it.

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