Bichette and Quinquin speak English

Well, actually: hardly ever.

The English translation of the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier is hard to find in any form. There is only one undertaken to date, by Alfred Kalisch, around the time of the work’s world premiere (1911). ENO administered some changes to the text in 1994 for the purposes of its production, but no other version is done in English for almost a century now.

And though the Germans keep the original text by Hugo von Hofmannstahl fabulously available (a cursory search on Powell’s and Amazon offers e-book versions, printed versions of various vintage, one even published by the library of a large American university), there is barely anything in English. You may find the odd antique on the online market, here and there somebody offering their Met libretto from the 1940s, and a press call Nabu Press apparently does exact reproductions of  the early English translation from the 1920s.

Luckily, there is one exception to this dearth.  The Overture Opera Guides’ Der Rosenkavalier — it can be confidently said — is absolutely the best thing available for this purpose to an anglophone. Although this 2011 reprint is not a new edition (there are currently about six spiffy new editions of the guides, and I have already reviewed one), and the 1980 Calder guide survives for the most part unaltered, it is still an excellent resource.

The photographs are all  black and whites from between 1911 to 1975, and they give the book an elegant vintage-y atmosphere. The three principal essays are still good reads. Derrick Puffett situates the work musicologically and historically; Michael Kennedy does a close motif-by-motif reading of the score along with the text, with highlights from the correspondence between Strauss and Hofmannstahl. Peter Branscombe writes about Hofmannstahl and his writing life. There is the Selective Discography and Bibliography in the back, and although they stop at early 1990s, they are still very useful.

The centrepiece is of course the libretto itself, with German and English side by side. The introductory note to the libretto explains that there are three German versions of the text: the one found in the vocal/piano score (most often reprinted in the liner notes of the recordings), the one in the complete score, and the most comprehensive text published as part of the Hofmannstahl critical edition, the one that the writer probably intended as the version for reading. The Guide’s editors worked from the ’39 full score and the critical edition.

The score and the score text are, if I’m not mistaken, now owned by Boosey & Hawkes. Who owns the English translation, does anybody know? Even if it’s old and probably could do with a do-over, it still should have been reprinted every now and then. I was curious to know what is behind the scarcity of English versions. Does anybody have any educated guesses or knowledge? I’m speculating here… Is the Hofmannstahl estate (if there is such a thing!) unwilling to sell translation rights?

Some B&Q moments from the Guide:


22 thoughts on “Bichette and Quinquin speak English

  1. Talking of historical Rosenkavalieren, have you seen the film of the 1961 Salzburg production? It puts most modern opera DVDs to shame for technical quality and is a fascinating chance to watch Schwarzkopf and Karajan in action.

  2. I’d guess it’s Boosey & Hawkes who own the rights to the libretto (although Hofmannsthal’s own work should all be out of copyright by now?), and thus to translation rights thereof. What was the last recording that came with a libretto? Has there been one since Fleming’s project got the axe?

    1. I wonder about Hofmannstahl. He did die in 1929, but European regulations allow estates to hold these posthumous rights forever. It was 60 years, I think, and recently they extended. Anybody in the loop?

      Last recording, you ask? That’s even more interesting. DVDs, yes; re-issues of old wine in new bottles, a lot; new audio recordings of complete Der RK, mmmnot so much. So Fleming wanted to record it? If she can’t get it recorded, I haven’t a clue who could.

      1. About copyrights: just had this discussion with my brother-in-law who happens to be in the law business : he says it 30 years now… but I though 50 was the magic number… so I guess there is some confusion out there 😉

        1. That’s probably North America, Canifrose, non? I know I shouldn’t trust Wiki pages, but this one does show life+ either 50 or 70 for most European countries. Also, the good folk of IMSLP/Petrucci (who often get into trouble with the too ardent posthumous copyright zealots on this side of the Atlantic) have a really good and simple break-down here:

          I wonder what the situation is with French-language translations of Der Rosenkav, or Italian, for example.

          1. My measure for German language authors’ public domain status is whether it’s up at Hofmannsthal is up (Rosenkavalier included), but Thomas Mann is listed as in lock-down until Jan 1, 2026 — assume this means they will have someone waiting with their finger on the button, and at 12:00:01 Der Zauberberg will go live, and there will be worldwide rejoicing with fireworks and champagne and silly hats and everything! Booyaa!!

            Ahem. So, anyway, the 70 year rule was in effect, last time they were looking. But they may all be in the slammer now, who knows.

          2. Bichette et Quinquin parlent français semble-t-il ?

            I have found this translation (and it’s downloadable):
            by Jean Chantavoine (le bien nommé !). This seems to have been the text used for the French premiere in l’Opéra de Paris, February 10th 1927 c. Phillipe Gaubert.

            Interestingly enough – and to answer a question you had earlier, we find out in the first few pages that the rights are (or were?) owned by Adolph Fürstner – Berlin.

            On another note, I have been amused to notice the many french expressions “dans le texte” as a reminder that this language was one for the aristocracy.
            No so true anymore…

      2. I would think new studio recordings of operas will become quite rare. It’s a lot less expensive, and perhaps generally more appealing, to do a video version off a live performance, especially if there’s a TV broadcast to carry most of the recording cost.

        1. Compared with twenty years ago, they are already quite rare. Remember when the Domingo Tristan came out it was widely considered to be the last hurrah of studio opera recordings, because it cost nearly a million to make and EMI were never going to recoup that investment…not monetarily, anyway. Can that have been only six years ago? Seems like a different age.

          1. Fascinating read. But this:

            “During the 80’s we went mad, making far too many records, many of them, frankly, not so good. And we made ludicrous commitments to artists for 5, 8, 10 CD’s a year…”

            sounds incredible. Maybe I’m now so removed from that period that I can’t even imagine it. That, or he’s taking the stars as representative of the whole eco-system.

            1. I think you’re right, he’s judging by the Three Tenors’ recording schedules. And he’s really talking about a much smaller playing field overall, pretty much Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Strauss and Mozart, plus the usual outliers. We didn’t have much in the way of baroque opera or bel canto, two fields that have grown exponentially since 1990. For recording the Italian rep, there pretty much were only Three Tenors. Also, if he’s talking about the 80’s, he means LPs, not CDs, which could translate contractually to a lot of 45 minute bleeding chunks records and an obligatory Christmas disc.

              Nevertheless if a singer of any stature was debuting a particular role, back then a studio recording of it was almost guaranteed. Which also meant a lot of secondary gigs for singers under contract. So yeah, I can see where those numbers add up.

  3. Canifrose, mais certainement! And most of the dialogue in War and Peace is in French for that same reason.

    John, yes, that’s exactly it. The opera CDs are phasing out, but what helps is that live performances can be recorded as CDs. I think most opera CDs are now recordings of live performances (or two or three, spliced and adjusted). When I get my hands on an in-studio opera CD, I think, Geez, you have a lot of money, good on you. Last time I thought that was the Curtis-DiDonato-Donna Leon underwritten Ariodante CD.

    Stray and Tha Dieu, great resources.

    This is now one of my top three favourite conversation threads evah. Treasures all around.

  4. Late to this informative, erudite, and entertaining discussion, but: I had read that one of the obstacles to translation of the libretto was simply the nature of the text itself. Hofmannsthal (at Strauss’ insistence/encouragement) created a pastiche of Viennese dialects, archaisms, of course incidental French, and other sundries to stymie the would-be translator. I love the fact that the opera thus has its own language, in a sense, but it does make things difficult.

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