What happens to the words denominations when a composer turns to composing music in a language other than his or her native language?

by Anders Flodin

Language is an important part of musical composition, especially in the art of combining music and text. But what happens to the words denominations when a composer turns to composing music in a language other than his or her native language? How does the language affect the composition process? 

Velimir Khlebnikov was one of the foremost writers in Russian futurism, and he is included among the pioneers of modern literature. His poetry is a sound phe- nomenon. The language he used is music. The vowels are the strings of the alphabet, the consonants are the tonic forces of the spirit. The poetry moves within two major areas: the magically scientific language Zaum and the game of word riddles and Slavic phonemes (Zaum – is a neologism, coined by Aleksei Kruchenykh, that describes words or language possessing indeterminate meaning). Khlebnikov sought to produce an international, basic world language and not pure sound poems. His poetry has embedded Zaum parts while these are explained in normal language. The dialects, the language of the sectarians, the witches, the devils and the gods can be found here. It is the language of nature, animals and time. 

The Italian Filippo Tommasso Marinetti’s graphic poems, depicted by words of freedom and without the Greek grammar, circle around the beliefs of futurism in a world of technological advancement; the car, the telegraph and the war. The musical realization uses the futuristic principles of Luigi Russolo’s sound art, which also gave impetus to the latter musique concrète. Many of the futurists’ sound poems have deliberately been deprived of their semantic content and should rather be regarded as an expression of immediate and original human emotions. 

When Dmitri Shostakovich composed his song cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry” he consulted his colleague Mieczysław Weinberg’s wife, Natalia, daughter to the famous and eminent Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels. The poems Shostakovich intended to compose were Russian translations of poems in Yiddish. Shostakovich then learnt the articulation in the original texts and customized the composition into both Russian and Yiddish languages. During the Soviet era the attitude towards Yiddish was a very negative one, so to put these poems in the preface was impossible. Today there is one edition with the original text in Yiddish as well as in Russian. In Sokolov’s book Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich it is said that Anna Akhmatova expressed her displeasure over the “weak words” he used for his vocal cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry”. Sokolov writes that Shostakovich did not want to discuss this with the famous poet but indeed he did not think she had understood the music in this case, or rather that “she didn’t understand how the music was connected to the word.”

With this as a background what is the difference not only between language and music but also a foreign language and music put together? Juan G. Roederer writes in his article Physical and Neuropsychological Foundations of Music

With language, cortical areas emerged specializing in linguistic information processing. Language per se is of course, a learned ability: it is not inborn. What is inborn are the neural networks capable of handling this task and the motivational drive to acquire language […] Could it be that inborn in humans is a genetic motivation to train the language-handling network in the processing of simple, organized, but otherwise biologically irrelevant sound patterns – as they indeed occur in music?

Roederer, 1982, pp. 41-45. 

When I compose music with a text in other than my native language I ask myself: Why do I use a foreign language as a soundboard for my composition? When I look back on my process I can see a pattern which can be separated in two main fields: 

– I would like to adopt a new culture
– The sound of the new language is appealing to me 


Baumgarth, Christa (1966). Geschichte des Futurismus. Hamburg: Rowohlt. pp. 88-91.

Dempsey, Christopher (2009). On Zaum and its use in Victory Over the Sun. In Essays on Victory Over the Sun, Volume 2, ed. Patricia Railing, pp. 57-65. East Sussex: Artists Bookworks.

Rikskonserter (1983). Musik i vår tid ‘83 EXVOCO. Stockholm.

Rikskonserter (1986). Musik i vår tid ‘86 EXVOCO. Stockholm.

Roederer, Juan G. (1982). Physical and Neuropsychological Foun- dations of Music. In Music, Mind, and Brain, ed. Manfred Clynes, pp. 41-45. New York: Plenum Press.

Shostakovich, Dmitry (1982). Collected works, volume thirty-one, Romances and songs for voices and Orchestra. Moscow: State pub- lishers “Music”. pp. 104-176.

Steiner, Evgeny (2009). On Zaum and its use in Victory Over the Sun. In Essays on Victory Over the Sun, Volume 1, ed. Patricia Railing, pp. 153-154. East Sussex: Artists Bookworks.

Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature. https://www.wdl.org/ en/item/20031/view/1/1/ [20190131]

Volkov, Solomon (1979). Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 273-274.

Wilson, Elisabeth (2006). Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. London: Faber and Faber. pp. 260-272.

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