Lost in translation

The former president of EMI Classics once told me that classical music had a natural advantage over other forms of music: since a lot of it is instrumental, it travels extremely well.  There are no language barriers.  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is just as comprehensible in São Paolo or Kyoto or Reykjavik as it is in Vienna, where it was composed.

Putting aside obvious exceptions such as opera for a moment, I tend to agree with this idea.  Classical music is the most abstract of all the arts.  Literature, fine art, theatre, dance and film all started out as essentially representational art forms.  Music has always appealed to some other, less literal part of our brains.

So the task of having to describe it in literal terms is somewhat antithetical to its nature.  For most of classical music’s existence, composers have rebelled against the notion of ascribing concrete meaning to their music.  That’s the reason a work as elementally powerful as Beethoven’s Fifth is known by its form, Symphony, and its number, 5, rather than by some reductive nickname such as “Fate” or “On Deafness” or “The Napoleonic Wars Really Suck“.

However, that essentially abstract nature doesn’t help us much when we’re trying to find music, because the way we communicate – with search engines, just as with one another – is through the medium of verbal language.  With search engines we don’t even have the advantage of being able to ask them what the name of that piece that goes “da-da-da-daaa” is – at least not yet!

So we’re stuck with written language, and that’s where things start go awry.  The other day, a friend told me I should check out Jos van Immerseel’s recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.  So this morning on my way home from the gym, I thought I’d try and find it on Spotify and give it a listen.

I was looking for it on my iPhone, which gives me the option of searching Tracks, Albums or Artists.  As I wanted to listen to the whole album, I searched under Albums.  No results.  What a shame, thought I.  But then it occurred that perhaps I should look under Tracks.  Still no results, but this time a suggestion: “Did you mean immerseel sheherazade?

I had to look closely at my screen to see how that differed from what I’d asked for.  When I tapped the suggestion it brought up the following set of tracks:

  • Shéhérazade, Op. 35: La mer et…
  • Shéhérazade, Op. 35: Le réci…
  • Shéhérazade, Op. 35: Le jeune…
  • Shéhérazade, Op. 35: La fête à…


It was clearly a French release of the album that had been left untranslated for an English-speaking audience.  The problem with this is that Shéhérazade is, to the English-speaking world, a completely different piece by Ravel, a set of orchestral songs not to be confused with the symphonic suite by Rimsky-Korsakov.

It didn’t help that Spotify’s iPhone app had also handily removed Jos van Immerseel’s name from the metadata.  Instead, underneath each track was the mysterious term “Anima Eterna“.  In other words, if I hadn’t known the opus number of Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece and the fact that Jos van Immerseel’s orchestra is named Anima Eterna, I’d have had absolutely no idea that I’d actually found what I was looking for.

This is a classic example of how badly classical music suffers from shoddy metadata.  In Lelio‘s master database, we have a way around this: every piece of data is multilingual.  We don’t have Scheherazade in there yet, but try searching for something like “Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus”.  You should get The Creatures of Prometheus Overture by Beethoven.  Once we turn on multilingual support, German speakers will be able to do this in reverse.

In the meantime, do check out Immerseel’s Scheherazade or Shéhérazade or, as Rimsky himself would have known it, Шехерезада.  It’s worth waging battle with a search engine for.