Super flumina Babylonis
, Op 52, was published in 1859 by Richault. The title is from Psalm 137 and the original edition is embellished with a translation into French of the Hebrew poem. Comparing this version with a dozen other translations available in Alkan’s time, the Domenican brother Michel Albaric draws some irrefutable conclusions: the text is unedited, but it has a strongly Protestant or perhaps Jewish flavour (containing as it does words like ‘The Eternal’ and the use of the familiar rather than formal word for ‘you’). This leads one to suppose that the translation is Alkan’s own. And so we have a remnant of the complete translation of the Bible which Alkan admitted to having made but which he undoubtedly destroyed. He wrote, for example, to Ferdinand Hiller on Saturday 21 August 1858: ‘Moreover, I’m still doing my Semitic Studies, as you call them, my dear, mocking friend. I mean by that that I copy out and translate three or four verses every day. Now, as the days have been adding up, I have thus already done more than three quarters of the Bible for my own use. I try my hand too, sometimes, at translating bits of poetry; though, after great effort, I often have to give up on this. For want of other forms of pleasure, at least I have the pleasure of sometimes finding that other peoples’ efforts are even less fruitful than my own; although they are at least managing to publish theirs’. And on Thursday 3 January 1861 he wrote: ‘And as you were asking about my translation of the Bible, I will tell you that I’ve finished all the canonical books, and I’m now on to the Apocrypha. I’m finishing Ecclesiastes, and I’ll be starting Baruch next, God willing. It’s about the only thing that I do with any regularity, as well as my studies. Which is to say that I’m not doing anything of much worth, since this translation will have served no more than to stop me from admiring the translations of others: except perhaps Luther’s’. And to add to this extraordinary confession: ‘There are times when, if I had to start my life all over again, I would love to set the whole of the Bible to music, from the first word to the very last’. On 30 May 1865 he made a confession which is quite astounding for a practising Jew: ‘In beginning to translate the New Testament, I immediately had a strange feeling: It was that it seemed to me that in order to truly understand it, one has to be a Jew’.
Musically, Super flumina Babylonis is a striking work in which Alkan represents the psalm quite faithfully. There are three sections to the piece: firstly a ‘Quasi Adagio’ in G minor, rich in markings such as ‘lamentevole’, ‘sostenuto in infinito’, ‘suavissimo’; this runs into harp-like effects in the left hand. After several passages of recitative we come to a ‘Vivacissimo’ in C major ‘con energia’; some more harp effects lead to the finale—‘Allegro feroce’ in G minor—in which the mood is one of incredible violence.
from notes by François Luguenot © 2001
English: Ansy Boothroyd