The Wonders of the Language of Music

Jun 2023
5-minuute read

Music is written in the many languages of the world—some that we may not understand and some that we do.

A few months have passed since I began working with Dr. Gurrola on her project. It has been an exciting and difficult project. However, I am grateful and proud to be a part of this project and to be working with an excellent teammate and professor. Upon the start of the spring semester, the commitment to completing this project was my top priority. During fall 2022, I was assigned to begin translating one of Felipe Pedrell's books. With the help of Dr. Gurrola and the language dictionaries that were provided for us, we could complete the book's translations.

When the translations were completed, I met with Dr. Gurrola and Daniel Trevizo to discuss the next portion of this project. We each gave each other a follow-up on what we accomplished and how much work it took us to get to where we are now. During the first translations, I researched independently to understand the trilogy and the composer behind it all. During that research, I found the libretto to the trilogy that also ties to the previously translated book. My teammate, Daniel Trevizo, had also completed his assigned portion of the project. Dr. Gurrola divided the libretto into equal amounts so that Daniel and I could speed up the translation process. To give a better understanding of this, let's first begin with what the definition of what a libretto is.

"Libretto" is an Italian word originating from libro, the Latin root liber, or "book." The libretto is a text written for a musical work such as an opera, oratorio, operetta, etc. These pieces of text provide stage directions, repertoire that will be performed, the list of characters, etc. After discussing the text, we realized that this book written by Victor Balaguer was tied to the first book we translated, Por nuestra mùsica. Felipe Pedrell and Victor Balaguer, the librettist, worked together to bring Por nuestra música and Los Pirineos Trilogia together to not only tie their collaboration together, but to have a better understanding of the storyline.  The title itself, Los Pirineos, is a mountain region that is located on the northeast part of the Iberian Peninsula. This peninsula acts as the border between Andorra, Spain, and France and extends east-west from the Mediterranean Sea to the Cantabrian Mountains, which is where Pedrell’s story begins.

Victor Balaguer’s libretto to the trilogy starts by providing the background, notes, and observations to the reader or audience and allows the reader and/or audience to understand what is happening in this trilogy. It provides insight into the story and what the characters need in order to come to life and also provides the reader, musician, and music enthusiast with biographies of each character and divides them into the acts they belong to. In this portion of the book, we are provided with verses from some songs performed in the trilogy. There are also short descriptions of the music with notes that tell the musician/reader which character performs in each particular act. We are given the scenes and the texts that each character will use to learn what the conversations are about, but also to be able to portray each character to the best of the singer’s ability.

Right away, one can see that his book is different than what Pedrell had written, this libretto is different from the first book that was translated in the sense that it is not a play-by-play book with explanations as to why certain techniques or compositional practices were used, but rather the story that sets up the trilogy, the conversations between each character. The previous book was in French, which was more accessible perhaps because it was easier to understand and use a French-to-English dictionary. On the other hand, the book that we are currently working on translating, the libretto is in Catalan. By far, the language is what made this current work difficult. It has made it more difficult not because we have to understand what was going on, but because we were not fluent in the language.

The book's first section was entirely in Catalan, and I had to find a way to translate it. This did not prove to be a little easier because I was able to understand most of what Pedrell wrote because I am a Spanish speaker.  Although I was able to use online sources to translate, there were a couple of words that needed help finding a translation because of these words are no longer in use or because it is an antique work that is hard to translate. I began to highlight the words to identify which needed to be translated. This allowed Dr. Gurrola to guide me and find the proper translations. As I continued to translate, I noticed that two sections of the text were the same. Although it looked the same, it was not. The section above is Catalan, and below are the Spanish translations. This made translating so much easier because I am fluent in Spanish. As I slowly started to translate the language, I was able to get a better understanding of what the plot to the story is, and also helped me put the music to the translations easier. I was even able to understand the emotion that each character would have to emulate.

With this project, I have learned a lot about languages. I've learned that music is more than just notes on a page, what they mean, etc. It is also about the beauty behind the language and how it is written. It is about understanding the music in a deeper extent than just words on a page.  The words and the music must coexist together, otherwise one loses the emotional content of the work as a whole.  However difficult and interesting the translation has been, it is beautiful in its original language and in the other languages into which it was translated. This trilogy is also an incredible work of art, one in which careful details was given in order to making it easy to understand other languages, there words are similar to the Spanish language that I know. I also learned about teamwork and how it is essential to help every team member in any struggle. Each of us has different experiences in this project, so adjusting isn't always easy, but that is the sole meaning of a team. We are in this project together to create something incredible. There is no such thing as a language barrier in music. The power of music is what creates the idea of a barrier.

Now as we near the end of the project, we are working on submitting the finished work to the Journal of Singing and the Journal of Musicology, in hopes that we can get our work peer reviewed by others outside of out institution and published.  We are also preparing for our virtual lecture which will take place at the end of April. This will be a great opportunity to explain our project and get people interested in learning more about Felipe Pedrell and excited about performing his music.


Written by Ashley Y. Garcia, Undergraduate Research Fellow

El Paso Community College, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP


Banner image courtesy of Ashley Garcia.


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