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Translations of early music texts

Please find below a selection of Italian, Spanish and French early music texts in their original language with their translations into English by Paul Archer. They are provided to aid musicians and audiences who are unfamiliar with these languages in their understanding of the lyrics and appreciation of their poetical and dramatic qualities.

For those unfamiliar with the term 'early music', it refers to music composed in the pre-Romantic period and includes Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music. Its origins are in popular folk songs and dances and religious choral music and we can trace how these were developed by composers into art song, ensemble music and early opera. This development was aided by the patronage of royal and ducal courts as well as the church, by advances in instrument making and the invention of the printing press which allowed the works to be notated and widely diseminated, and to survive as an inspiring force through to modern times.

We are so used to the multitudinous forms of modern music, from classical to jazz and all the types of popular music from rock to hip hop and rap, that it's worth remembering that this was the only music that people had then. And, equally obviously, they could only hear it live in performance - whether this performance was in the splendour of a ducal court or by minstrels in the street. These venues were very different from the modern concert hall with its tiered rows of seats. This meant that the music had to have both immediacy and intimacy and secure the engagement of its audience.

This is one of the reasons for the appeal of this music today. It has the feeling of 'pure music', stripped back to its bones without the lushness of later sonorities as produced for example by the piano, the full orchestra or the engineered mixing of pop music.

Similarly the lyrics that inspired this music had to have an immediate impact on listeners. As you will see from the lyrics selected below, the texts seek to immediately transport the audience into a state of heightened emotion while evoking the rapture and vicissitudes of life and love. The power of language is surely one of the most valuable assets that humankind has developed and its force is harnessed most intensely by the best poets. This was understood at the time, and one of the greatest of Renaissance composers, Monteverdi, is often quoted as saying that the music should be the servant of the words. Yet if the words are in a foreign tongue, the listener can be left without the full experience that a performance of these songs could provide. Where translations exist, and this is by no means always the case with these lyrics, they can in places be wooden or have vague obscurities that prevent them from making much sense. The art of translation is of course a balancing act between staying faithful to the original's tone and sense and its rendering in natural language; I hope that I have kept on the right side of this balance more often than not in the translations that follow below.

The translations are under copyright which means that reproduction is expressly forbidden unless permission from the author has been first obtained and the work is attributed to him. This is also a matter of courtesy. Please contact Paul Archer regarding how you wish to use the work; permission will usually be granted.

Click on the song titles below to read the English translation and original text.


La bella noeva
Son a battenti

Giulio Caccini (1551-1618)
Amarylli mia bella
Belle rose porporine
Odi, Euterpe

Marchetto Cara (active 1620's)
Io non compro più speranza
Non è tempo d’aspettare

Sigismondo d'India (1582-1629)
Piangono al pianger mio

Andrea Falconieri (1585-1656)
Cara è la rosa

Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (c1580-1651)
Alma mia
Che fai tu
Figlio, dormi
Già risi
Ite, sospiri miei
O dolci sguardi
O fronte serena

Stefano Landi (1587-1639)
A che più l'arco tendere
Canta la cicaletta
La Passacaglia della Vita: Bisogna morire

Biagio Marini (active 1620's)
Meraviglia d’Amore

Tarquinio Merula (1594-1665)
El me tira nott'e di

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Si dolce è’l tormento

Eri già tutta mia

Domenico Obizzi (active 1620's)
Hor che vicin mi sento
O sospiro amoroso

Francesco Patavino (c1478-c1556)
Un cavalier di Spagna

Giovanni Stefani (active 1618-1626)
L'amante felice

Barbara Strozzi (active 1619-1677)
L'amante segreto

Bartolomeo Tromboncino (1470-after 1534)
Ostinato vo’ seguire
Zephyro spira e ‘l bel tempo rimena
Su su leva

Francesco Ratis (1600?-1676)
Ciaccona di Paradiso e dell'Inferno

Adriano Willaert (1490-1562)
Vecchie letrose


Falalán Falalalera
Passava amor su arco desarmado
Soy serranica
Vuestros ojos

Juan del Encina (1468-1529)
Ya soy desposado

Juan Vásquez (1500-1560)
¿Con qué la lavaré?
Morenica, dame un beso

Luis de Milán (c1500-1561)
Agora viniesse un viento
Durandarte, durandarte
O gelosia, d'amanti

Alonso Mudarra (1510-1580)
Claros y frescos ríos
Gentil cavallero
Ysabel, perdiste la tu faxa

Diego Pisador (c1509- after 1557)
Si la noche haze escura
Si los delfines mueren de amores


Heinrich Albert (1604-1651)
Der Mai, des jahres herz, beginnt
Ich steh in angst und pein
Letze Rede
Soll denn mein junges leben

Johann Nauwach (1595-1630)
Ach liebste lass uns eilen
Jetzund kömpt die nacht herbey

Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)
Als Filli zart eins etwas durstig ward
O seidene Härelein
Unverhofft kommet offt

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