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Study in Phrasing. I.

Because of the intimate relations of poetry and vocal music there is much light to be cast from verses upon tunes, and from tunes upon verses. As soon as we begin to set words in order, into feet, lines, and stanzas, the question of collocation, the place for separation, and the proper place for that separation, becomes of cardinal import. So as soon as we begin to arrange tones into motives, measures, phrases, and sentences the proper way to gather them into close connection or to separate them into more or less widely divided groups must be considered as of prime importance.

When we sing we usually take about four times as much time to utter the words as when we read or recite them. This slowness can never be less than about one-third their spoken time without producing a ludicrous effect. To sing as fast as one utters spoken language is supremely comical. Just think of those inimitable character-songs in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and this will be clear. Now, if the words are thus slowly pronounced when singing, it becomes evident that a long, involved sentence, with many words, complexly arranged, army-wise, in platoons, companies, regiments, and brigades, would soon grow unintelligible. To catch the meaning of a large number of words in a complex relation we must hear them distinctly, but as rapidly as is compatible with absolute distinctness of utterance. Listen to a halting, hesitating, stammering public speaker, and this will be glaringly illustrated. So, then, a set of words to be made to cut through a broidered veil of tones must be short, and set in very simple syntactic relationships.

It is lamentably true that very few poets know enough about the difficulties and principles of singing to prepare their words properly, and it is equally lamentable that few composers are careful enough as to the sentiment and structure of the poems they set to tones. Most of their musical garments are wrinkly ready-mades, and not perfect tailor-made suits. A teacher is quite justified in altering either the tones or the words of a song which is found thus defective. Without adding any more generalities take an instance to make this clear. It is not uncommon to find the definite article “the” set to a note on the accented part, of a measure, particularly when it comes at the beginning of a line. In a song which I have in mind the composer has been so utterly careless as to set these words “the while,” against A-flat, an eighth, on the beat, then fifth-line F, a quarter. Here is the light syllable “the,” the very lightest of all words,—paralleled only by one, the indefinite article “a,”—this “the” is set strongly against the thesis, or ictus, the down-beat of the measure, while the real accent of the word is cast over into a syncopated relation. My custom is to alter the tones in this passage, thus: to prefix a sixteenth A-flat, before the bar for the tiny syllable “the,” then set the word “while” against both the tones, slurring them. This makes the word to come out with a clearness quite delightful. The singer is not put to it to do something abnormal, the word is not distorted until its value in the prosody is lost, and the listener is saved a blurred impression upon the ear, which it is only possible to follow with a free use of guess-work.

Neither poet, with far-fetched words; nor musician, with awkward tone-fingers; nor singer, with slovenly delivery, dares sin against the hearer. All the rights belong to the hearer. Those who cannot minister to edification and to delight have no moral or artistic right to trespass upon the precious time of the listener.—J. S. Van Cleve.

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