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Is English a Singable Language?


It is well known that the great operatic vocalists dislike to sing in English, and, with few exceptions, refuse to do so. The initial reason for this is the fact that they have all acquired their art either in Italian, French, or German, and know that the English-speaking publics are indulgent and do not, like Continental audiences, demand a text intelligible in their native tongue.

Another reason, equally potent, is the deplorable fact that British and American poets have not turned their attention to the building of beautiful, musical, euphonious, emotional, terse verses, which enter into close and mutually helpful relations with tones. The English language is rich in vowels of that class which may be called “mezzotint” vowels. The Italian language has but six vowel sounds in constant use, while the English has eleven, plus five diphthongs. From this peculiarity of our speech has arisen a most pernicious usage, widely prevalent among voice trainers, which is nothing less than torturing and distorting all the expressive, narrow vowels, or mezzotint vowels, until they surrender to their nearest neighbors among the large, rotund vowels.

There is one law of the voice which must be alluded to in this place in order to avoid misunderstanding. This law is that the upper two or three semitones of the compass of a voice will be found to rebel and resist bitterly and stubbornly the enunciation of words containing any but those vowels which lie in the middle region of “ah” and “oh.” Thus, any word built around the sound “oo,” as in “soon,” or around “ee” as in “sweet,” will be hard to get out without either producing a tone too mellow and hollow or too piercing and shrieking. It is now my object to assert and to illustrate my actual experiences, and my fixed principles upon the danger of tampering with the small or narrow vowels.

A leading teacher in Cincinnati once said to me: “There is really no vowel harder for our American pupils to utter than just the standard one, the Italian ‘ah.’” This remark led me to make some investigations, and I learned, to my amazement, that in the first stanza of the celebrated “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” by Thomas Gray, a piece of simple and model English, with nothing of a special character about it, there are only four syllables containing “ah,” while there are in all the four lines of the stanza not less than forty syllables. Here was the reason at once. The Italian language, on the contrary, is filled with “ah.” Another incident called my mind to this all-important matter. A young lady once asked to sing to me for an opinion, in my critic days on the Cincinnati Commercial. She had been trained for years by a widely known Italian teacher in New York City. Imagine my amusement and my disgust when the line, “fills my heart with joy and gladness” came out: “feels my heart with joy and glaudness.” The final word almost sounded “glawdness.” I have since read many ludicrous anecdotes on this head, and have had many similar experiences.

One of the best which I ever read was printed by Mr. L. C. Elson, of Boston. He heard a church singer, who evidently had been warned against the narrow, nasal Yankee “A,” shout out this sentiment: “My trust is in the God of bottles.” It may have been a startlingly literal fact; but, as a rule, a church singer would far better not put his trust in Bacchus, the god of bottles; and, if he does, he should not proclaim it in Divine worship before the whole congregation.

This same narrow V as in “fan,” is a beautiful sound, and it need not be made so pinched as to sound mean and twanging. A young lady was taking a lesson from me and had the song: “It Was a Dream,” by Cowen. At the end, after enumerating a long list of lovely and appropriate surroundings and poetic accessories to his dream of past happiness, the lover, who is visiting, after absence, the scenes of his earlier rambles, says, “We kissed beneath the moon’s soft beam.” Imagine my amusement when the student, who had not the courage to trill out an “i” narrow on that upper G, assured me that “We cussed beneath the moon’s soft beam.”

On another occasion a young man had to sing the words “Ah, share! ah, share thy boon with me!” when, finding “oo” rather too mellow for the upper F-sharp which was the climax of the phrase, he called out the rather lamentable petition: “Ah, share! ah, share thy bone with me!”

Recently, a young lady, who had been a favorite singer of her city for years, found it difficult to credit my strictures upon her pronunciation. Singers think, because they know what they intend to say, that a listener, in utter ignorance of the lines to be uttered and emphasized, ought to catch the words through all the thick, clustering, flowery hedge of tones with no uncertainty. When told what the vowels actually sound like, they always think that one is purposely burlesqueing them. This lady was singing the lovely song of Mignon in the opera of the same name by Ambroise Thomas. It is the exquisite utterance of her homesickness and dim longing for that palatial home of her childhood from which she had been stolen away by strolling gipsies. The closing lines say that she wishes to go thither, and and (sic) live there until death. The actual words are: “to live, to love, and to die.” Now, by not getting the vowel, narrow “u,” as in “sun,” correctly, and by weakening the consonant v, this remarkable longing was launched into the ambient air: “to live, to loaf, and to die.”

Speak your words as you would utter them in conversation, when you sing, only make them more scrupulously exact, finished, rounded, and prolonged; then you will not make these absurd statements. “Fill” is not “feel,” “gladness” is not “glawdness,” “battle” is not “bottle,” “kiss” is not “cuss,” a “bone” is not a “boon” except to a hungry canine; and while it may be human to wish to go where one may live and “loaf” till death, the expression of such a sentiment does not arouse admiration in the listener.

[Bearing on Mr. Van Cleve’s article we quote the following from an interview with Sig. Alberto Randegger, the celebrated teacher of singing, as quoted in a London paper:

“Singers do not study sufficiently; they certainly do not study so long as the instrumentalists. The fault with present-day singers is that they do not pronounce their words properly. It is not surprising remembering that they are not taught English properly at the majority of schools, although they learn other languages. This should be rectified. You cannot hear or make out what they are singing, and the result is that you go to a ballad concert to hear English songs sung by English vocalists, and you have to buy a book of the words. This is something which gives foreigners a good opportunity to ridicule the English. The Welsh are much better singers than the English, and the Irish and the Scotch pronounce their words better.

“The ballad remains an English product grown for English consumption. Any girl or young man can sing a ballad, because little vocal effort is required, given a good natural voice and a little sentiment. But it requires a certain amount of mental development to interpret properly a German lied or a French song by Massenet or Saint-Saëns. You English have no poets like Heine, Uhland, or Goethe. The words of all your ballads are more or less nonsense, and the verses are written at so much a dozen.

“My advice to singers is that they should thoroughly pronounce their words when singing, and that they should, when possible, sing only the highest class music.”

Both teachers and singers should pay more careful attention to matters of diction, and aim for a simple, clear, free enunciation, so that words shall be distinctly intelligible at any pitch. Singing then becomes, as a celebrated teacher expressed, “an artistic talking on a tune” and it can be made perfectly intelligible.—Editor The Etude.]


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