It's All About the Language

Language sets vocal music apart from instrumental music—and may even turn it into an entirely different art form. Singers undergo training and preparation that is very different from that experienced by instrumentalists. We learn, and warm up with, the basic Italian vowels—a, e, i, o, and u—but that’s only the beginning; not only do we have many more vowels than these to learn, but we have to relearn even the basic five as we move from language to language. [a] in Italian is very different from [a] in Russian. And then there are the consonants, bewildering enough in our own language, but really mystifying when moving far afield-- “what do you mean, isn’t T just T? And L just L? ” The looks of blank incomprehension that greet critiques of the manner in which T and L are pronounced, are priceless. And the various sounds of language, the phonemes, are just the beginning. Singers have to sing as though they understand what the language means, too. Ideally, all of the singers in a choir would be linguists, reading and speaking numerous languages, ears and brains open to new sounds, new meanings. The truth is far from that. So, when tackling a major work in a foreign language, the conductor has to arrange, in advance, to spend a considerable amount of rehearsal time on extra-musical matters, and to enlist extra-musical help. The work we are currently preparing, Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, sets a text entirely in Old Church Slavonic—a language in which I have no particular proficiency. The editor of the edition from which we are singing has devised a helpful, comprehensive transliteration and pronunciation system—he even sends out a CD of the text spoken by a knowledgeable speaker—but Chorale goes further, and has a language coach, Drew Boshardy, present at all of our rehearsals (he also sings with the group), who reads the text, has the singers repeat it, corrects their errors, listens to them sing it, corrects them again—and is vigilant throughout the rehearsal process, jumping in with comments whenever he hears something questionable. He also points out the meanings of specific words, and guides us in word accents and the overall mood of particular phrases.

Drew has a degree in Slavic languages from the University of Chicago, and his help is invaluable; if we didn’t have him, we’d have to find someone much less convenient. We make the same sort of arrangements when we sing in German, French, Norwegian; care for language is a very important part of the Chicago Chorale experience. Agreement on vowel color is essential to good intonation; clear, uniform consonants define rhythm. And the meaning of the text determines interpretation. Even if listeners in the audience are not aware of what we are doing, or if a particularly juicy acoustical space obscures the details we so carefully stress, the precision and care with which we present the language, and the music, still comes through. We sound together, and committed.

Singers, and choirs full of singers, stand to learn a great deal from instrumentalists: from their precision, their intonation, their careful control of dynamics and color. Often, when preparing the major Bach works, I talk in rehearsal about the way in which string players would accent or phrase a certain passage, simply because of the characteristics of their instruments. But I have often noticed, as well, in the instrumentalists’ printed parts, that some players write the words in at crucial points, to guide them in the choices they make—and I rejoice to see this. Singers bring something very special to a musical preparation. We all profit through learning from one another.