The Language Wars

The single most important difference between singers and instrumentalists is, that singers express through words.  The sounds of words, and the meanings of words.  The meanings of individual words, and the ideas expressed by many words strung together.  Singers who do not care much about words and text, or who lack sensitivity to the sounds of language, have a harder time being successful; choral conductors who lack interest in literature, and lack training in teaching both the sounds and the meanings of words to their singers, in several languages, are at a real disadvantage. A choral concert, like a song recital, is all about words.  Whether a choir sings in its native language (in Chorale’s case, American English), in one of several versions of Latin, or in the handful of other languages which are set in the choral canon, singers put a considerable amount of effort into learning basic sounds, and then into regularizing pronunciation across the ensemble.  Oft-times, ones own vernacular is the most difficult:  each native speaker has his/her personal pronunciation, influenced by regional dialect, and sings this version unreflectively, without listening to or thinking about what other members of the ensemble are singing.  When I sang in German with the Gächinger Kantorei, a choir of German singers in Stuttgart, I found that the group had “word police”:  a designated member would assert a particular, formal version of German pronunciation, and then insist, with the help of other members, that individual members shed their regional and personal dialects in favor of this uniform version—a version none of them actually spoke in day to day life.  I witnessed a related phenomenon when I studied at the Nice Conservatory with Gérard Souzay, a notably impatient, exacting teacher.  He insisted on formal, “classical” pronunciation from all of us, but was particularly hard on native French speakers; when they would sing French texts with modern, conversational pronunciation (for example, uvular r’s), he would explode at them, accusing them of demeaning their native language, and the great poetry they had inherited.

Chicago Chorale’s current concert preparation includes pieces in German (Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes), French (Poulenc’s Les chemins de l’amour), Lowland Scots (Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of Robert Burns’ poem, Ca’ the Yowes), Nynorsk (Grieg’s song Våren), and American English (Jerome Kern’s All the Things You Are).  The Brahms pieces take up forty minutes of our program, and are a lot of work for our singers; but Chorale frequently sings in German, and a piece in German is required of all singers who audition for us—theoretically, we are all aware of the formal pronunciation required of the Gächinger Kantorei (and of every other ensemble singing serious German texts), and know how to work on it.  French is very difficult for us-- many French sounds don’t exist in American English, and most Americans have a poor grasp of how to reproduce these sounds, even when we hear them spoken or sung accurately. Fortunately, the formal pronunciation of French is as prescribed as that of German:  there is a right answer; and because the chorus portion of the song is limited and repetitive, a passable pronunciation can be beat into our heads, with enough time and concentration.

Våren is our biggest problem.  Nynorsk was the brainchild of nineteenth century Norwegian academics and nationalists, who sought to combine aspects of the many regional dialects and variants of spoken Norwegian, into a single spoken and written language, which would help to differentiate both the language, and the Norwegian culture, from that of the Danes who had ruled them for hundreds of years.  Several poets, among them Våren’s author, Åamund Olofsson Vinje, created a new literature reflecting this new language—but the language was theoretical, in constant flux, and beset with rules which did not necessarily work in the minds, ears, and mouths of its intended speakers. Perusal of the many versions of Våren on Youtube reveals as many versions of the pronunciation, as there are recordings—and an equally bewildering number of spelling variants, in those cases in which the words have been reproduced. Though Norwegian children are required to study Nynorsk in school, the language does not seem to have caught on in the complete and unifying way its inventors intended:  Bokmål, the country’s formal language, has steadily moved away from Danish over the past 150 years, taking on characteristics of Nynorsk, anyhow, and seems to be eliminating the need for the new language.  In the meantime, though, we have the problem presented by having to sing this invented language properly—a language which, practically speaking, exists in no canonic, workable version.  We have settled upon a particular pronunciation, provided by Jone Helesøy, a Norwegian woman who happens to be my son’s kindergarten teacher, and are blocking out the variations which lure us to other sources—and we expect that few in our audience will know the difference, anyhow.

Robert Burns’ poem, Ca’ the Yowes (which appears to have existed in some from before he was born, but which he wrote down, and to which he added his own verses), is written in Lowland Scots, and basically utilizes the sounds which became Mid-Atlantic, American English.  We recognize them, can mimic them; our problem is basically to learn them, to do our homework.  All the Things You Are challenges us to be thoughtful about our own language, to treat it is carefully as we would a foreign language, to pronounce uniformly across the group, to ”sing the sounds of language, rather than the language itself,” as Robert Shaw often said.  No easy thing, with a text so familiar and beloved as this one; I often feel like the very chief of the language police.

All this, we do for our own enjoyment—and also for yours!  Please come and hear the results of our hard work, on Sunday, May 18, 2 PM, at the Logan Center.