Norwegian language coaching

Chorale’s Norwegian language coach, Jone Hellesoy, began her first session with us, on Grieg’s Fire Salmer, with a disclaimer:  Norwegian is not a unified language, and there is no one way to pronounce it.  She described Norway’s topography for us:  small villages in remote valleys and along isolated fjords, historically separated from one another, each with its own dialect or pronunciation.  This, together with Norway’s political history—centuries of domination by both Denmark and Sweden-- has left the country with a tangled linguistic map.  Jone did not, as some writers will do, predict a future in which the various strands of the language would finally coalesce, organically, into a single language—rather, she told us we should choose one particular pronunciation—that of Oslo and the east coast—and stick with that.  And she then zinged us—she told us that she, herself, speaks a southwestern dialect, which includes a uvular [r] rather than the flipped [r] we want for singing, and that she cannot flip an [r]—we would just have to imagine it!

As we got into our texts—a series of hymns written over the past several hundred years—Jone often found herself stumped, both by the meanings of the words and idioms, and by their pronunciation.  She would say, “This is a Swedish word,” or “I think this is a Danish expression,” and sometimes she would declare, with exasperation, “I have no idea what this word is, or what it should sound like.”  As I mentioned in my September 28 blog, I have two recordings of the Grieg, one by a Danish choir, one by a choir from Olso, each pronouncing according to its own national rules; where Jone is in doubt, we follow the Oslo recording—presumably, they either know what they are doing, or have made some acceptable, arbitrary decisions.

Mainly, and importantly, what we got from Jone is a sense of the overall sound—how the vowels are formed, how the consonants (with the exception of [r]) are articulated, how diphthongs and off-glides are handled, the character of the phrases-- the ups and downs, the peculiarly musical quality which lends itself to a typical two-bar phrasing—and the “color” of the overall sound.  This is invaluable, and speaks strongly in favor of working with an actual native speaker-- it would be good to hear her reading our texts, more often!

Language is fluid and constantly changing, constantly varying; for the purposes of choral performance, however, we need a somewhat “frozen” standard, in order to satisfy our need for uniformity and purity of sound.  When I have sung with Stuttgart’s Gächinger Kantorei, I have been surrounded by singers who come from all over Germany, and bring with them their own, very distinctive accents and dialects; were they to pronounce sung German with these accents, the result would be worthless.  A single, knowledgeable singer is nominated to correct pronunciation—all variants are referred to him, and he corrects them, unifies the group’s presentation.  Germany is fortunate in having a recognized standard, as are other, major European countries, like France and Italy--  “classical” singers are trained to utilize this standard, and it is recognized world-wide.  French for instance is spoken with a bewildering range of accents, world-wide; but a trained singer would not sing Debussy with a Haitian or Vietnamese accent.

American singers study the “lyric diction”of these languages as a matter of course, and often become remarkably skilled at singing in languages which they don’t in the least understand.  A study of recordings from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present shows that even these artificial “standard” pronunciations change over time-- but very slowly, and in aspects to which singers easily adapt.  Smaller, more out-of-the-way countries like Norway, however, have neither the population, nor the international cultural impact, to require, for purposes of export, the imposition of a standard—so when a composer of international stature, like Grieg, comes along, his vocal music, though of very high quality, can easily be neglected.  Grieg himself, knowing this, published most of his choral music and songs with alternate, singing German translations-- but, like any first rate composer, he is too accurate and skillful in the presentation of his own language, to be easily and smoothly translatable—something just sounds “wrong” when he is sung in German or English.

Chorale, as a central part of its mission, sings wonderful but out-of-the-way music.  Inevitably, this requires that an inordinate amount of time be spent with language. Part of our audition process focuses on the singers’ ability to reproduce, accurately, the sounds of a foreign language. We are fortunate that our singers tends to be highly educated, and interested in the challenges with which they are confronted--  our ambitions would be unrealizable, were they not so!