How to Sing an “Ah” Vowel in Choir

Choir directors have often told me that the “ah” vowel is the most difficult one to tune. The discussion often ends right there, or begins with explanations of how to shape the mouth or vocal placement, or even showing an “ah” from a model.

The issue, however, is not that people have trouble getting their mouths around a particular vowel, but that U.S. ears have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing the different open back vowels. So what one winds up with after a degree in singing or choral conducting is this International Phonetic Alphabet vowel chart (note the question marks):

Vowel Chart as many Americans conceive of it. All the lower and right ones are questions.

When a choir is asked to sing on an “ah” vowel, often they conceive of a migrating point among those question marks. This is because even well-trained singers were never drilled on the sounds that each of those vowels in question makes. This post will try to fill in the gap a bit. Continue reading How to Sing an “Ah” Vowel in Choir

Singing Sweelinck in Dutch Latin

For another flavor of Latin, let’s look at how Latin was pronounced in Amsterdam in the early modern period.

Based on the information given in Harold Copeman’s Singing in Latin, here is an IPA transcription of “Hodie Christus natus est” (“Today Christ is born”) that Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck set and had published in 1619. It is probably Sweelinck’s best known choral piece.

Hodie Christus natus est. Noe!
ˈhɔdie ˈkrɪstʏs ˈnaːtʰʏs ɛst nɔe

Salvator apparuit in terra canunt angeli
zɑlfaːtʰɔɾ əˈpaːɾʏɪtʰ ɪn ˈtʰɛɾə kaːnʏntʰ ˈɑŋxəɫi

lætantur archangeli exultant justi
leˈtʰantʰʏɾ ɑɾxˈaŋxəɫi ɛkˈzʏltʰantʰ ˈjʏsti

Dicentes, “Gloria in excelsis Deo! Alleluia!”
dɛiˈsentʰɛs ˈxɫɔɾia ɪn ɛkˈzɛɫzɪs ˈdeɔ ɑlelʏja

I have yet to hear a recording that tries it. I will bet it is much easier to sing the alleluias when the u is at the front of the mouth than in the Italian style that is universally used.

Pronouncing the Pater noster in Modern English Latin

The following transcription is based on Harold Copeman’s transcription of a reading given by John Field and Charles Low of the Westminster School, who both followed the rules of John Sargeaunt’s explanation of “Old Style” or Modern English Latin. I’ve also included his transcription of the Gloria Patri (that’s right, pronounced PAY-trigh). Enjoy.

Pater noster qui es in cælis,
[ˈpʰeɪtʰɚ ˈnɒstɚ kwaɪ ɛz ɪn ˈsiːlɪs]

sanctificetur nomen tuum:
[saŋktɪfɪˈsitʰɚ ˈnoʊmɛn ˈtʰjuʊm]

adveniat regnum tuum:
[adˈvɛniat ˈɹɛɡnəm ˈtʰjuʊm]

fiat voluntas tua
[ˈfaɪæt βɔˈlʊːntʰas ˈtʰjua]

sicut in cælo et in terra:
[ˈsaɪkʊt ɪn ˈsiːloʊ ɛtʰ ɪn ˈtʰɛɹei]

et dimite nobis debita nostra,
[ɛtʰ ˈdaɪmɪtʰi noʊbɪs ˈdibɪtʰa ˈnɒstʰɹa]

sicut et nos dimitimus debitoribus nostris:
[ˈsaɪkʊtʰ ɛtʰ nɒs ˈdaɪmɪtɪmʊs dibɪˈtʰɔɹɪbʊs ˈnɒstɹɪs]

et ne nos inducas in tentationem:
[etʰ ni nɒs ɪnˈdjukas ɪn tʰɛntʰaʃiˈoʊnɛm]

sed libera nos a malo.
[sɛd ˈlaɪbəɹeɪ nɒs eɪ ˈmeɪloʊ]

Gloria Patri

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto
[ˈɡlɔːɾia ˈpeɪtraɪ ɛtʰ ˈfaɪlioʊ ɛtʰ ˈspaɪrɪtʰjuaɪ ˈsæŋktʰoʊ]

sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper
[ˈsaɪkʊtʰ ˈɛɹaːtʰ ɪn pɹɪnˈsaɪpioʊ ɛtʰ nʌŋk ɛtʰ ˈsɛmpɚ]

et in sæcula sæculorum. Amen.
[ɛtʰ ɪn ˈsiːkjula siːkjuˈlɔɹʊm ˈeɪmɛn]

Tallis’s O nata lux

This was a piece written in the late sixteenth century by Thomas Tallis. Hence, it uses late Renaissance English Latin. What follows is my transcription.

O nata lux de lumine,
[ɔ ˈnæːtʰa ljuks di ˈljumɪni]

Ieſu redemptor ſeculi,
[ˈʤizju rɛˈdɛmptɔr sɛkjuləːi]

dignare clemens ſupplicum
[dɪŋˈnæri ˈkʰlimɛnz ˈsjuplɪkʰʊm]

laudes preceſque ſumere,
[ˈlɑudɛz prɛˈsɛskwi ˈsjumɛri]

qui carne quondam contegi
[kwəi ˈkʰarni ˈkʰondam ˈkʰontɛʤəi]

dignatus es pro perditis,
[dɪŋˈnatʰʊz ɛs pro ˈpɛrdɪtʰɪs]

nos membra confer effici
[noz ˈmɛmbræ ˈkʰonfɛr ˈɛfɪsəi]

tui beati corporis.
[ˈtjui biˈætʰəi ˈkʰɔrpɔɾɪs]

Pronouncing Vivaldi’s Gloria

Vivaldi wrote his Gloria (RV 589, though the text is obviously the same with the other two Glorias) around the year 1715 in Venice. This means that the Latin used should be eighteenth-century Venetian Latin. What follows is a recording and my IPA transcription. It’s a little different that what you might think. Continue reading Pronouncing Vivaldi’s Gloria

Monteverdi Unfiltered: How to read Monteverdi part books

If you have found yourself singing a Monteverdi piece in your choir, perhaps you might want to unveil the mystery behind its original formats and not put your whole trust in a modern editor.

In my experience, reading from the original is not only better for the environment (fewer pages) and historically fun (you do feel a lot more connected to the music when you sing from the original notation), but it is actually a bit easier and less hectic than reading from modern scores.

The good news is that many of Monteverdi’s pieces are available online at the International Music Score Library Project in their original formats. When you go to his composer page, look under the Collections tab for them.

These parts can look a bit foreign at first if you’re used to seeing round notes vertically aligned with all the others parts in a modern score. These parts typically have no bar lines, use strangely shaped notes and rests, are somewhat crudely printed, and use odd time signatures. In the immortal words of the early music musicologist Jan Herlinger, “Everything was strange and difficult to read before you learned how to read it!”

If you have never tried early notation before, Monteverdi’s music is a great place to start, since the music is usually quite clear and easy. So let’s start from the beginning of a part to learn this system. Continue reading Monteverdi Unfiltered: How to read Monteverdi part books

Tied Eighth Notes in Choral Music

When singing in a choir, one eventually sees a piece where a sung note lasts an eighth note longer than the measure containing the beginning of the note. When I began to sing music from the English sacred tradition, I saw these notes frequently. I was told by multiple conductors that it was a British practice to simply treat the eighth note as the release itself, or more literally to cut off at the beginning of the eighth note, pretending it is not there at all. Thus I began to mark through all the tied eighth notes in any score from which I sang, as it was common enough a practice to cut early that it was a safe bet. I never really questioned this practice until last year, when I sang with Stephen Cleobury here at LSU during a week-long residency with our choir. There he was, a man representing the finest in British choral practice, asking us to carry those tied quavers over until the end of the note, exactly as printed, in Howells’s “Like as the hart desireth the water brooks.” This led me to actually investigating the practice and doubting the authenticity of the assertion that it is a common practice to cut off early when one sees a tied eighth note after a bar line. Continue reading Tied Eighth Notes in Choral Music

Pronouncing “Jesu”

The word “Jesu” frequently appears in sacred English texts as a poetic form of the name of Christ. It comes from the vocative declension of the name Iēsus in Latin, which was taken early into the Middle English language around 1150. While it is true that originally, the name began with a [j] or y sound, around the time it entered our language, it was already being pronounced with a [ʤ] sound, or at least a [ʒ]. In English, the name has two main pronunciations: [ˈʤiːzju] (GEE-zyoo) and [ˈʤiːzu] (GEE-zoo).

Sometime in the twentieth century,  singers and choir directors in the United States started to insist on a different pronunciation, [ˈjeɪzu] (as in “Yay! Zoo!”) and [ˈjɛsu] (as in “Yes, Sue!”), either opting for a z or s sound on the middle consonant and opting for a y sound at the start of the word. This came likely from a desire to conform to the 1903 motu proprio from the Roman Catholic Church to pronounce Latin as if it is Italian, assuming that “Jesu” was a distinctly Latin word, and pronouncing it accordingly.

What we are left with then is that most singers and choirs in the United States pronounce the word with a y sound, while most singers and choirs in the United Kingdom pronounce it with a gee sound. The UK retains many of her memories of what is sometimes called “Old-Style Latin,” where Latin words used in English sentences are pronounced like English words. Continue reading Pronouncing “Jesu”

Ginastera’s “O vos omnes”

Ginastera's Lamentations cover pageHow does one pronounce the text in Alberto Ginastera’s “O vos omnes,” from his Lamentaciones de Jeremias Propheta of 1947? Ginastera, the Argentine composer best known for his piano and orchestral works, wrote three choral settings from selected passages from Lamentations, the first one being “O vos omnes.”

I was handed this piece not long ago in a choir in which I sing for recreation. Choirs in this country naturally are trained to sing all Latin pieces in Anglo-Roman Latin, complete with its dark vowels and its accentuation. This becomes problematic for this piece not only for historical accuracy, but for musical logic. This first movement goes against natural Italian accentuation and appears to favor the stress-less Spanish language prosody. Spanish, like old Latin, Japanese, and French, does not have syllable stress quite like English, German, and Italian do, but create a sense of word stress by lengthening the vowel only. When set to music, syllable-stress languages like Spanish rely entirely on the notes themselves for any sense of word stress. In this piece, Ginastera occasionally subverts the Anglo-Roman stress (such as Idcirco in measure 68 or aquas: quia longe in mm. 75–76, which puts the text stress on quas and -ge).

Which Latin would work best for this piece? I would say Roman Latin (since the Roman Catholic Church was advocating for it strongly in that decade), but without the Italian word stresses and with brighter vowels and a few more Spanish-language phonetic tendencies.

  1. C should be unaspirated, unlike in English or German (or Anglo-Roman Latin).
  2. E should be brighter, almost to [e] as a general rule.
  3. O should be more back than Roman Latin [ɔ], closer to [o].
  4. T should be dental with no aspiration at all.
  5. V between vowels is quite acceptably [β], such as in “O vos.”
  6. No volume-based word stress should be used. Just pronounce each syllable equally.

Those with Spotify have the advantage of hearing an Argentine ensemble (Coro Alberto Ginastera del Conservatorio de Música de Morón) singing this piece, generally following those rules here listed. I must say it works quite well without the twang of Anglo-Roman Latin.

Pronouncing Early Modern English Latin

Somewhat related to the previous post, this one deals with as good of an attempt on pronouncing the Latin of Robert White’s “Lamentations” as possible. Since this piece was written in the late sixteenth century in England, its Latin should be colored a bit like Shakespeare’s pronunciation, but a little tamer (fewer distinctly English diphthongs than period English would use perhaps). Based on the Harold Copeman’s explanation of this era’s Latins in his 1990 book Singing in Latin, I made an IPA transcription of how the text of “Lamentations” would probably have originally been sung. It is reproduced below with a recording of myself speaking it (as best as I can).

HETH. Peccatum peccavit Hierusalem,
[hɛθ pʰɛˈkʰætʰʊm pʰɛˈkʰævɪtʰ ʤɛˈɾjuzalɛm]

propterea instabilis facta est: omnes qui
[prɔpˈtʰeɾɛa ɪnˈstæbɪlɪs fæktʰa ɛst ˈɔmnɛs kwi]

glorificabant eam spreverunt illam: quia
[ɡlɔɾɪfɪˈkʰæbant ˈeam spɾɛˈveɾʊntʰ ˈilam ˈkwia]

viderunt ignominiam eius: ipsa autem
[vɪˈdeɾʊnt ɪŋnɔˈminɪam ˈeʤʊs ˈɪpsa ˈɔtʰɛm]

gemens et conversa retrorsum.
[ˈʤemɛnz ɛtʰ kɔnˈvɛɾsa ɾɛˈtɾɔɾsʊm]

TETH. Sordes eius in pedibus eius:
[tʰɛθ ˈsɔɾdɛs ˈeʤʊs ɪn pʰedibʊs ˈeʤʊs]

nec recordata est finis sui. Deposita est
[nɛkʰ rɛkʰɔɾdætʰa ɛst finɪs sjuɪ dɛˈpʰozɪtʰa ɛst]

vehementer: non habens consolatorem.
[vehɛˈmɛntʰɛr nɔn ˈhæbɛnz kʰɔnsɔlaˈtʰoɾɛm]

Vide Domine afflictionem meam: quoniam
[ˈvidɛ ˈdɔmɪnɛ aflɪksiˈonɛm ˈmeam ˈkʰonɪam]

erectus est inimicus.
[ɛˈɾɛktʰʊs ɛst ɪnɪˈmikʰʊs]

IOD. Manum suam misit hostis ad omnia
[ʤoð ˈmænʊm ˈsjuam ˈmɪzɪtʰ ˈhostɪs að ˈɔmnɪa]

desiderabilia ejus, quia vidit gentes
[dɛzɪdɛɾaˈbilɪa ˈeʤʊsˌ kwia ˈvidɪtʰ ˈʤɛntɛz]

ingressas sanctuarium suum, de quibus
[ɪŋˈɡrɛsas saŋktjuˈæɾɪʊm ˈsjuʊm dɛ ˈkwibʊs]

præceperas ne intrarent in ecclesiam tuam.
[prɛˈsepɛɾas nɛ ɪnˈtræɾɛnt ɪn ɛˈkleziam ˈtjuam]

CAPH. Omnis populus ejus gemens, et
[kæf ˈɔmnɪs ˈpʰopʰʊlʊs ˈeʤʊs ʤemɛnz ɛtʰ]

quærens panem; dederunt pretiosa quæque
[ˈkweɾɛnz ˈpʰænɛm dɛˈdeɾʊntʰ prɛsiˈoza kwekwɛ]

pro cibo ad refocillandam animam. Vide,
[prɔ ˈsibɔ að rɛfosɪˈlændam ˈænɪmam ˈvidɛ]

Domine, et considera quoniam facta sum vilis!
[ˈdɔmɪnɛ ɛtʰ kʰɔnˈsidɛɾa ˈkʰonɪam ˈfækta sʊm ˈvilɪs]

LAMED. O vos omnes qui transitis per
[ˈlæmɛð o vɔz ˈɔmnɛs kwi tranˈsitɪs pɛɾ]

viam, attendite, et videte si est dolor sicut
[ˈviam aˈtʰɛndɪtʰɛ ɛtʰ vɪˈdetʰɛ si ɛst ˈdolɔɾ ˈsɪkʰʊtʰ]

dolor meus! quoniam vindemiavit me, ut
[ˈdolɔɾ ˈmeʊs ˈkʰoniam vɪndɛmɪˈævɪtʰ me ʊtʰ

locutus est Dominus, in die iræ furoris sui.
[lɔˈkjutʰʊs ɛst ˈdɔmɪnʊs ɪn ˈdiɛ ˈiɾɛ fʊˈɾɔɾɪs ˈsjuɪ]

MEM. De excelso misit ignem in ossibus
[mɛm de ɛkˈselso ˈmɪzɪtʰ ˈɪŋnɛm ɪn ˈɔsɪbʊs]

meis et erudivit me: expandit rete pedibus
[ˈmeɪs ɛtʰ ɛɾʊˈdivɪtʰ me ɛksˈpændɪtʰ retʰɛ ˈpʰedɪbʊs]

meis: convertit me retrorsum: posuit me
[meɪs kʰɔnˈvɛɾtʰɪtʰ me ɾɛˈtɾɔɾsʊm ˈpʰozjuɪtʰ me]

desolatam tota die maerore confectam.
[dɛzɔˈlætʰam ˈtʰotʰa ˈdiɛ mɛˈɾɔɾɛ kʰɔnˈfɛktam]

Hierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum.
[ʤɛˈrjuzalɛm kʰɔnˈvɛɾtʰɛɾɛ að ˈdɔmɪnʊm ˈdeʊm ˈtjuʊm]

The title of the piece, by the way, would have probably been pronounced [læmɛnˈtʰæsɪənz]. My transcription is not authoritative, but from what evidence I can find, it is as close to the original pronunciation as I can envision.