Bass Solo from BWV 4

Here is a quick recording of a bass solo I did with the LSU Collegium last month. It is the bass aria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christ lag in Todesbanden.” Enjoy!

Here is a line-by-line translation, from the Bach Cantatas Web Site.

Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm,
Here is the true Easter lamb
Davon Gott hat geboten,
that God has offered
Das ist hoch an des Kreuzes Stamm
which high on the trunk of the cross
In heißer Lieb gebraten,
is roasted in burning love,
Das Blut zeichnet unser Tür,
whose blood marks our doors,
Das hält der Glaub dem Tode für,
which faith holds in front of death,
Der Würger kann uns nicht mehr schaden.
the strangler can harm us no more

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

Robert Shaw’s “Gawdrehsteeoommehree”

Looking through some old octavos, I found a score edited by Robert Shaw, often noted as one of the most influential choral conductors of the twentieth century (mainly his work in popularizing the act of singing in a choir). This Shaw, like the similarly named George Bernard Shaw, was interested in breaking apart the sounds of the English language. Both Shaws worked to create a way of accurately depicting the English language’s sounds for a large audience. Bernard Shaw willed a contest to design an ideal alphabet for the English language (which was finished in the sixties and actually is quite attractive and now Unicode supported). He wanted the alphabet to distinguish every sound of the English language, which meant having about 40 to 48 letters.

Robert Shaw’s attempt was more populist. He created a second line of lyrics in some of his earlier choral octavos to try to unify the sounds of a choir. Let’s look at his version of the first verse of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen”:

Gawdrehsteeoommehree jentuhlmmen, Lehtnuhthing eeoo dĭsmayee. Reemmembuhr Kraheestahwuhr Sayeeveeuhr oouh zbohwuhrnnawn Krismuhsdayee; Too sayeevuhsawl from Sayeetanspahwuhr hooehnnooee oohr gawnnuhstrayee Ooo taheedingzov kuhumfohuhrtandjoee, kumfohuhrtandjoee, Ooo taheedingzov kuhumfohuhrtandjoee.

If I translate this into IPA, what I get is this:

/ɡɒd rɛst i̯u mːɛɹiː ʤɛntəlmɛn lɛt nʌθɪŋ i̯uː dɪsmei riːmɛmbɚ kɹɑist ɑwɚ sejiviɚ uəz bowɚn ɒn kɹɪsməs dei tuː seiv əs ɒl fɹɑm seitænz pɑwɚ hu̯ɛn u̯iː wɚ ɡɒn əstrei oːu tɑidɪŋz ɑv kʌːmfɚt ænd ʤɔi/

It is supposedly US English, but possibly influenced by the cot-caught merger that would have been present in Shaw’s growing up years in northern California, he seems not to be able to hear the difference among /a/, /ɑ/, and /ɒ/. He puts God, and on, and gone on the rounded British vowel /ɒ/ instead of /ɑ/ (in his ears having the same vowel as the word all), tidings and Christ get /ɑ/ instead of /a/, and from gets /ɑ/.

He also conflates the approximants with vowels. For you, he has /i̯uː/ instead of /juː/. For when, he has /hu̯ɛn/ instead of /hwɛn/ or /ʍɛn/.

Most importantly, his choice of the British pronunciation of the short o (in the US, it is /ɑ/ and in the UK it is /ɒ/) probably had some influence on the modern conflation of most of the low back vowels as a single nondescript vowel.

I cannot imagine this kind of thinking started with him, but it certainly did not end with him, as it is still a serious issue today in choirs. I might compare it to Transatlantic English, which was the preferred accent of movies for most of the early to mid twentieth century. By the late twentieth century, it fell out of favor. The choral community just hasn’t caught up with that trend yet.

Shaw is often quoted as saying “When we sing, we don’t sing words, but sounds that sound like words.” While that might be partially true, it is still important to sing the right sounds so that the sounds sound like the right words.

Singing in English

This post comes as something of a second part to my earlier post, How to Sing an “Ah” Vowel in Choir, in which I try to explain the different sounds of English that often get lumped into one or two vowels. This post is more about the bigger picture of pronouncing the English language when singing.

From hearing several choirs in my YouTube and Spotify shuffles, I notice that when choirs from just about anywhere sing any language but English, they pay some respect to the phonetic inventories of the language. When we sing in German, we make a big deal, for instance, about differentiating [u] from [ʊ], making sure to pronounce the word und as /ʊnt/ and not /unt/.

Not so in English.

For some reason, singers in choirs are taught to whittle down the English vowel inventory to fewer and fewer possible vowels. Usually, it means that the director is asking for “taller” vowels, which I suppose really means migrating toward the sound of /ɑ/, also called “script a” or “single-story a.” What this kind of vagueness is doing is not only modifying the sound of English into an alien tongue when singing, but, through inconsistent application, is also causing serious vowel disharmony and bad tuning.

Here’s what’s happening: When singing in General American English, singers are being taught to sing

“eye” as [ɑɪ] instead of [aɪ],
“ow” as [ɑʊ] instead of [aʊ],
“ah” as [ɑ],
“uh” as [ɑ] instead of [ə],
“o” (“God”) as [ɒ] instead of [ɑ],
“ash” as [a] or [ɑ] instead of [æ],
“er” as [ɜ] instead of [ɚ],
“air” as [ɛ] instead of [ɛɹ],
“or” as [ɔ] instead of [ɔɹ], and
“ar” as [ɑ] instead of [ɑɹ].

Here is that last sentence read aloud, to hear the IPA vowels I’m talking about:

What this means is that for every replacement here, many choirs are singing both or several variants at the same time. Some of these replacements are coming from trying to make General American English sound more like Received Pronunciation. Some of this is coming from a distaste of the sounds of GA.

Here’s what that sounds like. Taking as a random example Eleanor Daley’s “In Remembrance,” from her Requiem, I grabbed two recordings, one from a professional choir in Canada, the other from a collegiate choir in the Southeast. Here is what the professional choir sounds like, with the words and a broad IPA transcription:

Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow.

du nɑt stænd æt maɪ ɡrev ænd wip aɪ æm nɑt ðɛɹ aɪ du nɑt slip aɪ æm ə θaʊzənd wɪndz ðæt bloʊ

Here is a collegiate choir who is using a few more variants on these vowels, which I’ve separated with a backslash, which is non-standard IPA (but when does IPA ever have to transcribe simultaneous speakers?):

du nɑ\ɒt stæ\and æ\at ma\ɑɪ ɡre\ɛv æ\and wip a\ɑɪ æ\am nɑ\ɒt ðɛɹ a\ɑɪ du nɑ\ɒt slip ɑ\aɪ æ\am ə\ɑ θa\ɑʊzənd wɪndz ðæ\at bloʊ

Perhaps I’ve exaggerated a bit on how many vowels have variants in that recording, but my ears do sense those variants when singing in choirs. Were I singing this passage, though, I would prefer the vowels from the first transcription.

Can we as U.S. choirs agree to embrace General American English when singing American music? We have about fourteen or so vowels in our language, which we keep trying to modify to eight or so. Every vowel can tune if everyone is doing it together, even American r’s. If singers treat them as diphthongs (that is, waiting until the last moment to switch to the second sound), they sound just fine and quite understandable. As for the lone “er” sound as in “turn,” that sound can sound fine if people don’t tighten it too much.

My best advice for performing a work in GA English is to look up every word in the dictionary and not to stray from those vowels (I recommend the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary or even Wiktionary). High singers should modify for their instruments in their extreme registers, but other than that, variant vowels makes for bad music and wrong vowels make for nonsense. 

There is no reason to be ashamed of our language.

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.

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

Mozart’s Requiem in German Latin

The LSU Choirs were recently toying with the idea to perform the Mozart/Süßmayr Requiem in modern German Latin. By Modern, I mean the pronunciation as currently practiced by German choirs, which differs slightly from the Latin Mozart would have heard (for instance, Mozart would have heard [ˈʦɛli] rather than [ˈʦœli] and [ˈkʰiɾiɛ] instead of [ˈkʰyɾiɛ], as the moves to those vowels happened around 1850).

To aid in this effort, one of the choral conducting graduate students asked me if I would be willing to provide an IPA transcription of the words of the choir into German Latin. They are in this PDF and reproduced below. There is also here a recording of myself reading the text. I have not included the solo and quartet movements. Continue reading Mozart’s Requiem in German Latin

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