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, unlike the more famous George Bernard Shaw, was not quite aware of the different 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, however, 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 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

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

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

“Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?” by Browne

The following text appears in the Fayrfax manuscript (c. 1490) with roughly this spelling (I converted long s’s to short s’s, added punctuation, and lengthened the abbreviations, but kept the yoghs for fun):

Jhesu, mercy, how may this be,
That god hymselfe for sole mankynd
Wolde take on hym humanite?
My witt nor reson may hit well fynd:
Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?

Crist that was of Infynyt myȝt,
Egall to the fathir In deite,
In mortall, In passible, the wordlis lyȝt,
and wolde so take mortalite!
Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?

He that wrought this worlde of nought,
that made both paynys & Joy also,
and suffer wolde payne as sorowfull thought
with wepyng, waylyng, ye sownyng for woo.
Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?

A, Jhesu! whi suffyrd thou such entretyng,
as betyng, bobbyng, ye, spettyng on thy face?
drawne like a theff, & for payne swetyng
both water and blode, crucified, an hevy case?
Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?

Lo, man, for the, that ware onkynd,
gladly suffyrd I all this.
And why, good lord? express thy mynd!
the to purchace both Joy & bliss.
Jhesu, mercy, how may this be?

The English early modern composer John Browne (fl. ca. 1490) used this moving text in a four-part polyphonic setting, which BREVE is learning at the moment. The following is how I would pronounce it, according to Tim McGee’s Singing Early Music. Listen to the recording below and follow along with the text above or the IPA transcription below.

[ˈʤezju ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be
ðætʰ ɡɔd hɪmsɛlf fɔɾ soːl mænkʌind
wʊd tʰæk ɔn him hjuˈmænɪtʰe
mʌi wɪtʰ nɔɾ ˈrezɔn mæ hɪtʰ wɛɫ fʌind
ˈʤezju ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be

kɾʌist ðætʰ waz ʊv ˈɪnfɪnɪtʰ mʌitʰ
eɡaɫ tʰu ðɛ faðəɾ ɪn deɪtʰe
ɪn mɔɾtaɫ ɪn pæsɪbəɫ ðɛ wɔɾəldɪs lʌitʰ
ænd wʊd so tʰæk mɔɾˈtʰælɪtʰe
ˈʤezju ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be

he ðætʰ ɾɔtʰ ðɪs wɔɾəld ʊv nɔtʰ
ðætʰ mæd bɔθ pænz ænd ʤʌi alsoː
ænd ˈsʊfəɾ wʊd pæn æz ˈsɔɾofʊl θɔtʰ
wɪð ˈwepɪŋ ˈwælɪŋ je ˈsʌunɪŋ fɔɾ woː
ˈʤezju ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be

a ˈʤezju hwʌi ˈsʊfəɾd ðʌu sʊʧ ɛnˈtɾetʰɪŋ
æz ˈbetʰɪŋ ˈbɔbɪŋ je ˈspɛtɪŋ ɔn ðʌi fæs
dɾɔːn lʌik a θɛf ænd fɔɾ pæn ˈswetʰɪŋ
boːθ ˈwatʰəɾ ænd blʊd ˈkɾjusɪˌfʌiɛd æn ˈevi kæs
ˈʤezjuː ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be

lo mæn fɔɾ ðe ðætʰ wæɾ ɔnˈkʌind
ˈɡlædli sʊfəɾd ʌi ɑɫ ðɪs
ænd hwʌi ɡʊd lɔɾd ɛksˈpɾɛs ðʌi mʌind
ðe tʰu ˈpʊɾʧas boːθ ʤʌi ænd blɪs
ˈʤezju ˈmɛɾsiː hʌu mæ ðɪs be]

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.