Have you ever gone to a choir concert that seemed uninspired and lifeless? Chances are you have, even if the sound was well blended and perfectly on pitch. Today we’re going to take a look at another part of the whole puzzle – the text.
As a singer the music you perform is more than just notes, tempos and dynamics. You have the added dimension of text to deal with. This adds a whole new set of concerns for phrasing the music, because you have to deal with more than just the melodic line. Text has meaning, and unless that meaning comes through you might as well sing the whole thing on LA.
Putting the meaning in the music is naturally easier if the music is in your language. For most of us reading this article that language is English. We are able to give the words their proper emphasis, and shape the phrases, because we understand what we are singing. If you sing in a small church choir that may be all you need to remember from week to week. You sing mostly hymn arrangements or other songs that speak to the text of the sermon, and you usually sing it with an understanding of what is being said. But what about foreign languages?
If you sing in a symphonic choir, or a non-church community chorus, you have probably sung songs in Latin and German. Possibly French or Spanish, and if you have an adventurous director, maybe even Russian. Carmina Burana is a very popular piece which uses Latin and an obscure language known as Frankish in some of its movements. So how do you convey the same level of meaning to your listeners that you do when you’re singing in your native tongue?
It would be great if we could all learn to speak five or six languages. That isn’t likely to happen, though, so we have to look for some clues in the music itself.
Much of the music you will do in other languages was written to be sung in those languages, and the composers did a lot of the work for you. The pulse of the music is a good clue about where most of the syllabic stress belongs (though not always). You should also look for hints in the way the text is broken up in your music. Most music publishers put dashes between the syllables of a word that is broken up by several notes, and they leave space between words. The punctuation can give you a sense of the phrasing – periods at the end of sentences, etc.
Some publishers now even help by marking the stressed syllables in the text, either by underlining the stressed syllables, by MAKing the stressed SYLLable all caps, or by other obvious markings.
Careful attention to such details can make a huge difference in the music. Choirs who successfully master this aspect of choral singing tend to stand out from the crowd, and their audiences will keep coming back for more.