Why use early pronunciation?

  C’est que sous votre nom, [ce livre] se puisse rendre recommandable à ceux de notre temps : et encores à ceux qui viendront après, pour lesquels principalement j’ai écrit : afin que quand notre langue ne sera plus native, ou qu’elle aura pris un changement notable (car les paroles n’ont vie que par l’Ecriture) ils puissent voir comme en un miroir, le portrait du Français de cestui notre siècle, au plus près du naturel.1

Jacques Peletier, 1555, Dialogue, addressed to Jeanne de Navarre. To hear Peletier’s voice, click on the drum.timbale

"Historical" Interpretation

The aesthetic of the second half of the 20th century has been profoundly affected by the present so called "Historical" Interpretation of early music. Based on musicological research as far back as the nineteenth century but not really put into practice before the early 1950’s, it begins with the position that a music is best served by its interpreter, and best understood by its audience, whenever it is placed in a context which is close to that which prevailed at the moment of its creation.

The placing in context of early music, much applied today in the somewhat utopian quest for historical authenticity, has led to the exploration of the technical particularities of early instruments and the principles of interpretation which may be deduced from period documents. But beyond that it has sounded the death knell for the idea that music be a universal language immediately understandable to all. The opposite is implied, in that for each repertoire, the training and cultivation of a particular interpretative style are required. This signals the collapse of the "Tower of Babel" built by the Romantics, and begins an era of the "Polyglot" musician. In this regard, performers as well as music lovers have enthusiastically demonstrated, in the course of recent decades, that they have been able to adapt quite quickly to an extremely diverse musical universe.

The State of singing

From the beginning of the Historical Interpretation Movement, established vocal technique seems to have escaped the interpretive principles which have been applied so strictly to instrumental music. What might be the reasons for this?

Firstly, there are no early voices to be found in any museum. Pictures showing singers give no clue to any vocal techniques the may have used. In the end, a musicologist wishing to do historical research on singing has no more than a few deficient works to refer to.

In addition, a singer can hardly change voice like one changes an instrument: Vocal training is the work of a lifetime. The voice can only go in many divergent directions with considerable difficulty. It is for this reason that contemporary classical voice schools often teach a standard "universal" technique which allows a uniform interpretation of the extensive Baroque, Classical or Romantic repertoires. A tool well adapted to the conditions under which a singer performs today, it tends, never the less, to dissipate the national differences and specific styles which were probably taught in the past.

Finally, singing is the magic place where two distinct and sometimes opposite ways of structuring sound are brought together: music and language. Strangely enough, singers, however well versed in the principles of historical interpretation, are often reluctant when the methods used for the music are applied to the words. This reticence is most obvious when the language in question is their own. When deeply attached to their language’s "maternal" character, they have a tendency to treat the changing of familiar intonations as a loss of identity. Often singers simply refuse to deal with this for fear that, dressed in the past, the words will be incomprehensible and seem ridiculous in their mouths. Above all, there is the fear that all will not be understood by the audience.

Sound and Meaning

If it is true that contemporary language sounds are the only way to guarantee understanding of early texts then the the singer’s unwillingness makes sense. But is using the sounds of modern French at the beginning of the 21st century the best way to understand a four hundred year old poem? Does the style of Latin pronunciation practised by the Vatican or in the French church of the 1900’s help in our understanding of the motets of the glorious seventeenth century? I have no hesitation in answering in the negative. I am deeply persuaded that it is never necessary to sacrifice sound for meaning, or meaning for sound.

Far from impeding the understanding of a text, original pronunciation serves the meaning as it serves the sound. Requiring a fairly great effort on the part of the singer, but not so for the listener, and only a generalisation of principle for a "polyglot" musician, it helps to keep a text in its context: a system of reference close to that of the author. Meaning evolves more quickly than sound. Over the centuries, the words are charged with new meanings which emerge from the older interpretation. Through a sort of vacuuming research, the restoration of the original language sounds contributes to discerning the framework necessary to the understanding of an early literary text. It also allows a better view of the formal play that helps show the creators, their rhymes, alliterations and diverse figures of speech, which in matters of poetic art, are married irrevocably to the fundamental meaning of the work.

The Missing Link

There is no museum conserving the voices of the past… And if this were proved false? I am betting that literary creation carries within it a fossilised imprint of the voices it was made for. To me, the way words appear in a text can provide clues to old patterns of pronunciation. This textual image is to the voice what old pictures are to instruments : an indispensable link in the quest for a treasure trove of forgotten sound.

That is one of the reasons I force myself to view singing only through the prism of language, or moreover discourse: it is why, instead of French song, I prefer to talk about sung French: It isn’t the vocal art of a nation which interests me, but singing as a form of discourse.

Translation: Brian Fisher



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  1. Original spelling: C’et que/ souz votre/ nom,ilse/ puisse/ randre/ re/commandable/ a ceus de/ notre/ tans : e ancore/s a ceus qui viendront apres, pour léquez principale/mant j’è ecrit : afin que/ quand notre/ langue/ ne/ se/ra plus natiue/, ou qu’elle aura pris un change/mant notable/ (car les parole/s n’ont vie/ que/ par l’Ecriture/) iz puisse/t voèr comme/ an un miroer, le/ protret du Françoes de/ ce/tui notre/ siecle/, au plus pres du naturel.