Aaron Cain is Assistant Professor of Voice and Director of Vocal Studies at the University of Alabama. He has performed and recorded with a variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles, most of which have made early music their focus. Cain holds a Bachelor’s of Music from The University of Iowa and continued his studies at the University of Oregon, where he received a master's degree in choral conducting and a doctoral degree in vocal performance with a specialization in historically-informed performance practice. Aaron’s most recent visit to Cincinnati was for last season's performance of Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri with Catacoustic Consort and to present a lecture at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music on the importance of Classical rhetoric to the performance Baroque vocal music.
I asked Aaron to write about French Latin and old French diction to prepare our audience for the sound world they will enter in a few weeks:
One of the most exciting challenges of preparing historically-informed performances of music written hundred years ago is the attempt to recreate a moment in time as the people living during that time might have experienced it. Can we ever really know exactly how a piece of music sounded in its day? Sadly, no…but musicians can get pretty close if we do our homework and consider all of our options. And everything’s on the table, really: choosing the appropriate instruments and the best venues; how you play or sing certain notes and phrases, how quickly or slowly; how much you allow yourself to improvise, even what frequency you tune to! All of these things (and many more) are considered when trying to recreate the sound world of a given piece of music, because they all affect the outcome.
So, the rehearsal process ends up being a wonderful mix of everyone’s musical pedigrees, insights, and scholarly sleuthing…with just a pinch of educated guessing for good measure.
And, believe it or not, it’s all great fun.
For the Catacoustic Consort's upcoming performance of the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, the singers in the ensemble have a few additional questions to consider: what about these words we’re going to sing? How might they have sounded in France of the late 17th Century? And what about Latin? How was that pronounced in that time and place? Should we try to sing these texts using the pronunciation scholars believe were the norm of the day, or should we just keep things simpler and stick with their more common, modern pronunciations?
Well, let’s face it: singers of early music are all about a good challenge, and, from what we know about 17th-century France, this music is all about the importance of performing in just the right style (le bon goût!), so historically-informed pronunciation it shall be!
A fascinating feature of the French language is that its phonetic sounds have changed a great deal over the centuries, while the spelling of its words has changed relatively little. This is why modern-day French can have wide differences between spelling and pronunciation. In wonderful words like doux (sweet), for example, only 50% of the letters are pronounced, resulting “du,” rather than, say, “dowks” (which might be how we’d say it if we were trying to account for every single letter). Some more changes from older French pronunciation trends include the loss of nearly all final consonants, and less emphasis placed on stressed syllables in most words (ask any singer, and they’ll probably tell you that French is the most smoothly-contoured language when sung).
For the Catacoustic Consort’s long-awaited debut of Charpentier’s La Fête du Ruel, the singers will be utilizing a French dialect that will be more familiar than unfamiliar. By the time the end of the 17th Century rolled around, French sounded much like it does today. But be sure to listen closely for a few marked differences! For example, one word that is sung quite a bit in this opera, for obvious reasons, is Roi (King). In late 17th-century French, this oi phoneme was pronounced “way” rather than “wah,” as it is today. Interestingly enough, in the original written score the word for King appears not as Roi, but Roy, so it is one of the examples of French words of which the spelling has changed since the time of Louis XIV. Also, don’t be surprised if you hear a few more consonants than you’d ordinarily expect from French, especially at the ends of words. One consonant that might get your attention again and again is the letter “r,” which was frequently trilled in a downright Italian manner during Charpentier’s day.
For the other work on the program, Le Reniement de St. Pierre, it is the Latin language that will receive a little extra attention from the singers. The pronunciation of Latin has varied greatly across different regions and different eras, which makes sense, considering that all romance languages began their lives long ago as provincial dialects of Latin. For about a hundred years, Italian-accented (more properly, modern Roman) Latin has been the official pronunciation of the Catholic Church and has become the default pronunciation for most singers and choirs. However, for our performance, the Latin language will have a distinctly French sound. In fact, the guidelines for Baroque French Latin pronunciation operate very much like speaking Latin with a strong French accent. This can sometimes be challenging for singers who have potentially spent decades singing well-known texts like the ordinary of the Catholic mass over and over again in modern Roman pronunciation. It is very much like an actor preparing a role with an unfamiliar dialect and trying to sound as convincing as possible to native speakers.
So is the extra work worth it? Absolutely!
Composers of all eras and from all parts of the world have specific sounds in their “mind’s ear” when they create music. This includes the sound of their language every bit as much as it does the sounds of their instruments and the reverberation of their halls. Language, as it was heard in their day and in their countries, is an integral part of the musical conception. So, when the time comes to try and recreate an ephemeral musical moment, especially one that never had its chance to exist in its day, we singers owe it to Monsieur Charpentier to do our best to sing…well…à la mode.