I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
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Monday, 9 January 2012

Economy's a shambles, but...

Some languages are meant for singing, others not. A huge generalisation of course and it depends on what mother tongue you start out with. But there is a grudging consensus about Italian (and Welsh, but that's another story). Take this Handel aria:

Ombra mai fu
Di vegetabile
Cara ed amabile
Soave piu.

Never was there a shadow
Of branches
Sweeter, more refreshing
Or more gentle.

Yes, I know vegetabile looks a bit weird, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know the tune – lovely and simple as it is – you don’t have to know the words are Italian, to realise that those syllables are easily singable and that they receive their stresses gracefully.

Contrast that with the second of these two lines from the French national anthem:

Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?

Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers.

I have spent half my life trying to learn French and adore its quirkiness. But that conglomeration of Ss between ferocious and soldiers (Even English sounds better!) requires gymnastics from the singer. And there’s worse.

One aria from Carmen (not my favourite opera) ends with Yes, I love you (Oui, je t’aime.). There’s so little in those vital words for the composer to hang his melody on. No resonances. As luck would have it I went on to play versions of the Queen of the Night aria from Magic Flute and the German for My Dear Son stood out: Mein liebe Sohn. (the Queen yearns achingly here). So much easier for Mozart than if she’d been French, singing Mon cher fils.

Here’s how ITALIAN (with help from Handel) wins every time


  1. But so much else of La Marseillaise sounds rich and stirring in French. You are right though English does oten seem to lack mellifluous qualities in a musical setting. But perhaps this is because we often have to put up with translations of songs written in other languages. What do you think about English, American or Scottish songs and verse set to music?

  2. Plutarch: I'm not saying the French can't write a good national anthem - La Marseillaise is the best there is. The point I'm trying to make is the way French often makes such an ugly fit with music.

    Take Piaf's Je Ne Regrette Rien. We've got used to it and it's amusing. But three rs in such a short compass and the composer is forced to act like a typewriter. I bought a CD of Peter Pears singing Britten's setting of Les Illuminations and it was unbearable to listen to even though Britten no doubt thought it was definitive and had after all written it with Pears in mind. It can be sung much more attractively (a soprano whose name escapes me at the Presteigne festival) but only by running counter to Britten's wishes. Yet it was Britten who chose to write music for the poems in French.

    English verse set to music. Strange that Shakespeare so rarely seems to work; you would have thought WS was a heck of a good jumping-off point. But the fact is there are different rhythmic imperatives when writing material intended to be sung as I found out in my own tiny way when I tried to put new words to Did You Not Hear My Lady. I don't know enough about verse writing to diagnose the problem but it is there.

    Scottish. This seems to work better if Burns is anything to go by. But the accent may knock off some of the hard intractable corners.

    Don't know enough US verse to say.

  3. e.e. cummings works surprisingly well set to music, perhaps because of all the stops in it. I think it would be hard to make a generalization with American verse though as it is so diverse, and English has so many sounds you can choose from.

  4. Julia: Well I wouldn't want to tackle Walt Whitman or, for that matter, Ogden Nash. Perhaps Emily Dickinson. But we're reversing the problem. I'm a million miles away from writing a setting for an existing poem; the easier option - new words for an existing melody - turned out to be discouragingly hard even though the tune (Did you not hear...) is pretty simple and on the beat. Singers may cheat rhythmically but it seemed to me at the time that lyricists couldn't.

    Parenthetically I'm listening to Sinatra singing Luck be a Lady as I write and the words fit the tune so neatly I could cry. I've come to this field rather too late; I shall now leave it, moving backwards.

  5. Maori has a lyric beauty to it. Try Hayley Westenra singing the Maori lullaby "Hine e Hine"


    Tears and memories of lovely New Zealand!

  6. Avus: I tried to work out why it was so pleasing. Although she chooses a highish register it has a narrow range (ie, most of us could sing it) which I think is typical of lullabies. I've just picked out Brahms' Wiegenlied and it fits quite neatly into an octave. The orchestration is even simpler and consists mainly of continuo playing limited to two or three notes. Finally Maori seems to consist of open vowels with none of the nasal "ing" sounds that make French songs suitable only for French singers. A case of KISS, I suppose: keep it simple, stupid.

    As you know we went to NZ three times so the song brings back good memories.

  7. Glad you enjoyed it, LdP and thanks for your "decoding" of it. Not being a musician I can enjoy, but do not have that ability to musically dissect. (Hence my enjoyment of Parry's "Jerusalem's" dissection recently)