The Clements Blog
Words and Music - Mind your English
Monday, 3rd March 2014 | 0 comments
One of the tricky things composers have to deal with when setting texts in English is that so many of its words are short, sharp and hard. Open any book, or just look at this blog post, and see for yourself. Unlike Italian, for example, which is full of long vowel sounds that work well when sung - bellissimo! It may be no coincidence that Italy was the birthplace of opera, and that many of the world's greatest operas are in Italian.
However, English isn't completely hopeless for singing in. (Just look at the language of most of the world's pop songs.) But it requires skill when setting English words to work with the clipped sound of the language rather than against it. Benjamin Britten was brilliant at this, and so was Henry Purcell.
But here's what I think is a perfect marriage of English words and music: 'Come Again', a song by the Renaissance composer and lutenist John Dowland.
Rather than trying to fit long melismas to English words that don't really want them, notice how Dowland sets almost every syllable to a single note - and most of these are short - so the vocal part is very close to the rhythm of speech. The only exceptions are a long held note - on the word 'die' in the first verse - and a little flourish at the very end - on 'sympathy' in the first verse. But the real magic comes in the middle of the verse, when he turns those punchy English speech rhythms into the pleading of an excited lover: 'to see, to hear, to touch, to kiss'. You can almost hear his heart beating faster: even the vowels themselves get shorter each time, as though they can't wait for that kiss. Who'd want to hang around with long vowels at a moment like this?
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