What Are We Singers
But the Silver-voiced Messengers of the Poet?
May 19, 1922 — Guildhall School of Music, London, England
I should like to use this occasion to give expression to a few thoughts on the Art of Singing. The subject is as inexhaustible as it is fascinating, and it occurred to me when I was honoured with the request to address you today, that I should be more likely to be of interest and possible guidance to you if I confined the few remarks I can make on an occasion lie this to one only of the many aspects of the art we all love. Every art is made up of a family of contributary arts. The art of singing, for example, includes among others in its composition, the arts of musical and temperamental expression; of the judicious employment of sensibility, and dramatic and poetic feeling; of tone colour; of phrasing and of diction. Of these, in England at least, the art of diction is the Cinderella of the family; and so, with your permission I will employ the brief time at our disposal in considering the somewhat neglected art of English diction in singing.
In France, Germany and Italy there are certain more or less hard and fast rule governing the expression of each language. The right way to speak the words has bene thought-out and formulated, and has been confirmed by tradition, and in case of dispute and misapprehension, reference can be made to irrefutable authorities, and the point at issue placed beyond doubt. Now in England, as afar as I know, such felicitous conditions do not exist. The result is nothing short of lamentable. No two singers employ the same form, and it is doubtful if any two responsible teachers agree in regard to the pronunciation of every English word in song. To whom is the young singer, anxious for the right way and eager to excel, to refer on a nice point in diction, or even in respect to any of the most obvious stumbling blocks the language presents? Each answers “to whom?’ The opinion is largely held that English is not a musical language, or at least, not a language which lends itself felicitously to expression in music,. I rather think that, for a time, I held that opinion myself. My mature judgement and experience tell me that I was wrong; that although the English language lends itself to expression in music less readily than the Italian, it is, in that respect, at least equal to the French, and certainly superior to the German; and that the reason why I held that opinion for a time, and why others hold it still, is that the art of English diction, whatever it may have been in other days, of which we have no direct knowledge, has been during our own time in a very uncultivated condition. It is true that there are exceptional instances to the contrary, and that occasionally we hear our native language spoken in song with distinction and clearness; but it is, alas! Equally true that our ears are too frequently tortured by mispronunciations and verbal obscurities, and at times to such an extent that it is difficult to decide in which particularly language the singer is delivering his message.
After all, what are we singers but the silver-voiced messengers of the poet and the musician? That is our call; that is our mission; and it would be well for us to keep it constantly and earnestly in our minds. What we should strive for is to attain as nearly to perfection as possible in the delivery of the message, sacrificing neither the musician for the poet nor the poet for the musician. If we sing a false tone or mispronounce one word, we are apt to awaken the critical faculty which, consciously or unconsciously ,exists in every audience; to create a spirit of unrest, and destroy the burden of our messages. A similar disastrous effect may, of course, be made by a miscalculation of breathing power, an inappropriate facial expression, or by any other inartistic happening on the singer’s part.
I think it will be generally admitted as an ideal that the English language should be sung as it should be spoken, with just sufficient added distinctness, or one might even use the word ‘exaggeration’, to counteract the obscuring effect of the singer’s voice and the piano or other musical accompaniment. You have observed that I have said ‘as the English language should be spoken’, and I am sure that the thought has occurred to you that the majority of people, singers and non-singers, do not habitually speak the language with justice, distinction and grace. How may persons do you know who could read aloud a verse of poetry, or of fine prose, in a manner to include the qualities mentioned? Not many, I fear. And yet I have a strong feeling that that is what the singer should be able to do before he or she enters seriously into the training of the singing voice. In a word, if verbal diction were early acquired, vocal diction would not be so serious a stumbling block to our singers.
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove.
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.
These words of Wordsworth are very simple, very beautiful and surely very singable; and yet I suppose I am not the only person present today who has heard them sadly mutilated in song. I have heard the word ‘Dove’ given as Doïve, the word ‘whom’ as ‘oom’, and the word ‘love’ — a particularly long-suffering word in song, by the way — given as ‘loïve’. Suppose that a man — anxious to communicate to you the condition of his sentiments — were to say to you, ‘I loïve you,’ he would surely excite either your ridicule or your distrust. In any case the exhilarating message would be dreadfully discounted by its preposterous delivery. Perhaps if singers knew that audiences unconsciously made that discount every time the beautiful old Saxon word is mishandled in song, they would make some effort to sing the word as it is spoken.
For another example: would any man, with the possible exception of an Irishman, address you as ‘darling’, or draw your fugitive attention to the emotions of his ‘heart’, as do singers in your concert rooms daily? In speaking ‘darling’ or ‘heart’, your tongue never curls up to touch the ‘r’; then why should it in song? Consider for a moment the word ‘garden’. Speak it aloud to yourself. It is a simple word of two syllables, in the pronunciation of which the tongue is practically unemployed. It is too simple a word, apparently, for a great many singers — a determined attack must be made o the offending ‘r’, and the result is a word of three syllables which sounds anything but English. The ‘r’ in garden is the third letter in a six-lettered word. It occupies the same position in the word ‘forest’; but if you will speak the word ‘forest’ to yourself, you will find that your tongue comes into active employment. I think, then, that it logically follows that when you sing ‘garden’ the ‘r’ should be passive, and that when you sing ‘forest’ the ‘r’ should be active; and I feel sure that in this, and in all that is implied in the passing examples I have ventured to give you, I shall have the approval of the eminent professors of elocution and singing who add so much lustre and efficiency to this splendid School of Music.
If you wish to sing beautifully — and you all do — you must love music; and the nearer you get to music, the more you will love it. If you wish to sing your native language beautifully — and you all should — you must love your native language; and the nearer you get to it, the ore you will love it. Aim high. Let your ambition be ever on tiptoe. Fill your minds with Shakespeare’s sonnets; Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian urn’; Shelley’s ‘Ode to a Skylark’; Matthew Arnold’s ‘Forsaken Merman’; Swinburne’s ‘Spring Song’ in ‘Atlanta’, and many other of the poetic ecstacies with which your beautiful language is so rich. Let them become the delightful companions of what might otherwise be sometimes lonely hours; learn to speak them aloud with distinction and understanding, and so enable yourselves to bring to your singing the added glory of a perfect diction.
Source: NLA, MS 2647, Mathilde Marchesi papers, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
Also: “What are we singers but the silver-voiced messengers of the poet?” Melba, Nellie, Well May We Say . . . The Speeches That Made Australia, Ed. Sally Warhaft, (Melbourne: Black Inc.), pp. 423-426.