Thursday, 23 February 2012

singing in German

When he turns to the “diction” of German, Adams argues that the reputation of German as a “difficult” language (for singers whose mother tongue is English) is unjustified.
The difficulties for speakers of English are mainly the fricatives ç x, the “mixed vowels” (front rounded vowels) yː ʏ øː œ, and the monophthongs eː oː. Americans (though not so much Brits) may also find a difficult. (“The typical problem with Americans pronouncing /a/ is that it is not bright enough.”)

Adams’s advice on producing the front rounded vowels is just right. Start with the tongue position for , then keeping that position “colour” it by rounding the lips to give . In the same way turn ɪ into ʏ, into øː and ɛ into œ.

As we saw yesterday, Adams calls ʔ a glottal “stroke”. It is “required” in German not only word-initially but also in compounds and after prefixes.
in einem Augenblick ʔɪn ʔˈaenəm ʔˈaoɡənblɪk
ɡeändert ɡəʔˈɛndɐt
In singing, however, “glottal strokes should be light and quick so as not to detract from the legato line”, and are often omitted in Lieder performance.

German spelling-to-sound rules are very straightforward, with only a few traps for the unwary.
in hoch, but ɔ in doch, Koch, Loch, noch etc
in nach, sprach, brach but a in ach, Bach, Dach
in sagen and all its forms including sagst, sagt; also in haben, but a in hast, hat
in erst, Erde, Pferd, Schwert, werden but ɛ in erben, ernst, fern, hertig, gern, Herz, Schmerz, Werk
(Remember, we’re talking about classical singing here. Not all native speakers make all these vowel length differences in everyday speech.)

Adams is wrong in stating that the letter ß was abolished in the 1996 spelling reform. In fact it has been retained in such a way that certain formerly ambiguous spellings are now no longer ambiguous: ß remains in Buß, Fuß, Gruß which have , but has been replaced by ss in Fluss, Kuss, muss, Nuss, Schluss, which have ʊ. Previously (and therefore in many texts that singers will be expected to use), spellings such as Nuß left the vowel length unclear.

42 comments:

  1. In the choir where I am singing, Berne, Switzerland, we are told to do liaison like [ɪ.naenə.maogənblɪk]. Even though this is normal Swiss standard German pronunciation, I think it is unusual for a choir.

    In the choir where I used to sing before, however, they would tell to clearly mark vocalic onset – without liaison –, but they preferred a vocalic onset without glottal stop, something I find very hard to produce.

    I wonder whether singing German wouldn't be easier for foreign people if they stuck to a pre-XIXth century pronunciation without rounded front vowels. At least in the case of baroque music, that might even be more authentic. And of course, common rhyme couples like "siehet – bemühet", "Freud – Zeit" or "Höhe – gehe" would rhyme again, while they do not so any more in the modern standard pronunciation.

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    1. "common rhyme couples like "siehet – bemühet", "Freud – Zeit" or "Höhe – gehe" would rhyme again"

      they do rhyme, at least in the 'singing' convention, as much as 'move' and 'love' or 'try' and 'eternity' do rhyme in a 'poetic' English convention.

      Most of such rhymes have always been imperfect, rounded/spread, except in those areas of the German speaking territory where rounded front vowels have not existed since centuries. But it is true that the less people sing old-fashioned songs the less ready they are to perceive such rhymes as rhymes.

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    2. In most areas of the German speaking territory, rounded front vowels have not existed for centuries. The only areas that preserve front rounded vowels have been rather peripheral: The very North and Southwest. The pronunciation of German that used to be most prestigious, the one of the state of Saxony (which nowadays is among the least prestigious!), did not have rounded front vowels. Therefore, I think that these were really pure rhymes at the time. Likewise, the English rhymes that you mention used to be pure rhymes, too. German or English rhymes like these are archaisms of sorts.

      Only in the course of the XIXth century, rounded front vowels became prevalent in German. I guess this had to do with the rising prevalence of Prussia.

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    3. Well, I am not that knowledgeable in the history of German orthoepy. Could it be that Upper-Saxon at the time New High German was created by Luther et Co. did have rounded front vowels, and lost them only later? I am not sure if Prussian domination in Germany in the XIX c. had much effect on the pronunciation standard---maybe in the sense that they had already adopted that standard of whatever origin it be, Saxon or other...? Prussian dialects were mostly Nedderduetsch.

      'Loewe' did move from unrounded to rounded, Midlle High German that was 'lewe', Dutch 'leeuw'. There are a few other such cases, but I can't remember them at the moment.

      In any event the upshot is: Hoehe and gehe do rhyme! As does 'Gott' und 'Gebot', tho' the difference here be that of the degree of openness.

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    4. From what I know (and cf. also von Polenz 2000, p. 165) the loss of the rounded front vowels dates back before Luther's time.

      What's in a rhyme? You are certainly right that "Höhe" and "gehe" are an acceptable rhyme in current poetry even though they are not pronounced the same. Yet still I would uphold that most of these impure rhymes historically are derived from pure rhymes – like for instance English rhymes of "move" and "love" (or "alone" and "one" etc.).

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    5. "From what I know (and cf. also von Polenz 2000, p. 165) the loss of the rounded front vowels dates back before Luther's time."

      Well, he mentions the 'Entrundung' as something that was shunned (vermieden), at Luther's time, in the language of the Saxon Chancery (Sechsische Cantzley), the big question being, of course, if anyone ever read aloud the same language the way it was spelt.

      'I would uphold that most of these impure rhymes historically are derived from pure rhymes '

      yes, but I would suppose they could have been pure and impure at the same time---in diverse regions, or in diverse registers---from the very beginning. Need not have been so for 'love' and 'move', in fact, there probably was a time when these two were a pure rhyme everywhere.

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  2. My German dictionary (an old Larousse of 1993) has the full quantitative-qualitative notation that has now become standard for English (as you mention in point 5 of your IPA transcription systems for English).
    hence:
    • oː / ɔ
    • eː / ɛ
    • uː / ʊ
    • iː / ɪ
    • yː / ʏ
    how strange that Adams does not also use: ɑː / a

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    1. 'how strange that Adams does not also use: ɑː / a'

      Methinks that the qualitative difference between the fronter short 'a' and the backer long 'a', if indeed it ever existed in most dialects of German, is now largely obsolete. I personally know it neither from exposure nor from contemporary orthoepist publications accessible to me. In Swedish, yes, in German no. In Dutch, the qualities are reversed, but for the city of Amsterdam. So Adams is probably correct.

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    1. Well, this is what these diphthongs are, phonetically---so the Received Wisdom nowadays. Some people have a problem with that, me too...

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  4. Duchesse - I was just about to comment on ae, ao and (presumably) ɔø
    for the sounds spelt ai, au and eu.

    It's nice to see the German diphthongs transcribed this way, as I think it's closer to the actual pronunciation than the ai, au and ɔʏ that you see in dictionaries. I remember learning German as a teenager and reading the phonetic symbols but then having to apply a "German accent" to get the words to sound authentic (to my teenage self).

    I seem to remember, a few months ago on this blog, a discussion of a German textbook that took this style of transcription even further and used , and ɔœ (with under-breves, which I won't attempt as they never come out right).

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    1. I have yet to find an accurate way of transcribing them, I'm not even sure the first element of the diphthong is always correct. But I don't believe Augen is pronounced aogn. It just doesn't sound right.

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    2. It would help if that diphthong were transcribed [ɑo]. However justified Adams is in using /a/ for both the long and short qualities, the allophone in /au/ is typically quite far back. Wouldn't that be an adequate way of transcribing the first element of the diphthong?

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  5. Sorry: I've just spotted a typo in my above post. The dictionary-style transcriptions are , and ɔʏ.

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  6. The difficulties for speakers of English are mainly the fricatives ç x, the “mixed vowels” (front rounded vowels) yː ʏ øː œ, and the monophthongs eː oː.

    o:? Is that that different from (present-day southern British) THOUGHT?

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    1. Yes. But anyway, Adams is writing mainly for Americans.

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  7. For anyone who is interested in reading about the topic of consonant doubling in singing, Adams gives an excellent account on page 114. This was recently discussed on this blog.

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  8. Adams should really have mentioned German /u/ as well, though perhaps anglophone singers are trained to give English /u/ its fully cardinal pronunciation as well?

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    1. I've sung in classical choirs in both England and the US, and I'd say that the target pronunciation for non-American English-language works is pretty similar in each country, basically a kind of Italianate conservative RP, with a fairly back vowel in GOOSE and [oʊ] in GOAT, with the option of a _very_ slight rhoticity in the US.

      In my experience this is used even for pre-18th century English music such as William Byrd, which I guess is comparable to the (former?) use of American Theater Standard for Shakespeare.

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    2. What do you mean when you write "a _very_ slight rhoticity"?

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    3. In the US I have observed choir directors consistently tone down rhoticity, but not always attempt to eliminate it entirely. This applies both to the length of time for which rhoticity is present (e.g. introducing it only at the very end of a long sustained note) and the degree of retroflexion/R-coloring.

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  9. John Cowan,

    yes, in lyric diction cardinal /u/ is certainly the preferred vowel. Modern renderings of this vowel in a Vaughan Williams song, or a Schumann Lied, for example, would sound quite silly.

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    1. Modern renderings of this vowel in a Vaughan Williams song

      It depend what you mean by 'modern'. I've heard excellent performances of his songs with GOOSE vowels closer to my pronunciation than to cardinal u. Yes, others have a vowel that's further back and more rounded, but I don't find them aesthetically superior. Some younger speakers do have a GOOSE vowel that might sound a little anachronistic in a century-old song, but I wouldn't call that 'silly'.

      Vaughn Williams drew on English folk music and at least some of his songs sound fine in the styles of English folk singers. Like folk songs, they sound better when the singer's first concern is to bring out the sense of the words while sounding natural.

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    2. To each his own, I guess, in the case of the Vaughan Williams. I suppose I'm thinking not just of a vowel that is a little fronted, or less rounded than cardinal /u/, but of more drastic departures that are common nowadays. Certainly, in my opinion, the vowel that is exhibited by younger speakers here in North America would sound silly in a century-old song. Of course, the closer one gets to the cardinal vowel, the less this may stand out.

      "Vaughn [sic] Williams drew on English folk music and at least some of his songs sound fine in the styles of English folk singers."

      Almost without exception, Vaughan Williams' solo vocal output is not folk song, or popular song, but 'art song'. I think we'll have to agree to disagree on the value of English folk singers interpreting it. I won't be rushing out to buy a disc any time soon, regardless of their GOOSE vowels.

      When it comes to German art song, I can't imagine not heading for a pure, rounded /u/.

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    3. Almost without exception, Vaughan Williams' solo vocal output is not folk song, or popular song, but 'art song'.

      Well, he did publish the songs he collected, but I know what you mean and I agree. Ironically, VW might not have done. He published Linden Lea as 'a Dorset folk song'.

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    4. I'm so glad you agree.

      Yes, Linden Lea is the famous exception, with Dorset text. The score has the text in modern English, plus the Dorset dialect in italics underneath with the label "(Original)". Most singers on the recital platform use the modern text in a predictable RP. Can't go wrong by listening to Thomas Allen's version, complete with traditional GOOSE vowel on "moot". :)

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    5. To each their own, indeed. Schooner Faire, a folk group from Maine, defined folk music as 'music sung by folks', and that normally means in their own accent. "Hey, Jude", for example, has become a folk song for me because I am part of the folk and I sing it. I find nothing ludicrous in singing the song in my own accent rather than my bad imitation of Scouse. The same is true of the Brahms Lullaby, undoubtedly an art song, which I sing either in my own accent of English or in the standardnähig but not classical accent in which my mother sang it to me as a child, and taught me later in her attempts to teach me German.

      By the same token, it is not silly to perform Shakespeare in RP or in various kinds of American, though the original EModE sounded nothing like either.

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  10. I'm confused by the reference to vowel length distinctions. Isn't vowel length in singing determined solely by the length of the note? I see that in some cases there's a quality distinction as well, but what about versus a?

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    1. Basically, although I think that singers will make a slight distinction based on whether they are articulating a long or short vowel. For example, in my spoken dialect of English "Mary" and "merry" are distinguished almost solely by length, yet I think I would sing "Mary" and "merry" slightly differently.

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    2. @Ellen

      This is the reason why getting the quality of the vowel right is much more important for singers than speakers.

      This can also explain why obsolete distinctions (eg. the ɑː/a discussed above) are sometimes retained in the 'careful' diction of classical singers.

      Another way of preserving the impression of the vowel length is musical articulation: a 'long' vowel, if sung on a short note, will generally be linked to the following note in a legato articulation.

      (for specific meaning of 'articulation' in music, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulation_%28music%29)

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  11. This is what DUDEN says on ß:
    1. You write ß to represent a voiceless s-sound after a long monophthong or a diphthong. [Buße, grüßen, reißen]
    Exceptions: aus, heraus, etc.
    2. The rule applies only if the s-sound remains voiceless in all inflected forms and if the word stem contains no additional consonant.
    [Haus because of /z/ in Häuser; meistens because of additional consonant].
    3. You write ss to represent a voiceless s-sound after a short vowel [Masse, hassen, etc.]
    Exceptions: das, was, bis, ....

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  12. In sung German, /a/ suffices, be it short or long.

    This is in contrast to sung French, where I would argue that distinction between /a/ and /ɑ/ should be retained, even though many French-speakers have merged the two.

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  13. oː in hoch, but ɔ in doch, Koch, Loch, noch etc

    But, treacherously, ɔ in Hochzeit!

    In a recording of Brahms Lieder that the late Welsh soprano Margaret Price made in the 1980s, there is a song in which her otherwise exemplary German diction comes to grief on this word--not, as would happen with most singers, by her pronouncing it with o as in hoch, but by her going too far in the other direction and pronouncing it with a, as Hachzeit!

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    1. The truth is that there are two words spelled Hochzeit in German, one with a short ɔ and another one with a long .

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    2. Das habe ich nicht gewußt! The word in the song was, of course, the one meaning "wedding," with short "o."

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    3. Ich auch nicht, aber gewuSSt habe ich es nicht. Did you not observe the rules in John's OP? I expected the reforms to be as much of a screwup as most spelling reforms are, and was flabbergasted when they actually did something sensible. Of course the recalcitrants dug their heels in or adopted compromises of their own, making confusion worse confounded, and the new spelling is not exactly in rude health, so do let's cooperate!

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    4. Die Macht der Gewohnheit, mallamb! I can't used to 'gewusst' or 'dass', although I lived for long enough in Switzerland, where they don't use es-zet at all.

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  14. There is a saying like 'the marriage is the tomb of love' or something to that effect, but I forget in which language. 'Unsere Hochzeit war kaum die Hochzeit unserer Liebe', as all unhappily married would say. With two different o's.

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    1. The German word for love match is Liebesheirat. I’ve never heard people call it Liebeshochzeit, probably because Hochzeit is only used in the narrow sense of the wedding ceremony, without reference to either the causes or the consequences...

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    2. > There is a saying like 'the marriage is the tomb of love' or something to that effect, but I forget in which language.

      I've heard it in Italian, though I don't know whether it originated here. (Lots of Italian proverbs and idioms turn out to be literal translations of foreign ones, for some reason.)

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    3. ad homoid

      Liebeshochzeit, probably because Hochzeit is only used in the narrow sense of the wedding ceremony


      Someone could coin a pun: this Hochzeit (with a short open 'o') is the Hochzeit (long closed 'o') of this love. If this be a good pun I am not the right person to judge.

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  15. In Schubert's "Leise flehen meine lieder" all the recordings I know (Schreier, Fischer-Dieskau, Wunderlich, Terfel, ...) my son and I hear the second word pronounced 'fliːen' and not 'fleːen' as expected from most dictionaries. His voice teacher insists that the dictionary standard is correct, but we are not convinced. Are sung German and spoken German subtly different? Thanks.

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