Friday 4 March 2011

singing in foreign

The choir I sing in is working on our next show, which will feature songs from all over the world.

We’re having another go at Jacques Brel’s “Carousel”, which we did last year (blog, 19 Jan 2010). Listening to our very creditable efforts, I was struck by the word carousel itself. I find that (in singing style at least) I want to pronounce the middle syllable with u. But most people in the choir pronounce it with ə, even in singing, thus ˌkærəˈsel. Airport baggage reclaim halls have made this a familiar word nowadays in the UK, where the fairground amusement in question is called not a “carousel” but a “roundabout” or a “merry-go-round”. Clearly I was right to prioritize the ə form in LPD, despite my own conservative habits.

We had an extra rehearsal last night, which has left me in something of a nit-picking mood. We have brilliant professionals producing original arrangements of the music we sing — so how is it that they can’t spell their Italian musical directions correctly? In Italian accelerando is spelt with two cs and one l, just as English accelerate. And I think the arranger means “resume”, not “assume”.
Even my poor smatterings of Italian are enough to know that this should be “molto sonoro”, not “molto sonore”.

Linguistically the most challenging for us of the new songs is an arrangement of two Hindi hits, Chaiyya Chaiyya and Jai Ho. (You may know the second of these from Slum Dog Millionaire.) An Indian member of the choir has been pressed into advising us on the pronunciation, but he’s struggling a bit because Hindi is only his third language, after English and Telugu. We have the lyrics in romanization of course, not in Devanāgarī. This brings its own problems (ee represents ई , not ए ). We’re doing our best. What is tricky, though, is that the lyrics of Jai Ho at one point suddenly switch from Hindi into a sort of Spanish: “ahora conmigo tu baila para hoy…”. Our tame Spanish speaker had to admonish us not to pronounce h in ahora, Spanish aˈoɾa. There’s nothing he can do about the questionable grammar, though.

There’s more Spanish in a song called “In These Shoes”.
No le gusta caminar.
No puede montar a caballo.
Como se puede bailar?
Es un escandalo.

It’s a lost cause to try and persuade a choir mainly of English people to pronounce a Spanish-style r at the end of caminar and bailar, though we can manage an r-sound of sorts in montar — I’m sure you can see why. Interestingly, everyone knows about the double ll in caballo. We do it as j, which is fine, rather than as the disappearing Castilian ʎ. But an awful lot of our singers wrongly extend this treatment to bailar, producing baɪˈjɑː (Spanish baiˈlaɾ).

No way, Jozé. Ez un escándalo. But I don’t suppose the audience will notice. Rant over.


  1. Your spelling of italian "accelerando" is correct, but "molto sonore" might as well be correct. It depends on the noun the adjective "sonore" is related to. If it's (e.g.) "sound" (singular, masculine in italian) "molto sonoro" is ok, but if it's related to "notes" (plural, feminine in italian) "molto sonore" can be somehow acceptable, as in "these notes should be played as very resounding".
    Of course, "molto sonoro" is way more common.


  2. Actually carousel in French is pronounced kaʀuzɛl with what the French call a soft (i.e. voiced) S. But I've never heard anything other than ˌkærəˈsel in English.

    PS - you've missed the accent off escandalo (in the indented quote); it should be escándalo. So what you've got there is eskan'dalo rather than the intended es'kandalo.

  3. Pete, re your PS: This was intentional. I reproduce the phrase as it appears on our score. You'll note that when I write it as my own words, in the last para, I include the required accent mark.

  4. John, "acellerare" is a common mistake in Italy, too. An awful lot of people write it the wrong way, and this is also borne out by Canepàri's DiPI: on page 86 of his dictionary, he marks /atʃˈtʃɛllero/, 'accelero,*accellero' ('I accelerate') as 'trascurata', 'slipshod pronunciation'.

  5. I stress carousel on the first syllable. But I use a schwa in the middle.

  6. Molto sonore is correct, despite the apparent clash in gender, because molto is an indeclinable adverb meaning 'very' in this position. As Anonymous says, sonore is probably feminine because it agrees with the unexpressed note, the plural of nota 'note'.

  7. For any who don't know it, here's how Jacques Brel does it .

  8. Sorry, the link didn't seem to appear in my last post. Here it is again

  9. Adjectival musical directions in Italian are always masculine singular, though: Piano, fortissimo, accelerando, glissando, legato, rubato, pizzicato, etc. "Sonore" has no business being feminine plural; it's just a mistake.

  10. As for the Valse à mille temps, what I like about is the play between the near-homophonous lines "La valse à cent temps" and "La valse s'entend", and the completely homophonous lines "La valse à mille temps" and "La valse a mis le temps".

  11. @Tonio Green:

    Right or wrong, "sonore" is the established form in musical scores. I can't remember ever seeing "sonoro", but I've seen "sonore" probably hundreds of times.

    I'd always tacitly assumed it was some kind of adverb until now.

  12. From Grove:

    (It.: ‘sonorously’; adverb from sonoro, ‘sonorous’, ‘resonant’).

    An indication found particularly in violin music using the lower part of the register and most characteristically used in the years around 1900. It is also found in the form sonore, which is not orthodox Italian (though it is, of course, the appropriate word in French) but may derive from the commonly found abbreviation sonorᵉ̠. Elgar made extensive use of both sonoramente and sonore.

  13. My parents forced me to learn piano as a kid but I guess I wasn't paying a lot of attention to the grammatical peculiarities of the score I was playing. I don't remember seeing "sonoro" but "sonore" does look a little familiar. Nowdays I've replaced my piano for a laptop that plays music for me. Much better. ;o)

  14. I understand choral FL singing woes. I am a member of my university's select choir, I Cantori, and we recently sang Conrad Susa's "Carols and Lullabies" collection, in Spanish and Catalan. We had a Spanish speaker help us with the pronunciation of the Spanish carols, but for the Catalan carols, we relied on the pronunciation key in the front of the book.

    Said pronunciation key, for the sake of comprehensibility, ceded IPA for something like "UHL duh-ZEM-bruh coon-zuh-LAT". I was horrified when the conductor began to teach it to the choir as [uːl dəzɛmbrə kunzəlat]. I said something about it, which went virtually unnoticed. The entire song continued in that fashion, with every accented schwa being pronounced as [uː] instead of [ə].

    We're also singing "The Conversion of Saul" by Z. Randall Stroope, which contains the Latin phrase, "Caedite, vexate, ligate vinculis," over and over again. Half of the basses pronounce everything correctly except for "ligate", which they pronounce [leɡate] or even [leɪɡateɪ]. They should really know better.

  15. Good luck with "Chaiyya Chaiyya", by the way. Its
    Sufi-inspired lyrics are exceptionally recondite even by the standards of Bollywood movie songs. Certainly way beyond my own mediocre Hindi :)

    If you are lucky, maybe they will teach you the Urdu pronunciation, with uvular stops etc, which would seem very appropriate for this particular song.

  16. As Steve Doerr notes, "sonore" is French; it may be familiar to piano players from the works of Debussy, who uses it a fair bit. I find the individual notes explanation unlikely; rather, I imagine the composer was just confused, and actually meant either "molto sonoro" or "très sonore" (or to be safe, he could have stuck with "very sonorous").

    OED gives /kæruːˈzɛl/ as its only pronunciation, but I (American) can't recall ever hearing anything other than /ˈkærəsɛl/. You learn a new pronunciation every day (esp. if you read this blog)!

  17. Like Tonio I thought "sonore" was just a mistake, and that it was preposterous to argue that it could be feminine plural in this musical direction. The ubiquitous "sonore" noted by vp must be French, and "molto sonore" obviously wasn't. But to my annoyance all the online musical dictionaries etc seemed to have "sonore" as the standard form alongside interminable lists of musical directions either in the masculine singular in Italian which as Tonio says you would expect, or obviously French, usually without any indication of which was which. Some did specify which were which, but they didn't give "sonoro". What it opened my eyes to was that these web resources are mostly clones.

    So Steve, your explanation from Grove clears the whole thing up for me: "sonore" being a misreading of "sonorᵉ̠" as an abbreviation of "sonoramente".

  18. The ubiquitous "sonore" noted by vp must be French.

    I'm pretty sure it isn't, at least not in most cases. It's often found in scores that otherwise use entirely Italian directions.

    I wish I had more time to investigate this, but the Grove explanation sounds plausible to me. Musicians aren't necessarily scholars of Italian, and there are several other instances of bad Italian found in the works of non-Italian composers.

  19. @mallamb:
    Whoops: I see you were actually making the same point as me. I should have taken more time to read your original post.

    One could say that the composer was "confused" about standard Italian, or alternatively that (s)he was writing not Italian but classical-music-Italian-for-musicians-who-don't-otherwise-know-any-Italian. In the latter dialect, "sonore" is standard :)

  20. The piano, fortissimo, etc. in Tonio Green's list are not masculine singular adjectives either: they too are indeclinable adverbs. I'm glad to know about the sonoramente explanation, though.

  21. Yes of course they're indeclinable adverbs, but they're masculine singular adjectives in form. As you pointed out earlier yourself, so is the "molto" in "molto sonore", however you explain the "sonore". That's why "sonore" is so striking, and why it resists any attempt to argue that it could be a feminine plural agreeing with "notes" (plural, feminine in italian). No more does "molto sonoro" agree with "sound" (singular, masculine in italian) as Nico initially said would make it OK.

  22. Re original post: let me guess - does it go something like this? ;-)

    [nəʊ leɪ 'guːstə ˌkʰæmɪ'nɑː
    nəʊ 'pʰweɪdeɪ mɒn'tʰɑːɹə kʰə'baɪjəʊ
    'kʰəʊməʊ seɪ 'pʰweɪdeɪ baɪ'jɑː
    eɪz uːn ɪs'kʰændələʊ]

  23. (Sorry, stress mark out of place in the last word, and I couldn't vouch that there aren't other errors -- you get the idea, though.)

  24. Idea duly got, but the stress mark is not out of place in the last word!

  25. Mallamb: But what would "very sonorous notes" be in Italian but note molto sonore? The feminine-plural explanation may not be in fact correct, but it's certainly sound.

  26. I don't see that it's even sound as a musical direction. We have been discussing a virtually open-ended list of them with masculine singulars functioning as adverbs. How many can you adduce with feminine plurals agreeing with "note" understood? A sufficiently impressive list might convince us that the f. pl. hypothesis is not only sound, but possibly even correct. In the meantime we have it on the authority of Grove's Dictionary of Music that the French-seeming "sonore" may derive from the commonly found abbreviation "sonorᵉ̠" for "sonoramente".


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