We all know them - the “big four” languages that most Western classical repertoire draws from; Italian, German, French, and English. Reinforced by the way this style of music is taught internationally, these four languages tend to make up a large majority of the repertoire singers perform most frequently. However, with as many languages as there are in the world, there are songs that express them in musical form. In this article we’ll take a look at a few languages that have a considerable, albeit less-performed repertoire, as well as how to approach diction for unfamiliar languages.
Czech is a language tied most strongly to a few frequently performed operas, namely Dvořák’s Rusalka and Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen and Jenůfa. However, both composers wrote art song and arrangements of folk melodies. Dvořák’s Biblické písně (Biblical Songs) offer a variety of moods and selections of various difficulties. As a bonus, they are available on IMSLP with translations in the score. As for Janáček, his Slezké písně (Silesian Folksongs) and 6 Národních Písní (6 Folk Songs) present generally short and strophic melodies with a real opportunity to focus on diction and storytelling. Further operatic listening might include Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and Libuše.
Swedish and Norwegian:
While not exactly the same, these two languages share a lot of features and phonetic similarities. Swedish in particular has seen an increased interest in recent years, and both languages have seen an influx of published sources with sheet music, IPA, and/or translations, as well as diction guides. Interestingly, some of the best-known Swedish songs are by the Finnish composer Sibelius, while many are familiar with the songs of Grieg (either in German or Norwegian). Further forays into Swedish might include Hugo Alfvén’s Sju dikter av Ernest Thiel (7 Poems by Ernest Thiel) or Gunnar de Frumerie’s Hjärtats sånger (Songs of the Heart). As for Norwegian, I might suggest a listen to Agathe Backer Grøndahl’s folk song arrangements, as well as works by Halfdan Kjerulf, one of Norway’s first important song composers pre-Grieg.
Navigating a New Language:
It may feel a bit overwhelming learning diction for a new language. Truthfully, it won’t be perfect at first, and that’s ok! Like anything that’s new, be sure to grant yourself some grace with a new language and don’t be afraid to take your time! Here are some tricks that have helped me:
1. Practice sounding out and understanding new sounds as well as their IPA iteration. Personally, seeing the IPA symbols for Norwegian helped me a lot in being able to relate new sounds to more familiar ones.
2. If you are in school, see if any of the faculty can help you with the diction for the language. In-person coaching really helps, and if they can’t help you, it’s likely that somebody knows someone who can.
3. Listen to recordings if they’re available. Native speakers are usually preferable, but I would hazard a guess that most singers making a quality recording have done their homework. If no recording is available, consider listening to similar pieces in the language to understand the flow and poetic integrity. Watching a film, newscast, or TV show in the language may also help.
4. Read! There are now multiple sources available for singing in all of these languages. If you have university library access, don’t be afraid to ask them to inter-library loan the book if your library doesn’t have it. This usually applies to public libraries as well. Additionally, there are multiple open-source and free to access dissertations that offer IPA guides and repertoire suggestions. I even referred to several dissertation essays from the University of Miami database to make sure my suggestions weren’t totally off-base!
There are lots of languages out there, and I hope to continue the conversation about including them more seamlessly into our repertoire. What languages would you like to hear more of? What languages do you enjoy singing in the most? I’d love to incorporate more of my personal favorites as well as yours in a future blog post, so don’t be shy and comment below!
- Preston Hereford
(Hartman, Lauren Elizabeth. “Beyond the Standard Singing Languages: Incorporating Czech Art Song into the Collegiate Voice Studio”, 2019.)
(Hersey, Anna Christine. “Swedish Art Song: A Singer’s Handbook to Diction and Repertoire”, 2012.)