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  • Writer's pictureRalph

Why Italian is good for singing...

It’s a commonly voiced (forgive the pun) opinion that Italian is particularly suited to musical setting, but I, for one, have never really given much conscious thought to why this is held to be true. Since we’re in the midst of various Italian entanglements, I’ve allowed the matter some consideration and come up with the following, which I hope will help to focus our thoughts onto what we should be doing and why – and be interesting anyway...

The first and most obvious benefit of Italian is the simplicity of its vowels. Italian springs preponderantly from the primary colours of its five vowel sounds: a, e, i, o and u; each has one basic pronunciation, similar to those that one hears in the English words cat, pet, heat, hot and fool. The vowels are pure, each needing a different mouth shape, but none is tight, tense or nasalised, so they allow for the good singer’s loose jaw and low tongue. The pronunciations are consistent, and no rule- or exception-learning are required. Compare this with French, and the different pronunciations of the letter “e” found in calme, scintillement, passé, passer, très, Poulenc and Gruyère (that’s arguably Swiss…) – or English and its “ough” morass (George Bernard Shaw famously demonstrated that if you take the “gh” from “rough”, the “o” from “women” and the “ti” from “station”, you can spell “fish” “ghoti”! But I digress). Diphthongs in Italian are logical (just one vowel after another), and tend to show more equality between the two vowels than you’d get in English: compare the Italian “sei” with the English “say” – so Italians squeeze more character and expressivity from the sounds. The way vowels are elided together (e.g. “D’herbe novelle e di novelli amori”), rather than separated by glottal stops as they would be in German and maybe English, allows for long vocalisations, smooth lines and cantabile singing.

Furthermore, sung vowels and spoken vowels are much more similar in Italian than they are in English. In many English words, unstressed syllables are actually pronounced not at all as they’re spelt, but as what is called a “schwa” (spelt “ə” in the international phonetic alphabet): a dark, neutral vowel, halfway to a grunt. For example, for most English people the “a” in “appoint”, the “e” in “Fairhaven”, the “i” in “pencil”, the “o” in “season” and the “u” in “Jesus” sound pretty much the same, so you have a word like “honourable” where three of the four vowels are indistinguishable and hardly any movement of the mouth is required! When you sing English you have to decide how to pronounce these syllables to make them sound natural when pitched and elongated, which is not always easy: how do you sing the word “presence”? This is not so in Italian, where all spoken, as well as sung, vowels have a brightly musical and clearly differentiated quality – so, in a sense, spoken Italian is halfway to song.

Almost all Italian words end in vowels, and many Italian five-letter words have three vowels, and therefore three syllables, e.g. “amore”; so consonants are nowhere near as thick on the ground as in English and German – phrases like “sun-searched growths” and “und schrecklich” (each of which also has just three syllables!) must really mystify Italian singers. Even in comparison with Latin and French, Italian is consonant-light: for instance, the Latin or French “l” often surfaces in Italian as the swifter consonantal “i” (flora/fleur becomes “fiore”, plenus/plein becomes “pieno”). Italian tends to omit consonants that appear as clusters in other languages: “external” becomes “esterno”, “saxophone” is “sassofono”, “obscure” becomes “oscuro”. Even double consonants don’t really change pronunciation other than by their longing to be gripped with more relish. And, of course, the rarity of final consonants other than “r” and the occasional “n” or “l” in Italian avoids many of the ensemble problems which choirs have when singing in English or German – no final -s, -st, -ct etc. to get together.

Because of the primacy of the vowel, there are more syllables per minute in Italian speech than in most other languages – this is why Italian sounds so fast when you hear the natives indulging in it. And because there is always a clear sense of where the strong syllable falls, the words constantly group themselves into patterns of strong and weak, downbeat and upbeat, light and shade (there’s even an Italian word for this: chiaroscuro), more than in many other languages. This is another example of spoken Italian being halfway to music. Try saying “Ma senza i cari giorni de le speranze mie” (in an Italian accent!), then say “But without the dear days of my hopes” and see which sounds more sparkly and sexy – you can improve the English version by saying it in an Italian accent too, which will lift the vowels but can’t hope to make it sound as rhythmic as the Italian does. Even clearly iambic English poetry (“I wandered lonely as a cloud”) sounds ponderous and monochrome compared with the energetic and colourful Italian.

As you probably know, in the vast majority of Italian words, the stress falls on the penultimate syllable. This is a great gift for a poet and, particularly, a composer, as it allows phrases to end “femininely”, in other words, with a weak syllable. A paradigmatic musical phrase starts softly, gets louder in the middle and falls away at the end, and in essence this is also true of a paradigmatic Italian sentence – look at the example in the previous paragraph. This may help to explain the lack of great music in the Czech language, with its, I am told, unvarying stress on the first syllable of each word.

The purpose of this article, incidentally, is not to criticise English. Because of its varied antecedents and chequered development, English has a larger and more interesting vocabulary and a more nuanced syntax than many languages; Shakespeare couldn’t have done in Italian what he did in English. But I hope these jottings will help even those of us not lucky enough to speak Italian to get something magical out of that language and its music.

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