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The poem unlocks the music

Listen to this wonderful madrigal by Claudio Monteverdi called A un giro from about 1590 (click here). Follow my text below whilst listening to the piece. I will name the emotions I think I hear in the performance.

Beginning: Neutral, optimistic. 0’12: happiness. 0’25: calmness. 0’36: arousal. 0’43: eagerness, joy. 0’57: sadness. 1’14: pain. 2’03: resignation.

Now, how did the singers know which emotions to express? You might answer: it’s all in the music. And in many ways you would be right. But, I think that would not be the whole truth. The reason why the emotions are in the music is that the composer has put the emotions of the text into his music. The text came first – then the music. And I think this is something we always need to remember. Almost always in choral music, the text came first. And I claim that very often, the poem, the text is the key to unlocking the music, the basis for our interpretation.

I think of the text on three different levels. These are: 1) the phonetic level, 2) the semantic level, and 3) the emotional level.

If we look at these in order, the phonetic level is covered by the question: how does it sound? How do the consonants, vowels, emphases and rhythms of the words and sentences sound? This is naturally especially relevant when we sing in foreign languages, but not without meaning even when we sing in our native tongues.

If we come back to the Monteverdi madrigal text, we would begin the process with going through every sound: A un giro sol del’ begl’occhi lucenti. Now, ideally we would have a native speaker read the text both as it sounds in speech and then very slowly to the choir. Most often we don’t have a native speaker at hand, but our aim in this phase should be to get the pronunciation to be a close to a native speaker’s pronunciation as possible. A great substitute is an IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) transliteration made by someone who really knows how the language should sound. All this is not just for reasons of obligation or duty, but also for the sound of the music – how we pronounce the text influences how the music sounds.

The semantic level is covered by the questions: What do the words mean? What do the sentences mean? Now again, this is very important in singing in foreign languages, but, surprisingly, the singers don’t necessarily know all the words in choral works in their own languages – nor do they necessarily understand all the sentences, perhaps because they have never stopped to think about their meaning. We need to make sure our choristers always know the meaning of the text.

In the Monteverdi, we need to go word by word, sentence by sentence. A = at, un = one, giro = ring (glance), sol = only, del = of, begl’ = beautiful, ochhi = eyes, lucenti = shining -> At one glance of those shining beautiful eyes. Ride l’aria d’intorno – laughs the air around us etc.

In this phase, the unlocking of the music begins for real. Suddenly we see why Monteverdi has written Ride l’aria (the air laughs) or el mar s’acqueta (the sea becomes calm) the way he did. You can test this out by listening to the madrigal again (click here) whilst following the translation.

A un giro sol del begl’occhi lucenti  (At one glance of those shining, beautiful eyes) ride l’aria d’intorno, (the air about us laughs) el mar s’acqueta (the sea grows quiet) e i venti, (and the winds calm) e si fa il ciel un altro lume adorno (and the sky takes on another light). Sol io le luci ho lagrimose e meste (Only I have eyes that are full of tears and sadness). Certo quando nasceste cosi crudele e ria (Surely, the day you were born so cruel and unkind) nacque la morte mia (Was the day my death was born). 

And this level leads us to the third level, the emotional level. Here we ask: what is the idea of the poem? What does it say about us or the world? What emotions are expressed by the poem? It is like the actor on the stage: they would not credible if they did not understand the meaning of the text and what emotion they are meant to be portraying. This is also true for the choir: we must know what we are saying and what emotions we are expressing. If we sing forte without a deeper understanding of the text, we tend to sound angry, even when the text is full of love or ecstasy or joy. The text unlocks the music.

In the madrigal, the key moment comes at the words Sol io le luci ho lagrimose e meste. After describing how those lovely eyes make everything appear in a new light, suddenly comes: only I have sad eyes filled with tears. Surely, when you were born, my death came into being. And of course, we now see that the poem – and the music – is about unrequited love; the beauty of the beloved and the pain of not being loved back.

A few ideas on how to work on this ‘music through the text’ idea:

1 Ask yourself how the text and the music fit together. Be especially interested in the moments when you don’t quite understand why the composer has set the text the way he or she has. These moments are always possibilities for a deeper understanding of the work.

2 Use negations. The night was dark and windy -> the night was NOT dark and windy, or in the Monteverdi Ride l’aria -> non ride l’aria; this method points out what the main idea of the sentence is.

3 Visualize. Ask (yourself / the choristers): where does the poem take place? Is it night / day / evening? Is it warm? What does the place look like? Who is speaking? These are all good questions for the first half of the Monteverdi madrigal – you will notice how different the feel of the piece is if you think the nature depiction is of a morning, afternoon or evening.

4 Discuss the meaning of the poem with the singers and they will probably find something in the text you have not noticed. Activate their minds and they will also find the emotional level.

The American baritone Thomas Hampson once said: as a singer, you either tell the story or you don’t. Choral songs are almost always stories and need to be told. I believe the poem is almost always the key to unlocking the music and central to telling the story well.























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