A Manifesto for Song Research

Earlier this month I was delighted to present my Professorial Inaugural Lecture-Recital at the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts. I was joined by the fabulous song duo Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton, so I was able to offer live performances of the works I research as part of my current major research project, the Baudelaire Song Project.

As I was preparing my lecture, I bumped into a colleague who offered a really helpful tip: ‘think of your inaugural as presenting a manifesto for your future research’. It really got me thinking. I’m already looking ahead to my next research project, and while I haven’t framed it fully yet, I know it will include questions about how we use our voices in different languages, which for me also includes musical language. More broadly, I want to examine the whole idea of song as a fundamental human activity that we don’t yet fully understand. So I decided to close my lecture with my first cut of a ‘manifesto for the future of song research’. I thought I’d share it here on this blog, in part to mark the occasion of my inaugural, and in part to invite conversation around how we talk about song in both abstract and practical terms. À vous de jouer…

A manifesto for song research
We need to…

  • Be less reverent about classical song
    accept that it is part of a continuum which includes a whole range of musics
  • Be less precious about how text is set to music
    there are always going to be hesitations, repetitions, or deviations
  • Promote and probe the inherently universal human experience of song
    the language of the words/lyrics matters but to varying degrees depending on the context; working with singers is a must
  • Apply the most cutting edge techniques to song analysis that we can devise or find
    that will mean going more and more digital (but digital does not mean without human input)
  • Improve access to song networks
    there is no simple model of how words and music interact; songs are a complex and busy network of interactions which push and pull in different directions, because songs are live and lived things



When a book nears its release date…

My third academic book is nearly ready for release. OUP has produced a webpage for the book, and Amazon and Foyles already have it online for pre-orders. It is so exciting. It gives a real sense of achievement. But there’s a nervousness there still because:

  1. There are still a couple of proof and index stages to complete before the book will be printed
  2. We are still awaiting permissions for my preferred front cover image before it can be designed
  3. Only three other people have ever read the whole thing so far

Baudelaire in Song’s online presence nonetheless marks a key milestone. And it is worth a mini-celebration. The book had a lengthy genesis, as many do. It has always been the book I wanted to write. The first words were written in 2014. I submitted the full typescript in September 2016. It is 94,000 words long. The meaty analysis sections were enhanced because I got an AHRC grant which started in 2015 and meant that I had a team of researchers around me to discuss ideas and findings with. The book has data tables, full (raw data) versions of which will soon be up online at baudelairesong.org. Other researchers are encouraged to analyse and critique that data, and to review my findings in the book. It may be that not everyone agrees with me. But whatever other people think, I will have advanced our thinking about what really goes on when poetry is set to music.

Before it appears in print, though, I want to reflect a bit on the writing process. I have colleagues and friends who are currently in the early stages of writing, and I sympathise. It is hard work. If there’s one thing I learnt writing this book, it was remembering to regularly celebrate the small successes along the way. The day I got through a really tricky patch of the argument. The day I finished a full chapter draft (even though I knew it would still need a heavy dose of self-editing). The day I put the whole typescript together in one document and printed it out for editing. (Editing the full typescript was the most painful thing I’ve ever done – some of it was a lot worse than I thought it would be! It took me about 5 weeks longer than planned).

There are a couple of things that affected writing this book in particular. When I wrote the first 3 chapters we were in the middle of a massive building project at home. That wasn’t easy (I was able to borrow a friend’s flat round the corner to do some of the writing, thankfully!). As I was finishing off the analysis chapters, we moved house, city, and jobs. That was hugely disruptive to maintaining the mental flow. And I had some challenging health issues in the middle of it all.

But I got it done. And I’m proud of it, perhaps all the more so because it wasn’t smooth sailing! I found it helpful to blog about key bits of the process during my study leave in 2015, sharing top tips and reflecting on disappointments/challenges that cropped up. The interaction I got from others in the academic community and beyond was really helpful for my motivation.

I’m almost ready to crack on with the next book. In fact, I’ve got two planned. I’ve planned out the chapter structure for one (this one will be co-authored – my first co-written book). And I have written one sentence of the other. That’s my next ‘big idea’. The idea isn’t fully formed yet, but it’s taking shape – and I’m enjoying some lively and open-ended discussions with colleagues from around the world about those ideas. I plan to blog about the process again next year when I have a period of research leave.

But before then, I am gearing up for the autumn and a whole series of events around the launch of Baudelaire in Song, all open to the public. So get these dates in your diaries and book tickets as soon as you can… My book release happens to coincide with the release of a fantastic new album of Baudelaire songs on the Signum label sung by Mary Bevan with Joseph Middleton at the piano. The book and the disc are fitting ways to commemorate 150 years since Baudelaire’s death on 31 August 1867. Join me in conversations about why Baudelaire still attracts so much interest still today…

19 October 2017 11:30 – 15:30
Baudelaire from the Depths of Beauty
Oxford Lieder Festival

17 November 2017  13:00 – 14:00
Songs from Baudelaire
Inaugural lecture-recital: Prof. Helen Abbott + Mary Bevan and Joe Middleton
Barber Concerts, University of Birmingham [full autumn programme to be announced soon]

22 November 2017 19:00 – 21:00
Baudelaire: Botanist of the Sidewalk
Commemorating 150 years since Baudelaire’s death
Poet in the City + Rimbaud and Verlaine foundation, King’s Place (Hall One)

And finally… for those of you who want a little preview, and who speak French, you might want to get your hands on a copy of Le Point special issue on Baudelaire released this month.

I am not superwoman: 8 lessons from my first 8 months as prof

1. I am not superwoman
In my old job, I had a mantra which was “smile and say no”. My new role involves so much more that I can’t say no to… but I’ve got to learn when I can! The past 3-4 months has been dominated by reviewing submissions, proposals, applications – for people whose lives and careers depend on it. It’s too important to say no to, and it’s part and parcel of my role. It’s also a huge responsibility and privilege. But the quantity of applications I’ve read has been…impressive. Perhaps it’s a feature of the PhD/ECR/publication market at the moment, perhaps it’s just an unfortunate bunching of workload over a tight timeframe, but I somehow feel there has to be a better way. More seasoned profs will no doubt tell me that you get better at reading everything so quickly. But I am not superwoman, and there are only so many hours in the day! Hopefully this will get easier…

2. I love my job
Heavy workloads notwithstanding, I absolutely love what I do. My passion for research, developing new teaching ideas, working with mentees, exploring graduate school (funding) strategies and more besides means that I thrive on meeting and working with so many great people.

3. Students are wonderful
I knew this anyway, but it’s become particularly clear this past term, as I’ve had the chance to lecture and lead seminar discussions on a wide range of topics – teaching about Zola’s women on International Women’s Day, working on the Enlightenment politics of Les Liaisons dangereuses as Trump is inaugurated, debating Britain’s place in the world as Article 50 is invoked – what’s not to love? (apart from the crazy world politics at the moment!)

4. Where you work matters
The campus at the University of Birmingham is a super space. I love walking through it every day. But it’s also part of an amazing, vibrant city with so much going on. I’ve been to concerts at Symphony Hall, explored other venues in the city, and can’t wait to get to know it even better.

5. Don’t neglect life stuff too
Moving jobs also meant moving house. We’ve been decorating! And gardening! And more besides. This stuff matters, and I am so lucky to have such an awesome husband who keeps our house project moving in the right direction. It might be a lot on top of new jobs for us both too, but having a beautiful place for us to relax, have friends round for coffee, lunch, drinks, or dinner, is what matters. 

6. You travel more as prof
It may not always be to especially glamorous locations, but each week this term I’ve been away from Birmingham for at least one day a week – Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester, Limerick, Canterbury. And last term I also had a US visiting fellowship at Vanderbilt. I’m learning how to work better on trains and planes… iPad is the way forward (I just need to find a way for university IT to make things easier…!)

7. Colleagues matter
I am so lucky to have such a great team around me of support staff in the Graduate School and in the School of Languages, Cultures, Art History and Music. I couldn’t do my job without them. And my fellow academics – in the offices next door, in buildings across campus, and at other institutions – mean I can get my job done properly. It’s not without its politics, but a properly collegial environment is key. 

8. Nobody bats an eyelid when they realise I’m a professor
Impostor syndrome is a real issue. I’m in my thirties, I’m a woman, and I’m a full professor. Sometimes I feel like I’ve come to the wrong place. But I have been treated with absolute respect in all the meetings I’ve been in, irrespective of the level of seniority of the people around me, from the Vice Chancellor, to Pro Vice Chancellors, to admin teams, publishers, other academics in my field, and PVCs from other Universities. It suggests that young(ish!) female profs are becoming the norm. We know the statistics show there is still a long way to go, but in my experience, the profession is starting to make real strides in the right direction. I am not an oddity. In fact, no-one bats an eyelid. It means I can just get on and do my job as anyone in my position should. 

What’s new?

In September I moved institutions and took up a more senior role. Four months into my new post as professor of modern languages at the University of Birmingham, it seems a good time to reflect on what’s new for me.

New postgraduate role
At my last institution, I served as (acting) Faculty Lead for Postgraduate Affairs. At Birmingham, I am now Deputy Director of the College Graduate School and Co-Site Director of the Midlands3Cities doctoral training partnership, across a consortium of 6 universities (University of Birmingham, Birmingham City University, University of Leicester, De Montfort University, University of Nottingham, and Nottingham Trent University). It means my outlook is much broader, cross-institutional, and I have responsibility for a larger cohort of students. But I also have a larger team (there are 2 other academic members of staff in related College PG roles), and we have an excellent team of administrative support staff.

New collaborations
Since arriving in Birmingham, I have met with lots of new people, both within and outside of academia. One exciting potential new collaboration is with a specialist voice consultant at the Queen Elizabeth hospital – we both happen to also be professionally trained singers, so our jobs, research, and practice intersect in fairly unique ways. I’m looking forward to going in to observe a voice clinic in the next few weeks, and am exploring different voice analysis apps to extend my own research approach. Other opportunities are in the pipeline, including linking up with the Conservatoire for their French song performance classes, and exploring new ideas around computational musicology with a colleague I met at MIT when I was over in Boston in the autumn.

New places
My new role has seen me travel a lot more for work. In the first few months of the academic year, I got to travel to some glamorous places (and some a little less exciting!), all for work: Abindgon, Boston, Leicester, London, Nashville, Nottingham, Providence (RI), Sheffield. Some of these trips were for research, including a fellowship at Vanderbilt University where I got to work with their extraordinary Baudelaire collections. Some were for engagement work, including a 4-day recording session working on a new disc of Baudelaire songs, and co-running a masterclass at an amazing new song festival (SongMakers). Some were for outreach, including presenting to secondary schools on ‘why bother with languages?’.

New curriculum
Moving universities always means getting to grips with a new setup, new modules, and new ways of delivering programmes. But part of my decision to move institutions was because of the exciting opportunities Birmingham has to offer as the modern languages team work on fresh approaches to its degree programmes (watch this space!). For me personally, this has meant setting up links with external partners, expanding my knowledge and expertise around languages tech, and approaching colleagues from across the university to co-deliver a new interdisciplinary words and music module. New modules and curriculum developments take time, but we’re a long way down the road.

But amongst all of these new things, much has stayed the same. The Baudelaire Song Project continues apace, with more exciting findings really cementing our research approach (we are very much looking forward to showcasing some of these in 2017). I continue to edit the journal Dix-Neuf, with a range of interesting pieces in the pipeline for publication in the coming year. Some of my adminsitrative work is the same (tutees, open days, planning/strategy meetings), and I continue to mentor colleagues around research plans. The diversity of the work I do is exciting, but it also means pretty careful time planning to make sure I manage to fit everything in. It helps, of course, that I got a big piece of research off my desk just as I started at Birmingham (my OUP book typescript), and that I have amazing support outside of the workplace (my husband is also in academia, so understands how the workload fluctuates at different times of year). We might be living and working in uncertain times in terms of the wider national and international (higher education) landscape, but for now at least I am able to say: I love my new job.



Should you translate songs? 

10 lessons from the SongMakers Masterclass with Roderick Williams. MiTR/Uni Sheffield 12 November 2016.
1. Lots of songs *have* been translated

Schubert’s music enjoyed huge success in France because he was sung in French translation in many of the early C19th salons

2. Some composers set texts in one language and provide a parallel translation (with some modifications to the rhythm/melody to accommodate different stresses of each language). 

Examples: Berg, Gretchaninov.

3. Publishers, especially at the start of the C20th, published a lot of translated songs/parallel scores, often with the English (translated language) on top (without composer modification)

During the First World War there was a distinct shift away from singing in German. But even Debussy’s songs appeared in parallel translations in the early decades of the C20th as part of the ‘craze’ in the UK and US for singing in English.

4. Not all translations are equal. But to claim one is ‘better’ than another is often problematic. An archaic-sounding translation to our ears today may have been the pinnacle of translation a hundred years ago.

A translation of Gute Nacht (Good Night) from Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) might use hither, thither, and gay. A more modern translation avoids those terms.

5. Singing translations differ from singable ones. Sometimes a singer has to adapt what a translator has done (discussing with the translator if appropriate/possible).

6. Different audiences like to hear different things. Those with extensive knowledge of the Lieder repertoire tend to want to hear it in original language. Newer audiences enjoy the experience of being able to understand what is being said. 

7. Singers love it when audiences are looking up at them! Traditional concert programmes with poems and translations mean audiences are often heads-down reading and rustling pages which is offputting for performers.

8. A song performed in translation is an entirely different work, doing different (not necessarily better or worse) things. It’s like a film adaption of a book: some things get left out, others have to change. There is no direct equivalence.

9. Song translations help singers and pianists to understand what is going on in the text. But good practice means performers heavily annotate their scores with word-for-word translations and key ideas from the text to make sure they are conveying meanings and emotions.

10. Singing in translation can be less daunting than working on language pronunciation and diction. But it doesn’t mean it is less work for the singer!

A festival of linguistic diversity

On the 15th European Day of Languages it’s a good moment to take stock of our languages profile. The UK is not renowned for its languages prowess, but we enjoy huge linguistic diversity nonetheless, embedded within our communities. This is easy to forget if we just read the news reports about the ‘alarming shortage’ of language skills, with our ‘poor language skills’ meaning we are being overtaken by other countries. This ‘alarming shortfall’ in language skills affects our diplomats, just as much as a ‘lack of language skills’ is said to be diminishing Britain’s voice in the world. Languages across the world are changing all the time, and globally there are many more of us who speak more than one language, than there are monoglots. But the profiles of those using more than one language are as diverse as the languages themselves (and the reasons we choose to speak or study them).

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European Day of Languages

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with hundreds of students studying languages at Abingdon School, from Year 9s through to 6th formers. We discussed which languages are the most “useful” (clue: it’s not just about population size/number of speakers globally), and how you can get the most out of learning languages (clue: develop a daily training programme like you would for sport or music, and plan to spend time abroad, even if only for a short stint). I was lucky enough also to join in with an after-school Languages Club in which we learnt about the earliest known written language (Sumerian) and the Uralic language group (Hungarian, Estonian…). But what struck me most was how many languages students speak at home already, from Ukrainian, to Spanish, Welsh, and French, as well as the English they use in their everyday lives and studies.

A research project launched today looks at how being multilingual transforms the way societies work. Involving researchers from various UK universities (Cambridge, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Queen’s University Belfast), the project explores the challenges and benefits of being multilingual (it’s not all easy…), examining a wide range of languages including Irish, French, Cantonese, Mandarin, Catalan, German, Polish, Punjabi, Spanish and Ukrainian.

For the research project I lead, we have uncovered settings of Baudelaire’s poems in languages as diverse as Norwegian and Korean, as well as English, German, and Russian, and we know that there are many more out there that we are yet to uncover. We are finding that those who choose to set Baudelaire in another language do not always choose their mother tongue (so an Italian band might choose to set Baudelaire in English translation, for example), and the profiles of the bands, songwriters, and composers whose Baudelaire songs we examine, are amazingly diverse.

So today is certainly a day to celebrate our linguistic diversity. And to spend some time using and enjoying the languages we already speak, and to try out some new ones. Profitez-en. Approfittane! Yn gwneud y mwyaf ohoni![1]


[1] This might not quite be right – I hope some Welsh-speakers can correct me if not, my Welsh is quite rusty now…!

New academic year

New beginnings are a chance to take stock, to look back over the past year and look forward to the next one.

As I take up a professorship at the University of Birmingham, the past few months have been busy with moving house, finishing my book typescript, and tying up loose ends as I finished my post at the University of Sheffield. But amongst the busy day-to-day matters, two areas have stood out:

1. Modern Languages is still a buoyant area. Despite statistics of declining numbers of students studying GCSE and A-level languages, all of the applicants I have spoken to over the course of the admissions cycle have shown passion, dedication, and commitment to learning and developing their language expertise. Often in conjunction with other subjects such as Business, Politics, Philosophy, English, or History. They sense the opportunities that a languages degree opens up for them, and they are right.

2. Baudelaire is still a big hit. In 12 months researching intensively on the Baudelaire Song Project, we have uncovered thousands of song settings of his poetry in multiple languages right across the globe, from Norwegian death metal to world premiere performances of a new set of French mélodies. The project still runs for another three years as both I and the team move to Birmingham where it is clear new collaborations are already opening up.

There is much to be excited about for the year ahead, meeting and working with new students and colleagues, delivering new modules on French poetry and performance, coaching new cohorts of singers, and starting research for my next book as my latest one enters production with OUP. Busy times, but that’s proof enough that Modern Languages has much to offer as a profession.

Today’s outlook

Today is my birthday. It is also the results day from the UK’s EU referendum in which 52% of the country’s voters opted to Leave, and 48% to Remain. I’ve made no secret of my voting preference – I work year in year out with young people whose lives are focused on the EU, travelling there freely (and with the support of a modest but significant grant from the Erasmus+ scheme funded by Brussels) as an integral part of their studies to become highly accomplished linguists, with all the deep political, cultural, social, and economic know-how that this brings them. I am saddened by today’s result not because it feels like bad news on my birthday but because I feel we haven’t done enough to look after our young people. But I want to remain optimistic and to keep a positive outlook on how we can continue to work with our EU partners for the future benefit of all. Wish us all luck – we’ll need it – but we won’t simply break off all ties with countries, people, and cultures whose ways of doing things have become so inextricably intertwined over the several decades of EU membership. Collaboration, cooperation, and much lateral thinking is needed, and I hope that the voice of our young people will be heard loud and clear as we work towards the best solution for us all.

Why I’m proud to be European

THOSE of you who know me can guess how I’ll vote in the in-out referendum on June 23 even if I don’t usually talk about politics. Not this time, there’s far too much at stake for another comfortable, evasive silence.

But first some context – this is not a set of arguments about the economic benefits of staying in the EU. I won’t tackle the financial implications or immigration (all well rehearsed, and I value both sides of the debate). I will focus on why I want Britain to continue to play a central role in an important alliance of countries with which we have much more in common than trade.

I am European. My mother is Irish, my father British, and both have travelled extensively. My parents were living in France before I was born, and only returned to the UK a few months before my birth. My middle brother was born in France, my eldest brother lives and works in Germany. He has a German wife and two gorgeous, bilingual girls, Ella and Emily. Between us, we speak French, German, and Italian. My mother also speaks Irish and has pretty good Spanish. I have worked in Italy on bilingual contracts and communications for Italian law firms. I saw the euro established and introduced. I have lived and worked in Wales, where I spent two years learning Welsh.

My working life is focused on France; I run a large research project with a colleague at Toulouse University and regularly travel there and to Paris for work. When the Six Nations Championship begins I can support all the sides – I was born in England, I have an Irish mother, I worked in Wales, I honeymooned in Scotland, I lived and worked in Italy, and I work regularly in France. I really don’t mind who wins (but I have a slight preference for England). I’m not some wishy-washy I’ll-support-whoever-it’s-convenient-to-support kind of person, I have a finger in every national pie. But I am someone who understands deeply how much flex there is in national, cultural, and individual identities. For me, shutting ourselves off from our neighbours and friends, and their cultures, would be damaging.

Of course, my job would be significantly more difficult if we left the EU, I have a vested interest. This also applies to all my students, their families and their futures – and for the future for all Brits. We shouldn’t be short-sighted and retreat, pulling up the drawbridge just because our relationship with the EU is difficult at the moment. If we don’t work together longer term, everyone’s prospects will be diminished. Reversing what has been secured in my lifetime seems nonsensical. Forgetting that the foundations of co-operation were, and remain, the desire for long-lasting peace seems at best ignorant and at worst selfish.

The ability to travel and to work without major bureaucratic hassle or significant financial outlay is amazing. I want other Europeans to come and share their expertise and culture with us Brits too. We are, after all, already European. I am proud to be European, I am proud to be part of something that we work hard at. Walking away would be the cowards’ choice. Let’s accept the challenge, remain a member and lead the essential reform.

[This is an UPDATED POST as at 4.25pm, 30 April 2016, after my awesome uncle Jack did a brilliant copy-edit of it for me (he’s associate editor for the Irish Examiner). Original wording of post is retained below for info.]

[ORIGINAL POST 29 April 2016:

With the upcoming EU referendum on 23 June, most can guess which way I’ll be voting. I’m normally someone who keeps my politics private, but this referendum is too important for me not to share my views. But first I should be up front. This is not going to be a set of arguments about the economic benefits (or otherwise) of staying in the EU. It won’t tackle the financial implications, or explicitly touch on immigration (all of these arguments are well rehearsed elsewhere, and I value both sides of the debate). It will instead set out all the personal reasons why I want us to stay part of an important group of countries with whom we have much more in common than trade.

I am of European extraction. My mother is Irish, and my father British, but both have travelled extensively. My parents were living in France before I was born, and only came back to the UK a few months before my birth. My middle brother was born in France. My eldest brother now lives and works in Germany, has a German wife, and two gorgeous bilingual girls. Between us, we speak French, German, and Italian to a very high level of fluency. My mother also is a native Irish speaker, and has pretty good Spanish too. I have lived and worked in Italy, working for law firms on all their bilingual contracts and communications. I saw the Euro being introduced. I have lived and worked in Wales, where I spent two years learning Welsh. My working life now is focused on France; I am running a large research project with a colleague at Toulouse University and regularly travel there and to Paris for work. When the 6 Nations rugby is on, I can support all the sides – I was born in England, I have an Irish mother, I worked in Wales, I honeymooned in Scotland, I lived and worked in Italy, and I still work regularly in France. I really don’t mind who wins (but I have a slight preference for the England side)! What I mean by this is not that I’m some wishy-washy I’ll-support-whoever-it’s-convenient-to-support kind of person. But I am someone who understands deeply and personally how much flex there is in national, cultural, and individual identities.

And for me, shutting ourselves off from other countries and cultures is damaging. Of course my job would be significantly more difficult if we left the EU, so I have a vested interest in staying. But it’s also for all my students, and for their families and futures, and for the futures of all Brits, that we shouldn’t be so short-sighted as to retreat and close ourselves off just because things are difficult at the moment. If we don’t work together longer term, everyone’s prospects will be damaged. Reversing what was secured in my lifetime seems nonsensical. Forgetting that the foundations of cooperation were, and remain, the desire for long-lasting peace, seems at best ignorant and at worst selfish. The ability to travel and to work without major bureaucratic hassle or significant financial outlay is amazing; and I want other Europeans to come and share their expertise and culture with us Brits too. We are, after all, already European. I am proud to be European, I am proud to be part of something that we work hard at. Walking away would be the coward’s route.]

Why studying French poetry is great for your pronunciation skills

Getting good at French is one thing, but getting good at sounding French is quite another. I’ve posted before about how listening to French songs regularly can help you absorb accent, stress, and flow in French (in response to this JonRoss Swaby piece in The Guardian).


But I’m only now realising – thanks to a growing number of observations and comments from my students – how much studying French poetry helps too.

Poetry helps us to slow down our reading. With language condensed into a shorter form, every word, every syllable, every phoneme counts. As language practitioners we so often train our students to discover the nuances of language usage via longer journalistic or literary texts, or by very short grammar sentences for which we get them to fill in the gaps, select and conjugate the correct verb tense and so on. But poetry sits in the middle ground, and is becoming – for me – an increasingly invaluable tool for enhancing language and pronunciation proficiency.

With its rich vocabulary, we can peel back layers of meaning. I get my students to use a historical dictionary so that they can unearth the unusual, unexpected meanings of French, as well as get a grasp of the historical linguistics and cultural concepts underpinning the development of French as a language.

A student studying Baudelaire’s prose poem L’Étranger researched the use of the keyword ‘nuage’ which concludes the final statement of the dialogue which makes up the poem. ‘Nuage’ of course refers to the natural phenomenon in the sky, but its multiple metaphorical uses developed over time. The portail lexical of the CNRTL offers, for example, analogical uses of the term in agriculture, atrophysics, physics/chemistry, maths/statistics. But it also shows how, around the 1820s – 1850s in France, writers began to use the term to mean ‘Ce qui assombrit, masque la visibilité des choses’ or ‘Menace pesant sur quelqu’un, annonce d’un danger’. These more sinister meanings could add a more ‘gothic’ tinge to a reading of Baudelaire’s prose poem, or – read in conjunction with the politically-infused questioning earlier on in the poem – it could point towards a predilection for political change, revolutions, upheavals (which characterised much of the nineteenth century in the years leading up to Baudelaire writing his poetry).

But beyond the meanings is the sound world. Poetic French creates crackling, sparkling sounds by bringing choice consonants (t, p) into close contact with tight u and i vowels (‘tu m’es en riant apparue’. Mallarmé ‘Apparition’) and judicious use of polysyllabic words (‘délicatement’. Verlaine). So too does it favour more mellow and rich sounds of the deep ‘ou’ vowels (‘Les roses étaient toutes rouges / Et les lierres étaient tout noirs’. Verlaine ‘Spleen’; ‘Écloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux’. Baudelaire ‘La Mort des amants’).

Encouraging students to work closely with these various poetic soundscapes means enabling them to develop a really fine and subtle ability in French pronunciation. It is not just about developing a very French pout (which does, admittedly, help – it’s a technique I use with singers who need to ‘sound French’ with minimal time left to prepare for a concert; it’s not something I recommend as a general rule!). It is all about learning how to move the mouth in a very different way – from the tight forward lips required for the ‘ou’ and ‘u’ sounds (‘nous’, ‘tu’, depending on the lowered or raised tongue position) to the wide and open ‘é’ or ‘a’ sounds (e.g. of ‘éclater’), and everything in between – the really neutral loose mouth shape for an unaccented ‘e’, the dropped lower jaw for many of the ‘o’ sounds, and so on.

So I’m finding myself doing increasing amounts of language coaching with my French degree students, along the lines of the work I do with professional singers. It’s particularly rewarding working with students studying poetry because they are able to focus in on the details, they have a good grasp of versification, accent, and metre, as well as the range of semantic play. But what so often eludes them is the intensity of the soundworld, and that’s where hard work starts to pay off.

And the proof that this approach works?

Well, it is still anecdotal, of course, but what I’ve observed is that it doesn’t just pay off for their French poetry assignments. I watch my students flourish as their confidence and ability in spoken language clicks into place. They suddenly begin to sound so French even after working on just a few lines of poetry, and this work transfers almost instantly into the rest of their spoken French – whether for oral exams, for informal conversations with native speakers in and around the University, or in the wider world beyond the University (many go on to work in France or a French-speaking country after finishing their degree).

So. French poetry may seem like a niche area of study, but it’s shaping up to be a key training ground for linguists aiming to develop that ever-so-elusive fluency skill so that they sound completely French too. And the pay-off? Better (British) linguists means better global citizens.