Singing French poetry

After more than a decade researching French poetry and how it intersects with music through song, people often ask me what I do with this knowledge. The short answer is: language coaching. But while the idea of a ‘language coach’ is familiar to most in the classical music industry who train in the conservatoire tradition, it is little understood outside of the sector. To explain what I do, and how much both I and singer/pianist duos I work with can benefit from a collaborative coaching session, the 2018 Oxford Lieder Mastercourse day on French song (specialising in Verlaine/Debussy) is a good place to start.

Nine early-career international song duos came to work with me on the poetry of Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) and songs composed by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), whose centenary year Oxford Lieder were marking in the 2018 festival season.


Debussy had worked with Verlaine’s poetry throughout his career, from the early songs composed in the 1880s to his later songs composed in the first decade of the 1900s. Debussy’s particular preference for Verlaine is shown in the fact that he set 17 Verlaine poems to music over the course of his career – by far the highest number of poems from any of the poets whose work he chose to set. Overall, Debussy wrote just under 100 songs, using French poets from the modern era (Banville, Baudelaire, Bourget, Gautier, Leconte de l’Isle, Louÿs, Mallarmé, Musset, Verlaine) as well as those from earlier centuries (Tristan l’Hermite, Charles d’Orléans, Villon), and even trying his hand at writing his own words (such as for the Prose lyriques composed in the early 1890s). Debussy’s affinity for the subtleties of French verse is well-known; but he is never ‘perfect’ in the way he sets poetry to music – even if such a thing were ever possible. With the Verlaine settings, we can see this in practice: Debussy reworked a number of his songs, such as Clair de lune, which he originally composed for his muse, the coloratura soprano Madame Vasnier (1882), but which he later reworked for publication in the first book of the Fêtes galantes (1891). The two settings of the same poem differ in a number of ways – Debussy reduces the amount of line repetition he includes in the newer version, and he recasts the metrical emphases in the setting of the opening line, for example. But when we look at the poem itself – made up of 3 quatrains of decasyllables, using an alternating rhyme – we find that it is a text that ‘falls forward’ because the sense-units exceed the confines of the verse line. Specifically:
(a) sentence construction is not in normal order of everyday language
(b) the images and ideas exceed the confines of the line
(c) sound + word repetition with variation plays with tempo
When Debussy encounters a poem that functions in this way (and many of Verlaine’s do), he has to find a way to negotiate the demands of the poetic text. The fact remains that working with poetry always leaves open various possible options for reading it – which lines you join together, or which words you might pause on, for example. Debussy’s reworking of his own setting of Clair de lune does not ‘fix problems’ with the early version, but simply reworks them, offering a different response to the poetic text, and one which is perhaps more mature, in the sense of someone having spent a longer time with the poem.

Thinking about composers’ responses to poetry as being a record of what they were thinking at the time, as opposed to a definitive version, is particularly helpful for singers and pianists encountering songs such as Debussy’s settings of Verlaine. It means that we do not have to be completely reverential to the way the song has been written down, but we need to accept that the score has captured a way of performing the poem – for which there is still a great deal of flex.

In my work with the duos at the 2018 Oxford Lieder Mastercourse, we explored:

  • following the piano line, especially the piano right-hand ‘melody’ as the driver of a phrase rather than allowing the singer/vocal line to drive the direction
  • whether the vocalises on ‘La’ or ‘Ah’ in Debussy’s songs should really be followed to the letter, or whether there is more freedom, e.g. to flex the rhythm/tempo, switch rapidly between different types of vocal colour for each motif, experiment with more improvisatory techniques such as switching up or down the octave at given moments
  • how the emotion of the poetic text is captured in the prevalence of vowels or consonants, such as repeated rhyme sounds on the same vowels as a kind of ‘stuck record’ of a poetic mind ‘trapped’
  • whether we need to know the poet’s or the composer’s biographies to tell stories with these songs – do failed marriages, scandals of the heart, mistresses, lovers, affairs open up different routes into interpreting the songs?
  • how much the aesthetic of each artist informs the works, such as the dominance of decadence (challenging the current moral framework) and symbolism (challenging how language tells you things, and how to exploit the way language can subtly suggest things more indirectly) in Verlaine’s writing.
  • whether the cultural heritage that was so popular in the late nineteenth-century, especially the look to the past to exploit ideas of old-fashioned courtship, and the use of ‘stock characters’ from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, can inform how we perform the songs today – should we take on the role of a teenage boy bumbling across the stage and trying to pirouette four times (as in Pantomime)?

This kind of work is more than just trying to be sure about how to pronounce the words – whether an ‘s’ should be soft or more like a z, whether to run two sounds together or make them distinct, whether we should spit out the consonants or leave them to the last minute and hardly mark them. Instead, it is all about informed interpretation, which relies on an extensive body of expertise (knowing a lot about nineteenth-century French poetry, poetics, aesthetics, and versification), and an ability to collaborate with singers’ and pianists’ own creativity as they bring their own perspectives to bear on the performances.


Of course, as is common in Masterclasses and coaching sessions, we pushed most things too far. It’s by going to extremes that you enable yourself to locate where the ‘sweet spot’ of performance really is. You begin to feel right inside the song how it is working and can work for you and your audiences. It releases a mode of story-telling which is not about overt dramatisation or quiet introspection, but about intensity of feeling.

Where do voyages take us?

SIGCD509_Voyages album cover.jpgI enjoyed reading Tim Ashley’s thoughtful review in Gramphone of Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton’s Voyages album of (mostly) French and (some) German song. Ashley talks about the ‘story’ the album tells of imaging life in far-off places, and how it is framed by Baudelaire’s ‘L’Invitation au voyage’ (Invitation to journey) and Goethe’s ‘Kennst du das Land?’ (Do you know the land?) – two extremely well-known poems which have each had multiple afterlives in various formats. Baudelaire’s poem has been the inspiration for Louis Vuitton adverts featuring David Bowie, Goethe’s was turned into a famous aria Connais-tu le pays? (Do you know the country?) by the French composer Ambroise Thomas in his 1866 opera Mignon which James Joyce later refers to in his story ‘The Dead’ (Dubliners, 1914). Mignon is a key, but elusive, figure who gets reused time and again by poets, novellists, and composers well beyond her first appearance in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhem Meister’s Apprenticeship) in 1795. Terence Cave has written a wonderful book on this called Mignon’s Afterlives: Crossing Cultures from Goethe to the Twenty-First Century (OUP, 2011). Cave shows just how prevalent the Mignon idea became in France, picked up by poets like Nerval and composers like Auber (via Balzac lyrics). In fact, a key link is the poet Théophile Gautier, whose work Baudelaire admired enormously (he dedicated Les Fleurs du mal to Gautier), and whose poems Berlioz famously set in Les Nuits d’été (1840–41). The final song of Berlioz’s set, L’Île joyeuse, is patently another kind of ‘Mignon song’, using Gautier’s poem ‘Barcarolle’ from his collection of poems called La Comédie de la Mort (1838). A breathless invitation to travel to far-off lands, it ends with the line ‘Au pays des amours’ (to the land of love). This is echoed in Baudelaire’s own ‘L’Invitation au voyage’, as I’ve written about more fully in an article in French Studies on Gautier and Berlioz called ‘Singing and Difference’ (2017). Gautier translated Goethe’s Wilhelm novels for a French audience in 1861. But much earlier, in 1833, he’d published a poem called ‘La Chanson de Mignon’ (Mignon’s Song) which places emphasis not just on the idea of travelling to another place, but also on going there to live and love, and ultimately die, together. Baudelaire echoes this clearly in his poem ‘L’Invitation au voyage’ with the words ‘aller là-bas vivre ensemble’ (to go there to live together) and ‘aimer et mourir’ (to love and to die). Gautier and Baudelaire adapt the Goethe song by adding the more sombre twist of also dying in that imagined (perfect) place the lovers travel to. If there had been space on the Voyages disc, we would have included the Berlioz songs too – we certainly talked about them a lot in the preparation and coaching sessions we had leading up to the recording!

In his review, Ashley makes one comment about the Baudelaire poem that I want to reconsider, offering an alternative perspective on the text from my position as a Baudelaire specialist, and a words and music researcher. Ashley states how Baudelaire’s version of the imaginative Mignon song presents a ‘decadent city to which Baudelaire transgressively wishes to take “my child, my sister”’. Quoting from the translation of the opening line of the poem, Ashley suggests that it is morally questionable that poet addresses the woman in potentially incestuous terms. It might be helpful to clarify that in nineteenth-century France, using the words ‘mon enfant, ma sœur’ was much like we might call a woman ‘babe’ today (albeit less pejorative). It is a term of endearment which carries none of the erotic or sensual weight that might be found elsewhere; it is loaded with innocence rather than transgression. It evokes a child-like incorruptibility. In this way, it is much closer to the vision of a non-tainted, ‘prelapsarian world’ that Ashley identifies in Mignon persona of the Goethe poem ‘Kennst du das Land?’. The idea, also, that Baudelaire’s poem indicates a specific location to travel to with his female lover (e.g. a ‘decadent city’) is also not straightforwardly evident from the poem. Like many of his poems (except for the overtly Parisian ones), Baudelaire leaves the destination unclear – he allows us to imagine where it might be and how it might look. Countless commentators have suggested the poem is about travelling to Venice, or to Amsterdam (the final stanza mentions canals); others have suggested it’s about the near east, or the islands off north-east Africa such as Île de la Réunion (previously Île Bourbon) where Baudelaire had travelled, reluctantly, in the 1840s (the second stanza mentions ‘oriental splendour’). But nothing is explicit or concrete in the poem itself. Like the quote used on the Voyages album cover, Baudelaire wants us to use our imagination to its fullest – because imagination is ‘the Queen of the Faculties’. So we can make the journey in our minds, through Duparc’s music, to wherever we want… It is, in fact, rather like the Goethe poem. The destination itself is never defined. We are simply asked to imagine it for ourselves.

There’s one other comment about the Baudelaire poem that often gets put about. In his famous setting, Duparc cuts out the second stanza of the Baudelaire poem (the one that mentions the ‘oriental splendour’ of the room the lovers will inhabit). Music critics have sometimes claimed that cutting that stanza out makes sense because it doesn’t really fit with the overall theme of the poem about an exotic voyage. It is a strange claim (as I’ve argued in a chapter called ‘How Composers Accept Baudelaire’s Invitation to Song’). The eminent German Lied scholar Susan Youens, for example, writes in a Journal of Musicology article that Duparc omits the second stanza because he focused on a ‘musical evocation’ of an ‘ocean voyage’ and that ‘the description of the richly decorated chamber the lovers will inhabit when they reach their destination’ is simply not a good ‘fit’. But the description of a richly decorated chamber is there in the second stanza of Goethe’s ‘Kennst du das Land’ poem, and that has been set to music on multiple occasions, whether in the famous Schubert setting, or in Duparc’s ‘Romance de Mignon’ (which is a loose French translation of Goethe’s text). On the Voyages album we do in fact also hear the full French text of the Baudeliare poem (with the ‘missing’ second stanza), but it is in Chabrier’s setting featuring an obbligato bassoon part performed by Amy Harman. (A rare chance to hear this song live will be on Fri 9 March in Sheffield at Music in the Round’s SongMakers collaboration Baudelaire and the Bassoon concert with another formidable song duo, Louise Alder and James Bailleu).

What we find out from all of this is how Baudelaire’s ‘L’Invitation au voyage’ poem has multiple previous incarnations (in Goethe, Schubert, Gautier, and Berlioz, to name but a few) as well as an array of afterlives (in Duparc, Chabrier, and plentiful other composers, songwriters, and even luxury-goods-advertisers). Like all the related poems and songs, we are invited to imagine far-off places, but we are not told exactly what they look like; we get the sense, somehow, that we will benefit from the experience. Mysterious Mignon lurks behind it all, turning up in various guises, more or less innocently. And we can get to hear all of this afresh through Mary Bevan’s sumptuous performances on the new Voyages album.


Maybe I am superwoman, after all

A few months back, I wrote a blog post reflecting on my first few months as a Professor. I titled that post “I am not superwoman”. And I was right, mostly. But there were things I’ve not talked about publicly, things that traditionally and culturally we keep private. When you bring them into the frame, they start to paint a different picture. So maybe, just maybe, I am superwoman, after all…?

We were approaching the end of the academic year. Everyone was fractious after a tough semester. Some weeks earlier I’d had a fairly fraught conversation with the Head of School about the lack of admin support for some major roles we were undertaking in the team; I knew his hands were tied by the system, but it was having a knock-on effect on junior staff, and I couldn’t let that fly. Somehow we all just about made it to the end of the year. But for me, something was happening I couldn’t quite work out. It was during the final degree exam board of the academic year. I knew something wasn’t quite right, but I made it to the end of the meeting. It happened to be my 35th birthday. And I was in the middle of having a miscarriage. The rest of the day, and most of the night was spent in various clinics with various medics and nurses whose faces told me the grim news I didn’t really want to hear. It was brutal, physically and emotionally. Countless women have been through a similar thing, and will tell you how, like me, your hormones take some time to catch up with themselves after an unexpected end to something that was supposed to last many months more. Over the next few days, colleagues very kindly stepped in to cover my workload for me, as we finalised all the post-exam-board paperwork and released results to students. But there was one work commitment I had to cancel altogether as I was unable to travel. I was supposed to be externalling a PhD viva. I had to cancel the viva. I could only imagine how awful it must have been for the doctorand to have their viva cancelled – so much effort and psyching-yourself-up goes into viva prep, and they had to put all that on hold because of me. (I am eternally grateful to the fabulous researcher whose viva this affected – we were able to reschedule for a couple of weeks later; my first day back at ‘work’ after my miscarriage). The knock-on effects also meant that I had to press pause on a major grant bid I was co-writing with a colleague in France. We ended up submitting the bid several months later, about 3 weeks later than planned in all, just as the new academic year was starting. It felt… momentous and draining all at once. But life went on.

I heard the outcome of the grant about 7 or 8 months later – we’d been successful! I was overjoyed, as it was my first major grant. But I suppose it felt doubly rewarding to have some success in my professional life, where I was struggling for success in my personal life. I was in the midst of going through rounds of tests to find out why I was struggling to conceive after my miscarriage. Doctors take ages to put you forward for tests; it takes ages to get a referral letter; it takes months to get an appointment with a specialist. A year or more was going by and still we had no real clue what was going on. But I kept focused at work, got the grant project underway, appointed a fantastic team, and started to make significant progress with my new book. At the same time, I was turned down for promotion. I was told that my major grant didn’t count towards my promotion case (I still don’t understand why). I was told not to talk too much about my grant success in case it might upset other people who didn’t have one. I was told that because I had my grant other people were having to take the strain of my workload. It made me feel pretty raw. I was successful but was being told I wasn’t. In the meantime, I was called by another university asking if I’d consider a role with them. My instinct was to say no – I was in the middle of tests at the hospital, I’d finally got my referral letter through, and didn’t want to disrupt that process, given how long it had taken to get an appointment in the first place. But I ended up being called for an interview, and I decided to go – as practice. My husband had also just started a new post 3 hours from where we lived, but closer to the new place I ended up being offered a job at. And it was a significant promotion, to Chair.

I accepted the new job. In the very same week, we found out the outcome of the hospital tests. The picture was not great for me… We were offered a one-time-chance-it-and-see round of IVF. And there was no option but to go ahead with it – if we waited any longer, we’d lose our “place” in the system because once we’d moved house and jobs, we’d go to the back of the referral queue at a new hospital. So at the same time as house-hunting, carrying on with my normal day job, and my husband being in just the first few months of his new job, we also started all the IVF process. Anyone who has been through it will know that it means a lot of trips to hospital. A lot of injections and probes and tests. We’d been told from the outset not to expect great success given my prognosis. But we did pretty well, we got as far as we could, and were in the midst of the infamous “two-week wait” to find out if it had worked. The day I got the negative result was the day we moved house. My in-laws came to collect me and the cat, and I left my husband to deal with the removal men, the solicitors, and all the stressful logistics of the move. We were both in pieces, but unable to do much about it, given our lives were packed up in boxes as we moved to start our new life – not quite the one we’d envisaged – in a new city.

I ended up being pretty ill after the IVF with a nasty infection that took some major drugs to zap (I missed the graduation ceremony of one of my former PhD students as a result). I was drained physically and emotionally, once again. We didn’t have any of our friends around us, because we’d just moved to a brand new place. But we cracked on with unpacking, decorating, gardening, and making the most of what was in many ways an exciting new chapter in our lives. I was still technically employed for a month by my old university, and I had to go back and do the whole admissions cycle for them (a bizarre experience talking to stressed teenagers who’d just missed out on their hoped-for A-level results and telling the “yes, come and study here… though I myself am leaving…”). A few days later, I started my new job as a Professor. Three weeks later, I submitted my full book typescript to my publisher. It was three months behind schedule, but it was done.

When I look back over the past 3 and a half years or so, and see that I managed to secure a £600,000 research grant, write and publish a 90,000-word monograph with OUP, be promoted to a Chair at a high-ranking University, and that I did all that whilst negotiating a miscarriage, a failed round of IVF, and a house move, I realise that maybe I am superwoman after all. My successes are tangible; my failures seem less so. I know I had to let a lot of people down along the way. I know there were things I just never quite got round to doing, emails that never got replies, tasks and roles I ended up doing a less-than-perfect job of. But maybe, just maybe, that’s ok, given everything else I’ve done and been through. The thing is, I suspect my experience isn’t that different from that of many other women, whether in academia or not. Trying and failing to have children is not much talked about – why would you? It has a major effect on partners and husbands too. We’ve ended up in a place we didn’t expect to be, it’s not how we’d hoped our lives would turn out, but even though it’s still not ok, we’re starting to be a bit more used to it. And to feel lucky and privileged for all the things we have managed to achieve along the way (anyhow).

And so, to Richard, for everything.

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 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

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.