Languages, art song, and the supposed “elitist barrier”: “You might not like this much, but it will be good for you”…

A few weeks ago, I was reading a Yorkshire Life article about Leeds Lieder founder and former Opera North soprano Jane Anthony. It was a preview of the 2013 Leeds Lieder festival, whose artistic director this year was Graham Johnson (whose work I use a lot for my research). Something struck me in the article, however. The journalist talks about the perceived “elitist barrier” of listening to (art) song in a foreign language. Jane Anthony rightly says that it is “all wrong” to think that singing in a foreign language has an “elitist tag”, and this struck a chord with me. I’ve been starting to think more and more about this outmoded view of languages and art song being supposedly difficult and off-putting, and about what is being done to change perceptions.

In my 2012 book Parisian Intersections, I talk about the supposed “difficulty” of art song. In my conclusion, I write:

“Perceptions of art song on today’s recital stage frequently consider it to be a specialist, niche genre only accessible by an elite audience of cognoscenti. Music critic Adam Sweeting, for example, has recently written that art song is ‘a term that often seems to mean “you might not like this much, but it will be good for you”’.[1] Tellingly, Sweeting makes this comment in an interview with mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter following the release of a CD recording which sees her performing both classical art song and more contemporary popular song. Breaking down the perceived boundary between art song and popular song opens up new ways of understanding the function of song and how poetry and music interact across genre boundaries, but it requires careful negotiation of those boundaries.”

Anne-Sofie von Otter’s drive to include contemporary popular song in her repertoire is revealing of a classical music industry which is trying to engage new audiences. For me, as my research takes me increasingly across the boundaries of “classical” vs. “popular” song, I’m finding new ways of interacting with both (new) performers and (new) audiences about singing and listening to challenging music in a foreign language, often using more “accessible” versions of the same poetic text set to a more popular melody. We can find numerous examples of recordings which use the same text in a recital programme, but as a framing device. I’m thinking, for example, of John Mark Ainsley’s L’Invitation au voyage recording with Graham Johnson on the Hyperion label. It uses four different versions of the same Baudelaire poem (‘L’Invitation au voyage’) as tracks 1, 11, 17 and 24 of a 24-track CD of French mélodie from the Belle époque. Only one of the settings is famous – the last track with Henri Duparc’s gloriously lush version of the poem. The others – by Jules Cressonnois (the only song setting of Baudelaire that we know for certain to have been written and published during Baudelaire’s lifetime), by Benjamin Godard, and by the Hillemacher brothers. I’ve published a chapter about these different L’Invitation au voyage settings in a book called Words & Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century (published by Boydell & Brewer in 2013, edited by Phyllis Weliver and Katharine Ellis). In it, I examine how the more lighthearted, earlier song settings interact both with Baudelaire’s poem and with the later versions, including Duparc’s more highbrow “art song” setting. But I also use this poem as a key example in my undergraduate teaching at the University of Sheffield, where I ask students to go and listen to contemporary pop song versions of the poem, moving back through the 1960s and 70s chansonnier versions, through then to the nineteenth-century settings. It allows students who have had little or no contact with classical music to find a way through to it, often via versions that they thought they would like more but end up finding less satisfying once they’ve encountered the Duparc setting. Having access to many different versions of an important Baudelaire poem set to music in so many different ways is quite a rare scenario, however, and it certainly isn’t the only way to open up art song to new audiences (whether undergraduate students or otherwise).

Placing different versions alongside each other of the same poem set to music isn’t the only way of breaking down the “elitist barrier”, however, and in fact, programming experience tells me that audiences often find it boring to sit and listen to different versions of the same text, especially if they are simply paired alongside each other (I’m indebted to Sholto Kynoch for his invaluable programming advice over the years!). Another way to tackle the “elitist tag” is to develop training for professional singers, so that their own mode of access to poetry in a foreign language is enhanced through a whole range of skills which will enable them to engage more openly with their audiences. I’ve been working closely with the creative team at Pro North Voices on a new project which draws together early-career professional singers based in the north to focus on challenging repertoire in a foreign language. The first programme centers around the French language, and includes settings of Eluard poems by Poulenc, for example. The whole process that we are going through – collectively – is to work from day one on the text and the music together as part of the creative development of the programme, so that we’re not just focusing on the poet’s voice, nor on just the composer’s voice, nor indeed on just the singer’s voice, but on all three of these elements together, examining what needs to take priority, how we can overcome technical challenges, and how we can arrive at an interpretative consensus as a vocal ensemble. This offers a much deeper level of engagement with the foreign language than is often possible within the time constraints and pressures of a singer’s career. It’s not just a question of producing the right sounds (diction) – though of course the notion of “right” in the context of different accents is quite another issue – but also a question of producing something that sounds French, both in terms of its technical elements and its emotive and interpretative facets. With our first performance coming up on 16 February 2014 at Firth Hall, University of Sheffield, we’re getting stuck into the work already (I’m preparing audio recordings of the French texts for singers to use as a guide as they prepare the music, text, and their voices in advance of the rehearsal period). Integral to the whole process is also how we engage with the audience, and so we’re also working alongside specialists in stagecraft – those who have had long, successful careers on the international opera house circuit, for example – to offer our singers and our audiences a fresh way of interacting with music in a language that is supposedly so foreign that it tips over into being only accessible to the happy few. Instead, we’re looking forward to embracing a different way of working together, with all of us coming from quite different backgrounds, to produce something that is refreshingly open to all.

A final word should be reserved for translation. In the Yorkshire Life article, it states how at Leeds Lieder “translations are provided so the audience know what’s being sung and to further break down the elitist barrier.” But my experiences of performing art song, and of being an audience member for art song concerts, in fact makes me think that translations can be more, not less, of a barrier. This is because as an audience member there is so much text to absorb if you don’t speak the language that is being sung that you risk spending most of the recital with your head buried in the programme booklet which, in turn, is disheartening for a performer who sees barely one face looking up at him/her. Reading the programme with texts and translations, you try on the one hand to observe roughly where the singer is by listening to the sounds you’re hearing, and then you try to cross-check that with the translation on the page. So often translations used in programme booklets are not the best translations – either because they are too literal, word-for-word (typically something more useful for a singer in the preparation phase of a song), or because they are too poetic, transposed into an English poetic form, and so quite far in mood and tone from the original language poem. Some professional translators do an amazing job at striking the right balance (Richard Stokes’ translations are regularly used, for example, by the Oxford Lieder Festival). But what is interesting is that the translator is rarely acknowledged (this is, indeed, an issue frequently addressed in the field of translation studies[2]), often perhaps because programmers have simply found a translation on the internet (the REC Music Foundation website is an invaluable user-contributor wiki-style resource we all use). The time has come to start looking at different ways of allowing audiences access to a “translation” of the foreign text that is being sung. One way in which I do this with my French song recitals is to have people read out the poem in French before I sing them. I’ve seen this on the recital stage with the singer doing this themselves before performing the song (for example, by the French soprano Magali Arnault Stanczak sometimes does this), or I’ve instigated it myself (for example, by getting my final year students of French at the University of Sheffield to read the poem out loud before I perform it). What this does is enable the audience to have a first listen to the poem, and read the translation before hearing the song setting. But it can break the ‘magic’ of the concert atmosphere, especially if the spoken text interrupts a song cycle, for example. Another way is to use “plot summaries” rather than full translations, or project surtitles. I’m researching using these techniques in performances planned for 2014, garnering examples from other ensembles and recitals that I’ve encountered to date. And crucially, rather than looking for a ready-made translation, I am working with my students for performances in Feburary 2014 to produce a range of possible translations of texts by Gautier (for Berlioz’s Nuits d’été) and Baudelaire (for Vierne’s Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire) which can be made available online in advance of a recital planned for 24 Feburary 2014 (again at Firth Hall, University of Sheffield).

So, like Jane Anthony, I also think that “getting the message across that art song is for all can be frustrating and difficult”, but I’m actively engaging with different ways of addressing this challenge. Where Leeds Lieder, Oxford Lieder, and many of the professional opera houses have been addressing the “elitist barrier” through education and outreach projects, I’m doing it from the perspective of a researcher, academic, and lecturer, who works closely with undergraduate and postgraduate students, and with early-career professional singers. Let’s hope that through this range of approaches, we’ll manage to achieve our goal of making such wonderful music more widely available to all.


[1] Adam Sweeting, interview with mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter, Daily Telegraph, 21 October 2010, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/8077726/Anne-Sophie-von-Otter-interview.html> [accessed 21 October 2010].

[2] See, for example, Lawrence Venuti’s field-defining work The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (1995)

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