To harmonize, or not to harmonize? The subtleties of vocalic harmonization in French lyric Diction…(with Jonas Kaufmann as guinea pig)

For as far as I can remember, vocalic harmonization has always had a certain aura of mystery about it. When I was a student, I knew what it was technically, but the issues of how and when to use it were a little fuzzy. I recall asking one of my teachers about it, and was told that it should be used when “le bon goût” (good taste) warrants it. I do like that answer, as it stresses the fact that we are dealing with art here, not weights and measures; but that is also precisely the problem: it is not very practical.
For the following few years, I went on a quest to survey all the French lyric diction practitioners I could lay my hands on. I received a lot of responses reflecting a lot of varying opinions. (My mother, who was German, always said: “Wer viel fragt, kriegt viele Antworte”, “he who asks a lot, will receive a lot of answers”).

Before I go any further, I should probably remind everyone of what vocalic harmonization is:
It is the process by which an open vowel becomes more closed, because the vowel that follows it is closed. This happens to vowels for which both an open and a closed version exist, mostly [ɛ]/[e] and [œ]/[ø], but also sometimes [ɔ]/[o]. For example the word “aimer” (to love) should basically be pronounced [ɛ me], but can be harmonized to something closer to [e me].

This comes with a caveat: I don’t think that the harmonized vowel should necessarily be the exact closed version of itself, but rather that it should tend to that closed vowel. In other words, harmonizing is not equalizing, and therefore, in the previous example, we should still be able to hear some of the open nature of the [ɛ] even when it is harmonized. You can watch this short clip from The Diction Police: SDU on the subject:

For a long time, I was pretty dead set against harmonization, because it made lyric French sound too much like spoken French, and those are very different, or at least should be very different from one another. Spoken French has lost a lot of open vowels to harmonization, and I always felt that this actually constituted an impoverishment of the language. When you sing Verlaine, you should use the full array of sounds at your disposal, since, in the poet’s own words, poetry is “de la musique avant toute chose” (music before all else). And that was that.

This is when the amazing Jonas Kaufmann comes into this story. More precisely, Jonas Kaufman in Massenet’s Werther, singing the achingly beautiful Lied d’Ossian. I first heard him in the Paris Opera production, and then in the Metropolitan Opera production this year. There was something about his French that was different, but I could not quite put my finger on it. So I pored over the recordings, and discovered something very interesting about the way he was treating the harmonization in both productions.

The line in question here, is the very opening of the aria: “Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?” [pu rkwa me re vɛ je o su flə dy prɛ̃ tɑ̃]. More precisely the word “réveiller” [re vɛ je]

In the Paris production, the  [ɛ] of “réveiller”  was not harmonized. We can hear very distinctly [re vɛ je]. This happens at 0’15 in the following video:

In the Met production, however, the [ɛ] is strongly harmonized, and we hear something very close to: [re ve je]. This happens at the beginning in the  following video:


While Kaufmann sings brilliantly in both recordings, it is clear to me that the harmonized version sounds much better, and unifying the vowels really achieves a much better line, and a more satisfying legato. Of course, one could argue that maybe the [ɛ] in the first excerpt was too open to start with, which is probably true, and that the same quality of line could have been achieved without harmonizing with the use of a better [ɛ] , but still, my “bon goût” tells me that the second version is superior.

So, I have now revised my opinion on harmonization somewhat, and believe that it can be very useful and beautiful, if one abides by a few principles:

1)- It should not be systematic (nor frequent): only in cases where the legato and the line really suffer from the lack of harmonization should it be used. I still believe that it is possible to achieve great evenness and a beautiful legato, while retaining the wonderful variety of vowels that is such a feature of the language. I will concede that it is not easy, but with good vowel placement, and with a good coach, it can certainly be done.

2)- Harmonizing is not necessarily equalizing: In most cases, bringing the two vowels closer together, without making them identical, will be enough.

3)- If you sing like Kaufmann, I won’t be too fussy about vowels….

For more on this, and many other subjects, go to:

French Poets Society

In Richard Strauss’ Capriccio, the poet Olivier and the composer Flamand discuss the relative merits of poetry and music, trying to determine which of the two is the greater art.
What comes first? The words, or the music? and does it matter? Isn’t this debate akin to the age old chicken and egg question?

Regardless of the answer, I would like to offer that the words do matter a great deal, particularly when it comes to art song. After all, the poem usually precedes and even inspires the mélodie, at least in most cases. How is it then, that when it comes to approaching art song, many young singers simply ignore the poetry to dive head first into the singing. How many times have I had students come to a coaching with only a very superficial understanding of the literary underpinnings of the piece we were supposed to work on, not to mention a sometimes very vague idea of a translation! I would like to take the opportunity of this post to reiterate the importance of text, and to suggest that one always start working on all aspects of the poetry, before venturing into singing. This work includes (and is not limited to):

– Research of the literary sources, the poet or author, the historical context in which the poem or text was written.
– A great deal of reflection on the meaning of poetry that can be difficult to grasp at first.
– Diction work (IPA transcription, listening).
– Recitation, both in French, and in translation, without being bound to the rhythm chosen by the composer.

All of this before a single note has been sung!

In that spirit, I think some level of understanding and knowledge of the main currents of French poetry is necessary. This post is therefore dedicated to a brief overview of the French poetic landscape as it pertains to the French art song repertoire. The examples I will be using come from a wonderful project at Wheaton College, called “vive voix” (a play on words meaning “out loud” or “live voice”): a collection of audio recordings of French theater actors reciting poetry.

Medieval period and Renaissance:
The development of French mélodie really started in the 19th century and most of the familiar repertoire rests on poems written from that point on. Some composers did however feel a close connection to poets of earlier periods. Names like Charles d’Orléans or Clément Marot come to mind. The compliance to strict traditional forms, like the ballade or the rondeau, is one of the notable traits of their output, as is the use of “old” French (vieux français) which poses its own challenges.
Here is “Hiver, vous n’êtes qu’un vilain”, by Charles d’Orléans which was set to music by Claude Debussy. (click here)
An English translation is available at (click here)

Classical period:
We are talking here about the 17th and 18th centuries. Fixed forms like the rondeau tend to disappear, and the rhyme patterns become freer, imitating prose more closely. Poems of that period have not generated a great deal of art songs.
Here is Jean de la Fontaine’s La cigale et la fourmi which was set to music by André Caplet. (click here)
An English translation is available at (click here)

The 19th century
We now enter the bulk of the poems that inspired French composers to invent and perfect the art of French mélodie. There are several important currents in this time period, and it is very helpful to know their chronology as well as some of their characteristics.

Romantics: Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine are two of the most important poets of the romantic era. Emotional, dramatic, sometimes dark and brooding, the poetry of the era also reveals a fascination for the individual within the group. Romanticism will inspire later movements, such as realism and symbolism.
Here is Victor Hugo’s L’aurore s’allume, which was set to music by Gabriel Fauré. (click here)
An English translation is available at (click here)

Parnassians: The name comes from the literary magazine Le Parnasse Contemporain (in Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was believed to be the home of the muses). The poets who published their work in the magazine’s pages were generally writing in reaction to the romantics, and inspired by Théophile Gautier’s principle of “Art for Art’s sake” were mostly concerned with workmanship and traditionnal forms. They promoted a certain emotional detachment and enjoyed classical and exotic subject matters. The main names associated with the current are Théodore de Banville, Leconte de Lisle, and Paul Verlaine in the early stages of his career. Here is Banville’s Sculpteur, cherche avec soin. (click here)

Symbolists: This is a looser group of poets, encompassing the “poètes maudits” (cursed poets), some naturalists, and the darker offspring of late romanticism. They typically rejected poetic convention and were not afraid to deal with more licentious subjects. The term symbolism was coined by Jean Moréas in his Symbolist Manifesto. There is a great variety of styles and personalities at play here. Among the most notable were Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé.
Here is Baudelaire’s L’Invitation au voyage which was famously set to music by Henri Duparc. (click here)
An English translation is available at (click here)

The 20th century
While there are a lot of different currents, groups and styles, a few traits dominate the period: the exploration of modern life as a source of inspiration; the growing use of free verse; the experimentation with drugs and altered states; the exploration of the absurd; the importance given to the subconscious mind, etc. One important movement emerged from all this: surrealism, with names such as Paul Eluard, André Breton and Jean Cocteau.
Here is Guillaume Appolinaire’s L’Ecrevisse, which was set to music by Francis Poulenc (click here)
An English translation is available at (click here)

This is certainly not an exhaustive survey, but I hope this will be a good starting point to put some order in all the poetry that one encounters in French mélodie.
I’ll finish with this recording of the great Gérard Souzay singing L’Invitation au voyage by Henri Duparc accompanied by Dalton Baldwin.

Character names in French Opera, and how to pronounce them.


The scene of the crime: an audition or a coaching session.
The perpetrator: a well intentioned young singer who spent a lot of time perfecting her diction.
The Crime: The above mentioned young singer neglected to learn how to pronounce the title of her aria, or the name of her character.
The consequence: a questionable first impression, or an unimpressed coach.

I have witnessed this scenario more than once. It is somewhat understandable, however, since  these are often words that will never be sung. I do believe however that one should know how to introduce a song, or an aria properly, and this poses certain challenges.

We’ve already dealt with composers names in a previous post (Click here)

This post is dedicated to the names of the characters in some of the most prominent French operas (Feel free to request more, in the comment section).
There are two things to keep in mind here:
1- A fair amount of French operas use foreign names. As has already been discussed in the post about composer’s names, these names will not be pronounced as they would in their original language, but rather, they will be “Frenchified”. For instance, the stress will be on the last syllable, even in a name like “Mercutio”.
2- There will be slight variations depending on whether the name is to be sung, or spoken in an introduction. (Most notably: final [ə] will be dropped when the name is spoken, but may be pronounced when sung, depending on the musical setting. I will indicate this with the use of parentheses)

So here goes whit this non-exhaustive list of characters (by opera).

Faust (Gounod): after Goethe. All names have been adapted to French, with Gretchen becoming Marguerite, for instance.
Faust,Méphistophéles, Marguerite, Valentin, Wagner, Siébel, Marthe
[fost] [me fi sto fe lɛs] [ma rgə rit(ə)] [va lɑ᷉ tɛ᷉] [sje bɛl] [mart(ə)]
(Listen here)

Roméo et Juliette (Gounod): A French opera, after an English play, about Italian lovers!
Here again, all names have been adapted to French.
Juliette Capulet, Roméo Montaigu, Frère Laurent, Mercutio, Benvolio, Stéphano, Le Comte Capulet, Gertrude, Tybalt, Le Comte Pâris, Grégorio, Le Duc de Vérone, Frère Jean
[ʒy ljɛt(ə) ka py lɛ] [rɔ meo mo᷉ tɛ gy] [frɛr(ə) lɔ rɑ᷉] [mɛ rky sjo] [bɛ᷉ vɔ ljo] [ste fa no] [lə ko᷉t(ə) ka py lɛ] [ʒɛ rtryd(ə)] [ti balt] [lə ko᷉t(ə) pɑ ris] [gre gɔ rjo] [lə dyk də ve rɔn(ə)] [frɛr(ə) ʒɑ᷈]
(Listen here)

Carmen (bizet): Set in Spain. Some of the names still look spanish, but should be pronounced according to the rules of French diction.
Carmen, Don José, Micaëla, Escamillo, Frasquita, Mercédès, Le Dancaïre, Le Remendado, Zuniga, Moralès, Lillas Pastia
[ka rmɛn] [do᷉ ʒo ze] [mi ka ɛ la] [ɛ ska mi jo] [Mɛ rse dɛs] [lə dɑ᷈ ka ir(ə)] [lə re mɛn da do] [zy ni ga] [mɔ ra lɛs] [li las pa stja]
(Listen here)

Manon (Massenet): The first in the list so far where all the names are of French origin. Not that this makes them easier to pronounce (au contraire!)
Manon Lescaut, Le Chevalier des Grieux, Lescaut, Guillot de Morfontaine, Monsieur de Brétigny, Le Comte des Grieux, Poussette, Javotte, Rosette
[ma no᷈ lɛ sko] [lə ʃə va lje dɛ gri ø] [lɛ sko] [gi jo də mɔ rfo᷈ tɛn(ə)] [mœ sjø də bre ti ɲi] [lə ko᷈t(ə) dɛ gri ø] [pu sɛt(ə)] [ʒa vɔt(ə)] [rɔ zɛt(ə)]
(Listen here)

Werther (Massenet)
Le bailli, Werther, Charlotte, Sophie, Schmidt, Johann, Bruhlmann
[lə ba ji] [vɛ rtɛr] [ʃa rlɔt(ə)] [sɔ fi] [ʃmit] [ʒɔ an] [bry lman]
(Listen here)

Cendrillon (Massenet): Interestingly, some of the names (and characters) are unique to the opera and not to be found in the original fairy tale by Charles Perrault. (who knew that Cendrillon’s name was “Lucette”?)
Lucette, Le Prince Charmant, Madame de la Haltière, Pandolfe, La Fée, Noémie, Dorothée, Le Roi
[ly sɛt(ə)] [lə prɛ᷈s(ə) ʃa rmɑ᷈], [ma dam(ə) də la ha ltjɛr(ə)] [pɑ᷈ dɔlf(ə)] [la fe] [nɔ e mi] [dɔ rɔ te] [lə rwa]
(Listen here)

Pélléas et Mélisande (Debussy): Maybe the quintessential French opera. The names, unlike most of the text, are fairly straight forward.
Mélisande, Geneviève, Arkel, Pelléas, Golaud, Yniold
[me li zɑ᷈d(ə)] [ʒə nə vjɛv(ə)] [a rkɛl] [pe le as] [go lo] [i njɔld]
(Listen here)

There are of course many more, but these are some of the ones that tend to occur frequently.
Stay tuned for a post about proper names in French Mélodies: between Shéhérazade, Bilitis and Don Quichotte, there will be some food for (diction) thought!

“Hein?”* The world of French “nasal” vowels.

*Hein [ɛ᷉]: one of the most common interjections in French, with a wide array of meanings from “huh?” to “what?” to “isn’t it?”…

Nasality in spoken French is a very obvious feature of the language, one that makes French sound, well, French. As proof of this, I give you the brilliant Catherine Tate in this little sketch (the segment relevant to our discussion starts at 0:45”, but the whole thing is only 2’48 and well worth the time investment)

I  know that nasal vowels can be the bane of the existence of many a young singer, and that there is a lot of confusion associated with them. The aim of this post is therefore to try and clarify some of the issues and address the difficulties one might encounter when faced with them.

So let’s first take a look at what two of the main authorities have to say about this:

Pierre Bernac, in his landmark The Interpretation of French Song writes: “…the [nasal] vowels should have a nasal resonance.” and further: ” The sounds should be rich and full, and carefully blended with the sound of the pure vowel”
Thomas Grubb, in the great reference book Singing in French writes: “…one third of the vocalic flow is allowed to resonate in the nasal cavities, right above the soft palate and behind the nose.”

Well, I am not sure how to measure a third of the vocalic flow, but the important part to remember here is that one should not “over-nasalize” the nasal vowels. In fact, if we could have a do-over, I would probably name them something else entirely, in order to remove the focus on “nasal”.
So, what are some of the issues here?
Since a picture is sometimes worth a hundred words, I offer you the following diagram:


Nasality happens when the velum (more commonly known by singers as the soft palate) is lowered slightly, which obviously goes against most principles of lyric sound production, that normally emphasize space and a raised palate. Here then are some things to keep in mind:

– The most important task for the singer is to establish clearly and focus mainly on what I call the underlying vowel, that is, the vowel when all nasality is removed. From there, a small amount of nasal resonance may be added, but in most cases, no nasality is required. This may seem like an odd idea, and I remember being very skeptical about it myself when I was learning about French lyric diction, but I can promise you that it is true. I can also promise you that it will come as a great relief, particularly in musical contexts where the lowering of the soft palate is really impossible to achieve without a significant loss of quality and resonance in the sound.

– It is important to remark at this point, that the level of nasality in spoken French is quite high, and certainly not a good gauge of how much nasal resonance should be used in singing. One must always remember that lyric diction is not spoken diction, and that its goal is to emulate speech while accommodating all the technical aspects of sound production.

– What then are those “underlying vowels”? Here is a nice little phrase to remember them, involving wine (we are talking about French diction after all):

“Un bon vin blanc” [œ᷉ bo᷉ vɛ᷉ blɑ᷉] (a good white wine)

It is interesting to note that spoken French has pretty much lost [œ᷉] and replaced it with [ɛ᷉], further reinforcing the idea that spoken diction and lyric diction are not the same thing.
In order establish the right vowels here, this little phrase should really be understood as [œ bo vɛ blɑ], with the focus on the underlying oral vowels.
Here is what this phrase sounds like with “spoken” nasality: (Click here)
And here is what it sounds like with “lyric” vowels: (Click here)

– Finally, I would like to emphasize that, like any other vowels in French, the “nasal” vowels need to remain pure for their whole duration. The [n] and [m] that accompany the spelling of these sounds have to remain silent, and cannot, under any circumstance creep in. In my experience, they do creep in regularly, for two reasons: 1) Our brain seems to want to pronounce them whenever it sees them, and 2) the anticipation of the next consonant might articulate an [n] or an [m] on the way to the next syllable. In both cases, the result is French that sounds Italian, or more accurately, Provençal, which is the accent of my native Aix-en-Provence, and while very charming, and still French, not appropriate for lyric diction.  To illustrate this last point, I’ll leave you with this scene from the great classic Marius by the famed provençal writer Marcel Pagnol…

Flipped, rolled, trilled or other…How to deal with the French “r”?

In my experience, the main difficulty with French lyric diction lies with the vowel sounds. There is a seemingly unreasonable number of them (usually between 15 and 19, and sometimes more, depending on who is counting); they can be nasal, semi, mixed; there are countless spelling rules, and about just as many exceptions to the rules.
Consonants, on the other hand, are for the most part fairly straightforward, and don’t require too much fuss. That is, until we get to the “r”. There is an assumption that in modern spoken French, “r” is always treated as what is commonly called a “guttural” “r”. The proper linguistic term is actually “voiced uvular fricative”, and the IPA symbol for it is [ʁ] (Listen here). Before going any further, I would like to point out that while this pronunciation of the “r” is the most common, it is not the only one. There are still regions in France and in the world (most notably in some parts of Québec) where the “r” can be what we commonly call “flipped” or “rolled”. The proper linguistic terms for these would be “alveolar flap or tap” and “alveolar trill”, and the IPA symbols are [ɾ] and [r]. (Listen here) (and here).
There is even a fourth possibility: the “uvular trill”, [ʀ] (Listen here).

So, to summarize, there are four possible French “r” that can still be found in modern spoken French:

– The voiced uvular fricative [ʁ], by far the most common
– The uvular trill [ʀ], much rarer
– The alveolar flap or tap [ɾ] (flipped “r”)
– The alveolar Trill [r] (rolled “r”)

Which one of these, then,  is appropriate for lyric diction? This is a tricky, somewhat controversial and still evolving subject, so let’s take a closer look at all of them.

The uvular trill. While it used to be very much in favor with some of the greatest popular singers of French chanson, like Edith Piaf, it is not very useful or common in lyric diction. However, I can’t resist sharing this rendition of “Non, je ne regrette rien” by the incomparable Mireille Mathieu, who really took the uvular trill to a thrilling (and trilling) extreme.

The alveolar tap and trill. These are the ones that English native speakers are the most familiar with, mostly because they are the same as in Italian. Usually, however, the trill (or “rolled r”) in French will not be as pronounced as the Italian version. In fact, I mostly teach that the “r” in French should only be flipped (or tapped): usually a single tap, sometimes two, and rarely more. Any more trilling makes the French sound either too affected, or to italianate. This was the traditional way to treat the “r” in French Lyric diction. In the following excerpt, we can hear how Pierre Bernac, who is still a reference on the subject, as well as a beautiful singer, uses a mixture of single and multiple taps. No real trills, no uvulars.

The voiced uvular fricative. The most common of the spoken “r” is also becoming quite prevalent in lyric diction, especially in France. This is a very interesting evolution of the language, and it shows that lyric diction, like language can change over time (this will be the subject of an upcoming blog post..stay tuned). It certainly gives a more modern flavor to the language. But it also raises a certain number of questions and problems: for one, it is quite difficult for English native speakers to form properly, without adding tension, or making it too harsh. The fact that it is articulated quite far in the throat can also be tricky for proper voice placement. I usually tell my students: “If you weren’t born with it, don’t use it”, as it will usually not sound quite right. I believe (and this may be the controversial part of this blog post) that it is better to stick to the “flipped” versions of the “r”, at least until a certain level of proficiency with the language has been reached; In my view, there are many more pressing elements to be mastered, before venturing into the uvular sounds.
Here is a beautiful example of the proper and very elegant use of the uvular fricative [ʁ] by François Leroux.

To end this post, I would like to share this wonderful document: Reynaldo Hahn (See the previous post on how to pronounce his name) singing and accompanying himself at the piano. His “r” is mostly flipped (sometimes multiple times, close to a roll), with even a few that are uvular trills, seemingly bridging lyric diction and popular song.

How do you pronounce “Messiaen” anyway? A quick guide to French Composers’ names.

The French have a tendency to modify foreign names in order to make them more French sounding and 300px-Saint-Saens-Camilleeasier to pronounce. We even have an official name for this : “La francisation des noms propres” or  French-ification of proper nouns.

For instance, I grew up thinking that the [n] in Beethoven was silent, just like the [t] in Schubert, and that Mozart was really pronounced [mɔ zar]. (Listen here)
Similarly, Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Christian Bach, just to name these two, became Jean-Sébastien Bach and Jean-Chrétien Bach at some point along the way. (Listen here)

So it may seem ironic that this first blog post should be dedicated to addressing the pronunciation of French composers’ names by English native speakers; Who am I to talk, really? But I am a vocal coach after all, and living and working in North America, I can’t help but notice a few common recurring mistakes that I’ve been dying to correct. I guess I just can’t stop teaching. So here goes:

Camille Saint-Saëns: [ka mij sɛ᷉ sɑ᷉s] (Listen here)
This is one of the most commonly mispronounced names. Admittedly, the spelling here is very challenging; just remember that not all final consonants are silent in French, and the final [s] in Saëns is definitely NOT silent. As for those nasal vowels, please refer to a good diction book to learn more about spelling rules…there are plenty!

Olivier Messiaen: [ɔ li vje mɛ sjɑ᷈] (Listen here)
The first name is fairly straightforward, but that [aen] is unusual. It turns out that it is simply an [ɑ᷉], just like in “Saëns”.

Claude Debussy: [klod də by si] (Listen here)
The main problem with this one is with the emphasis: It should lie on the the [si], not the [ə]. And the [o] in “Claude” should be very closed, it is “claude” not “clawd”.

Reynaldo Hahn: [rɛ na ldo han] (Listen here)
This is an interesting case: Hahn was born in Venezuela from a father of German extraction. His last name is clearly German, and the [h] should therefore be pronounced. However, since [h] is not really a sound of the French language, I would not be surprised to hear this name pronounced without it by my fellow countrymen. (Listen here)

Jules Massenet: [ʒyl ma snɛ] (Listen here)
For really proper diction, there should be an extra [ə] in there, but it is dropped when speaking this name.

Charles Koechlin: [ʃarl kə klɛ᷉] (Listen here)
Another German name, but this one is much too complicated for a a French tongue.

Jacques Offenbach: [ʒak ɔ fən bak] (Listen here)
Since Bach became [bak] it is only logical (and fair) that Offenbach should be pronounced [ɔ fən bak].

Darius Milhaud: [da rjys mi jo] (Listen here)
Quite an unusual name. The most important thing to remember here is that the [lh] is really a [j].

And now here are a few names where the final letter is either pronounced, or not. There is of course, no reliable way to tell…

Francis Poulenc: [frɑ᷉ sis pu lɛ᷉k] (Listen here)
Jean Françaix: [ʒɑ᷈ frɑ᷉ sɛ] (Listen here)
Hector Berlioz: [ɛ ktɔr bɛ rljoz] (Listen here)
Charles Gounod: [ʃarl gu no] (Listen here)
Pierre Boulez: [pjɛr bu lɛz] (Listen here)
Léo Delibes: [leo də lib] (Listen here)

There are probably more tricky names I am leaving out, but these are the ones I tend to hear the most. Feel free to send me requests for additions to the list!

Stay tuned for my next post, which will deal with the joys of the French [r] and how to handle it (or not handle it)…