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.

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

  1. Peter

    Classical music singers, French and otherwise, have historically used the “tap” until very recently. The uvular r was simply not used in classical singing, only in popular styles. I believe there are both technical and musical reasons for this. Technically, the uvular r requires a closing of the throat to produce it. While a few recent French opera singers have figured out a way to do this (Alagna), it cannot be a healthy habit for most. And many of the modern “lyric” singers who have taken it up, have had trouble with throatiness (Le Roux) or more general technical problems (Dessay). Of course I can’t say that these singers’ problems spring only from the uvular r, but I expect it doesn’t help them to constantly constrict their throats as they sing. I don’t know what coach or coaches began this very recent trend in France, but they have a lot to answer for. The generations of Crespin and van Dam never used a uvular r in singing, not to mention the earlier paragons like Thill and Lubin to whom it was probably unthinkable.
    In musical terms, the uvular r stops the legato line in a rather harsh way, as if the singer is suddenly gargling in the middle of an arching phrase. To be sure, the uvular r or the uvular trill can have a dramatic effect, as Edith Piaf, for instance, demonstrated. But a classical singing style (what you term “lyric”) reaches for a different esthetic based on musical flow and open, resonant, pure sound that is the hallmark of “bel canto.”
    Basically, the uvular r used in opera or artsong is simply vulgar and unmusical. The desire to be “modern” in such instances is misguided. BTW, I will also note that many Germans speak using the uvular r, but I’ve never heard a German singer apply that to “lyric” singing.

    Reply
    1. Bill

      To be a bit provocative… I was also trained in the Italian school and likewise learned that the uvular r was strictly for popular music–the height of vulgarity for “classical” singing. Clearly, most classically-trained singers (French and otherwise) in history have shunned it. But to suggest that the uvular r is intrinsically ugly and therefore anathema to beautiful singing simply exposes a bias that you clearly aren’t aware of. The assertion that good vocal production is “…the hallmark of ‘bel canto'” is hilarious. Bel canto is, extremely specifically, the conception of what beautiful singing means in the Italian school, not a universal truism of the voice as instrument. Your characterization of the uvular r as “suddenly gargling in the middle of an arching phrase” demonstrates that you simply think the uvular r is a stupid sound. You have no problem with suddenly firing a machine gun in the middle of an arching phrase (a rolled r)? Or perhaps coming to a screeching halt in the middle of a phrase? (After all, consonants interrupt the “open, resonant, pure sound” of vowels.)

      As for the “throat closing…” I trained as a singer first and a physician much later in life. Singers often use idiomatic descriptions for things that don’t physiologically happen. But inasmuch as a uvular r “closes the throat”–so does [g]. And, for that matter, [dʒ]. The location of articulation changes dramatically by the standards of singers, but none of it happens in the “throat.”

      There’s no doubt that singing the uvular r for French art songs or arias will earn one the scorn of many/most trained singers. But it might be appropriate to acknowledge that this is a matter of tradition and, dare I say, snobbery. If you wish to assert that using the uvular r is somehow bad for phonation or musicality… you’ll need more powerful evidence than this.

      Reply

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