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:

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