Do we need to add accents to music? We ask because some years back we were introduced to the strange and weird world of Albert Herring. We didn’t think much about the accent question at the time; we were in Scotland and all the singers sounded British, inasmuch as singing is ever accented.
But then we were introduced to what must be one of our favourite pieces of music in all opera, The Trees on the Mountain. It comes from Carlyle Floyd’s Susannah, and while it’s based on the apocryphal book of the same name, Floyd relocates the action to the heart of Southern America. It’s not nearly well-known enough elsewhere, though it put Floyd on the musical map. This means there are precious few recordings of it that we can find – and the ones we can are full of the South. Not surprising, if, as with our Albert Herring the cast was Southern, but the singers of Floyd aren’t. Yet, every one of them feels the need to adopt the soft-spoken Southern accent as they negotiate the music, and every time we here the dialectised words, we’re pulled out of the music for a second.
You have to understand; it’s not written that way. Oh, there’s the odd bit of dialectic phrasing, take ‘The sky’s so bright and velvet-like,’ for instance. But relaxed vowels are all interpretive -not written into the text. That’s not to say, of course, that it can’t be done – otherwise cry heresy to every rescoring of Bach and Rameau through history. We’ve been putting our stamp on music forever, adding dynamics were there were none, taking them out where an editor we disagree with wrote them in, ornamenting and decorating and offering suggestions for grace notes. But accents? Even ones not ours?
It’s an odd thing. Undeniably a large part of Susannah’s musical identity is its Southernness. But when we sing Trees on the Mountain, or even its companion, Ain’t it a Pretty Night – and we have – we find it distinctly unnatural to assume an accent that isn’t our funny hybrid of Canadian-British-Scots-whatever-people-guess-at-the-moment. The fact is when we sing we sound neutral, and turning ‘my’ into ‘ma’ makes harder already challenging intervals. It also makes us sound and feel absurd, since we still sound Canadian-Scots-British-et&. Would it be different if that was our natural speech pattern? Very possibly.
And then there’s the music. We’ve already said this is an opera steeped in the South. Floyd wrote the culture into the music. However you sing the words, there is no getting around the lilting lyricism of this opera with its roots in folk revival. It’s the music of a people turned grand opera. It isn’t easy music, but it is music with the kind of fluid tessitura that allows it to sit comfortably in any voice.
Albert Herring isn’t quite the same. It’s brittle and spiky, even chaotic. It doesn’t sound of England in quite the way Susannah sounds musically southern. Except that it does. It’s not Elgar, but it’s clipped and precise in a cut-glass way that is beautifully evocative of the posh, stratified society the eponymous Herring wants to throw off. As he tries to eschew it the music grows wild and chromatic. So not only does it sound of a place, it sounds of the particular social sphere being depicted. Does it need the cut-glass accents singers often bring to it? Does Trees on the Mountain need its dialectic stresses? For our money this is a case of music first, then words. Place, history, class: it’s all there; one only needs to listen.