I tend to think that parallels can be drawn between the use of period pronunciation and temperaments. It would be unthinkable for most early keyboard players today to perform the repertoire of Cabezon, de Macque, the English virginalists, Louis Couperin or Bach in equal temperament; they would use one of the appropriate period temperaments (whether it be 1/4 comma meantone, an irregular temperament or some form of Pythagorean inspired affair). They would not be prepared to abandon the extra character, colour, light and shade and spatial effects that a well-chosen temperament can impart. Obviously the present systematic use of period temperaments involved a long learning curve but we are now harvesting the dividends of several decades of experimentation.

Clearly one cannot hope to proffer a convincing performance of early lute songs by just tweaking a few words here and there to bring out intended rhymes, puns or hidden meanings. Similarly, once cannot expect to become proficient in early pronunciation by learning to put on an accent; the delivery has to seem perfectly natural and heartfelt. It could take several years of performance practice and emulation for singers to make it their own but maybe it will only require a couple of talented enthusiasts to really get the ball rolling and that others will follow suit. Lute song pioneers and specialists such as Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley have admitted that to use period pronunciation effectively was a daunting challenge but one that they might (or even should) have explored further.

There have already been singers who have gone to the trouble of researching early English pronunciation and adopting it for their recordings (such as Catherine King and Charles Daniels, to name just a couple off the top of my head). It is far more common in France for early music specialists to adopt period pronunciation, whether it be for early 16th century Chansons parisiennes or 17th century Airs de cour. For some musicians, modern pronunciation in this repertory can sound just as grating and inappropriate as equal temperament for Froberger (with all those beautiful pure major thirds transformed into wide, shuddering, beastly intervals).

Surely we should at least leave the door open for experimentation. When David Crystal first suggested OP for a production of Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre, the fear was that the audience would not be able to understand. Experience has proven quite the opposite. Let us not forget that Received Pronunciation is a modern phenomenon and is only used by a very small percentage of English speakers, even within the U.K.

For those interested in the pronunciation of European languages in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, I can recommend 'Singing Early Music' by McGee, Rigg and Klausner (Indiana University Press).



On 19/02/2018 14:03, Martin Shepherd wrote:
    I'm sending this to the lute list, as I have been invited to do so by
    my old friend David Hill (ex-countertenor singer of lute songs) and I
    think you might find it stimulating.  I have to say that when I wrote
    my blog I was not recommending the use of OP, just trying to set out
    what the possibilities and problems might be.

    Fundamentally, I agree with David.  The most important consideration is
    whether the song can be made to speak to the audience, whoever they may


    P.S. Don't even get me started on concert etiquette....
    -------- Forwarded Message --------
    Subject: OP
       Date: Mon, 19 Feb 2018 12:50:38 +0000
       From: David Hill [1]<div...@tiscali.co.uk>
         To: Martin Shepherd [2]<mar...@luteshop.co.uk>

    Dear Martin,

    you know precisely where I'm coming from here, so you will understand

    I really didn't want to wade in on the online OP for lute songs debate.
    I'm sure it will all get heated and some name-calling will ensue, as I
    noticed happened to the Lute List with another topic recently, with
    egos bouncing off one other like Sumos. Already some folk are referring
    to ‘Pirate' R sounds, so it is clear this will be an inflammatory
    topic.  I now choose to say about OP - ‘it is an irrelevance'. It's
    pointless - a mere curiosity.
    I have discussed the issue of OP in lute songs with David Crystal, and
    anyone who is keen to experiment should just consult his website. There
    are CD recordings available from him in which he reads Shakespeare
    sonnets and other relevant material. This is the quickest way to
    acquire a knowledge of how OP works,
    I used to think this subject was very relevant and important for
    singing lute songs, but I don't any more, because ultimately: ‘we are
    dealing with SINGERS'. Now, we all know about singers. I still am one,
    albeit hobbled, you married one, so we can call a spade a spade,
    without calling it a ‘spud', as Dowland would have.
    OP will never catch on because: a) singers will not take the trouble to
    learn it, and b), even if they do, listeners just think it sounds like
    pirates. Those singers that have looked into it have often used the
    simplified Dobson-inspired crib sheet (I have one from her classes)
    that was circulating after Glenda Simpson tried to popularise it in the
    80s (I still have one from her classes). Now we have the wonderful
    'Oxford Dictionary of Shakespearean Pronunciation' by David Crystal, so
    for the first time we can easily re-create a perfectly plausible
    version of OP for singers, IF WE CHOOSE TO, but nobody will ever do
    this. In fact, I will give away my mint copy of this lovely book  to
    anyone interested.
    Singers only care about how beautiful their voices sound, because this
    validates their own sense of self-worth and self esteem, the result of
    the horrific amount of work it has taken to arrive at the (percieved)
    perfection it enjoys. They want to sound beautiful and be loved,
    naturally. Freud could easily have written a volume on singers. But
    they do not have any fascination for the actual pronunciation, I feel,
    and will always wish to deliver everything in posh, BBC
    English-accented RP, like any Lieder singer - it's part of the
    training, no matter what your relevant local accent is. They seldom
    perform any of the relevant research on the poetry, culture or history
    of the songs. They will spend hours working on the lovely arc of ‘I saw
    my lady weep' to ensure focussed, beautiful, long tied notes, but they
    will not spend a single minute on the concept of rhetoric, the imagery
    or metaphor contained in the songs, or stuff like that. Neither will
    the audience. They simply do not care. They just 'love the noise it
    makes', to quote Beecham. If it suddenly sounds like pirates to them,
    they will simply dismiss the music along with the often dense, puzzling
    Imagine one of the wonderful Tom and Jerry cartoons ‘re-mixed' with a
    soundtrack that was, instead of Scott Bradley's clever Gershwin to
    Schoenberg - inspired scores, it was now cut together with Tudor/Stuart
    viol consort music (e.g. Jenkins' 'Newark Siege') - fast semiquavers
    for the mouse scuttling along in a chase, dramatic bowstrokes for when
    one of them gets an anvil dropped on them, chromatic passages for the
    pathos, and so on. We would be confused and disorientated, no matter
    how cleverly it was done. This is how an audience hears OP. We can
    never have an educated audience who will be able to come to terms with
    OP. We have enough trouble getting any audiences these days, because
    few today seem to understand how music performance even happens,or
    concert etiquette - they are now so removed from it. The audience has
    aged - and we're it.
    Today we are far more likely to hear lute songs being sung by the wrong
    voice types anyway. There is still that deluded belief that
    countertenors sang these songs all the time, and, as you know, nobody
    who has studied this properly can find any evidence that they ever did.
    Not even once. They are an imaginary piece of fake history that has
    been perpetuated because audiences continue to be fascinated by men
    singing high. It never happened before the 1950s. It may be beautiful
    sometimes, and it will fill the Wigmore Hall every time another RSM
    squealer warbles a recital out, but, like so much of the history we
    ‘like/want to believe', bottom line - ‘it never happened - it's a lie',
    exactly the same as 'Raleigh introducing the Potato', 'George
    Washington and the Cherry Tree' or 'Robin Hood really existing'.
    Countertenors and lute songs are fake history, but the audiences like
    them, and will never accept the scholarship that proves the practice
    never happened because they want to continue to enjoy the music done
    this way. Countertenors will not stop because they want to have some
    repertoire they feel they can call their own, ironically.  But if we
    can't even choose to get the voices right, how relevant is
    Sorry to sound so negative about this, but recently I have finally
    become aware that we are living in an era where scholarship is simply
    not happening or impacting on anyone any more, or even being applied.
    Maybe it is being applied in medicine, physics and other areas (I
    hope), but the fact is, the pace of life is now such that nobody feels
    they have the time or even wants to investigate anything like this.
    So - that's my attitude to OP now - it's a completely irrelevant
    wormhole of performance practice. As usual, Bob Spencer was right -
    song performance is about communicating the composer's idea directly to
    the audience to move them - to ‘affect' them. But if you add the layer
    of performing in a funny voice, you are just being Kenneth Williams (or
    Robin Williams, for US readers) showing off by doing a voice, and the
    voice itself is smeared all over the message, and the text can go screw
    And if you are a countertenor singing in OP, you are just making your
    own history up, aren't you? I discard you.
    Sorry to have repented utterly of my former beliefs, but honesty is the
    best policy.
    If you want to upload any of that onto the Lute List, please do!

To get on or off this list see list information at

Reply via email to