English: The Three-Headed Monster

Part 1

PART I: Introduction/TA

I am a big believer that English diction needs to be taught in schools alongside Italian, French, and German. I also believe that it is important for singers to be comfortable with and adept in three distinct styles of English:

Transatlantic (also called BBC English)—from early English to the pastoral period, ending between World War I and World War II, and includes Britten along with modern works with period texts.
Contemporary/American—modern/American art song composers, musical theatre, and contemporary commercial music.
Received Pronunciation—used almost exclusively in the oeuvre of Gilbert and Sullivan

The differences in these three styles are significant enough that an explanation of the application of certain rules is necessary. We know a modern pop song sung in the style of Handel would sound silly. Conversely, Elijah sung with a decidedly American accent is not acceptable.

IPA transcription is not a major requirement in this course, considering most students will identify English as their primary language. Also, most consonants have been taught in the previous languages. If English is taught last, it saves you time in covering these symbols.

It is, however, important to emphasize the major differences in vowels, specifically the diphthongs and triphthongs that exist only in English. This is where the Madeleine Marshall book is an excellent reference tool. Although she deals almost exclusively with transatlantic, rules are well laid out.

In my class, English is taught in three modules, with each module given approximately three weeks. Singing is key, so students are required to prepare three songs, one in each style (and yes, musical theatre and/or contemporary is allowed!).

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Transatlantic (TA)
This style deals with the common version of English diction used in oratorio and opera written by British composers as well as English art song through the end of World War I. Three factors caused TA to fade away as the predominant style for English diction:

 The rise of the United States as a world power (and the decline of the British Empire).
 The rise of North American-centric music (jazz, blues, ragtime, gospel, etc.).
 Media (radio, television, movies, sound recordings).

This article is not meant to be a textbook, but the general points of TA deal with a broader and refined sense of vowels (especially [a]), the minimization of [r], specific use of diphthongs, and the use of the glide [j] in specific cases (the “Daniel Sitteth” rule), among other things. It is easy to tell a singer to “sound British” when trying to emulate TA, but it is easier for them to recognize the reasons why they need to follow specific rules. The Marshall book is the stepping-off point for teaching the basics of TA. I use examples from oratorios, namely Messiah and Elijah, as well as British art songs from the pastoral period (late 19th /early 20th century) to illustrate this.

A good topic I discuss is when to use TA in modern pieces, which brings to the forefront the question of text. English is unique in that its style is dependent on when the text was written, and whether the musical setting helps or hinders the style. For example, consider the poem, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” by John Donne, published posthumously in 1633. This text is used in the 2005 opera Doctor Atomic by John Adams. It is sung by the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who named the Trinity nuclear test site in a grave homage to this poem. Oppenheimer’s aria would be sung in contemporary/American English, since it suits the character of a 20th-century man.

An example of the opposite is the Jake Heggie opera Moby-Dick, based on the Herman Melville book. Librettist Gene Scheer uses half of  Melville’s direct text, and the consensus among singers and directors is that the declamation should be broad and expansive, much like transatlantic English, although the opera is new (premiering in 2010). These choices of text linked with the music of modern composers exist also in both English art song and early American folk song.

Check back next week for a continuation of this three headed monster.

Steven B. Jepson

Steven B. Jepson, baritone, is a respected international artist with expansive credits in the Americas, Europe, and Japan. His performing experience is rich and varied, from Broadway pops, cruise ship production shows, and cabaret to opera, sacred works, and symphonies. In demand as a teacher and clinician, he teaches voice and diction at the University of Missouri in Columbia. http://www.stevenbjepsonbaritone.com/