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The best languages for singing

August 13, 2017

I’m reading Marina Ritzarev’s Eighteenth-Century Russian Music (2006) and came across this: the Empress Elizabeth “ordered the staging of a full-scale opera in Russian, which, known for its softness, many vowels and its own euphony, is closer to Italian than other European languages and suits singing very well.”

I’m not sure Russian is known for its many vowels, whether you take this as meaning a large inventory of vowel phonemes or a high ratio of vowels to consonants. But maybe it and Italian do have some feature(s) that make both especially singable. Perhaps a 5- to 7-vowel system with no nasal vowels works well for singing? Then Spanish could qualify too, but English, French, German, Polish, and Portuguese would be out.

I’d assumed that whatever languages were used in the librettos of operas by great composers came to be associated with opera. I suppose, though, that it’s also possible certain composers came to be considered great at least partly because their librettos were in a language congenial to the form. What do you think — are Russian and Italian better for singing operas, or singing in general, than other European languages?

The opera Ritzarev mentions, by the way, is Cephalus and Procris (Цефал и Прокрис, 1755), the first in Russian, with a libretto by Aleksandr Sumarokov. The music was by Francesco Araja (1709–after 1775?*), “despite the fact that he did not understand Russian” (53). Araja spent a good part of his life in Russia after being recruited from Italy by the court of Anna Ioannovna in 1734 (39-41).

Here’s part of Cephalus and Procris:

* Wikipedia currently places Araja’s death between 1762 and 1770 on the English page and 1767 and 1771 on the Russian page. The online Larousse says he died around 1770. Ritzarev argues he probably lived longer because a 1775 treatise by Manfredini lists him among living maestros (63).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2017 8:30 am

    I suspect you’re overthinking a typical bit of meaningless verbiage. People say the damnedest things about language, sprinkling words like “softness” and “musicality” (or, if they’re not crazy about the language, “guttural” and “nasal”) around more or less at random, much the way they call people they like “nice” and “beautiful/handsome” and the like. I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone say Kabardian was “known for its softness, many vowels and its own euphony.” That said, thanks very much for the opera clip!

    • August 13, 2017 2:57 pm

      I agree with you about the meaninglessness of “softness,” “its own euphony,” “guttural,” and so on, but I think it’s possible that in this case we’re dealing with bad explanations of a real phenomenon — someone with more expertise in music than linguistics giving an impressionistic take on what could, for all I know, be a point acknowledged by all professional singers and musicologists.

  2. August 14, 2017 4:02 am

    It’s almost obvious to me that Italian is the perfect language for opera – with its clean, clear vowels (5 or 7 – not sure if opera singers distinguish between è and é, ò and ó – and none of the suspicious ones: ü, ö, ы, ə) and unobtrusive consonants. But what else can you expect since opera is an Italian invention and its mainstream singing techniques owe so much to Italian masters? On the other hand, my favorite operas are in German or French, and I am not amused by Italianate singing in Russian operas or by Russian singers de-palatalizing consonants because it makes for a more rounded sound.

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