Accent and Timbre

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There are comments going back nearly 100 years in the literature on choral music about differences in vocal sound between British and American choirs. Back in 1914, Henry Coward was making the following comments:

There is no doubt that, generally speaking, the English choral singer favours a backward voice-production (p. 39).

Of course one must always be careful to avoid excess of nasality, or more harm than good will result; but I must say that, except in two cases in the United States, where the people have an excess of nasality in speaking, I never yet heard a choir go beyond the limits of good tone in the way of nasal resonance, whereas one often hears excess of throatiness in England (p. 44).

If you listen to British and American barbershop ensembles today, you’d make a similar observation. One of the reasons that British quartets are often slightly disappointed by their rankings at International is arguably because their sound is that bit less bright and pingy than their American counterparts. The brightest timbre in a British contest is middle-of-the-road when transported across the Atlantic.

This is not just a case of British failure (good as we are at telling that story), but also an issue of cultural taste. British ensembles spend most of their time singing to British audiences, who can find the sound of American quartets a bit much really. Interestingly, when recordings by two American quartets (The B Naturals and Bank Street) were ripped off and sold in the UK under the spurious quartet name of ‘The Moonlighter’s Serenade’, the tracks were slowed down very slightly and extra reverb added for the British market.

(Gosh, and this album is still available online. I’ll link to it so that you can hear the samples, but please don’t purchase it, as the singers did not give their permission for their work to be copied and have never been paid for it.)

And whilst the difference in vocal placement might derive from accent, it is also something that can be cultivated within a singing tradition, at least partially independent from the speaking traditions of its members. You can hear this if you compare British Sweet Adelines with ensembles from LABBS, the UK’s home-grown barbershop association. The Sweet Adelines groups have a more habitually bright sound than the LABBS ones.

Likewise, back in the ‘mainstream’ choral world, John Bertalot tells an anecdote of when his choir from Princeton sang evensong at St. Paul’s. A member of the congregation told him afterwards that they hadn’t realised the choir was American until they came to say the creed. Bertalot commented, ‘I’d taught them to sing English music with an English accent!’.

My feeling is, though, that classical music has developed a more genuinely international mode of vocal production. Barbershop is almost exclusively Anglophone (the Swedes might be great at it too, but they sing it mostly in English), and is clearly ‘owned’ by North America. American barbershoppers might be pleased to have exported the style around the world, but they harbour no doubt that this is a home-grown artform.

Classical music, by contrast, has been an internationalised art for centuries, both in the languages of its repertoire and the vocal traditions it draws upon. Both British and American writers on choral music emphasise the need for choral sound not to be marked with the audible traces of place and class implied by accent. Notwithstanding the imperatives of performance style and nationality (a whole interesting subject in its own right), there is also the idea that classical music should transcend time and place.

So of course we do this by singing with Italian vowels :-)

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