15 March 2020
Today, I began composing my first setting of a French poem: “Demain, des l’aube” by Victor Hugo. I’ve set lyrics in English and Latin before, but this is quite different. As a singer, I’ve had classes in French diction, but I am far from fluent. Fortunately, my daughter Emily majored in French (in addition to Vocal Performance), and has spent a year living in France, immersed in its culture and language. She has offered a wellspring of answers to all my questions regarding pronunciation, translation, and interpretation. In fact, I am composing this piece for her specifically.
Victor Hugo, dedicated this poem to his daughter, so it seemed appropriate to set it to music for my own offspring. Sadly, the poem was inspired by Hugo’s visit to his daughter’s grave. She drowned at the tender age of 19, only months after her wedding. Her husband died trying to save her. Although this may seem an odd choice for a dedication to my own daughter; there is much in the poem about time and journeying. Emily will graduate from the university where I teach this spring. She has embarked on many journeys and is quite the adventurer. I admire the bravery and natural curiosity that motivates her. I am also keenly aware of the passing of time, because she will most certainly leave our nest for other grand adventures quite soon. So, it is in such a spirit that I dedicate this composition to her.
No matter the language; whenever I set text, I start with the rhythmic structure. I speak the words aloud, repeating each phrase over and over until I get a feel for the overall meter. This is determined by the natural syllabic stresses of the lyrics, but also by the inflection of particular words and syllables. For instance, the simple phrase “I love you” can be spoken/sung with the emphasis on any of its three syllables. The meaning of the phrase changes though, depending upon which word receives the most emphasis. Is it, “I love you,” “i LOVE you,” or “i love YOU?” The syllables/words you want to emphasize should typically go on the stronger pulses to allow the meaning of the text to be more easily and convincingly conveyed to the listener by the singer. This is much more easily accomplished in a language you understand. So, French has been a real challenge for me to set. Not only because the inflection is foreign, but there are many letters that are not pronounced in French. In fact, there are entire syllables one does not pronounce in spoken French, that should be pronounced in sung French. There are also elisions to consider, which can change the musical phrasing as well.
The photo above, shows my rhythmic structure for this new French opus. If you look closely at the photo, you can see circles on the print-out of the poem (the paper on the left) which indicate specific questions I had for Emily about the sound of the lyrics. You can also see places in my rhythmic layout (the paper on the right) where there are many notes sung on one single syllable. These are called melismas, and they help add linear motion and flow to what might be an otherwise wooden syllabic rendering of the poem. It’s important that melismas occur on stressed syllables. It is also important that melismas (especially long ones) are reserved for the most beautiful sounding vowels, since sustaining those vowels is a key factor. Stressed syllables occur only on the first note when they are grouped by two or more (beamed together). The most important syllables/words occur at the start of the measure — just after the barline. If you don’t understand these music terms, suffice it to say that the work displayed in the photograph is very much concentrated on uncovering and organizing not only the most important words or moments in the poem, but also the most beautiful sounding ones. This will ensure that the piece is pleasing to the ears of everyone, whether or not they understand the meaning of the words. While the pictured rhythmic structure may change a little through the composition process, by completing this all-important first step (with the help of a fluent French speaker), I can now confidently move to the music-writing phase. The rhythms are in place. Now, I need a melody and an underlying harmonic foundation. Believe it or not, that’s the easy part!
To my dear Emily: Thanks so much for your help! I look forward to hearing you sing this composition!