Academic journal article Journal of Singing

To Be or Not to Be: Notes on the Muted E, Part 2

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

To Be or Not to Be: Notes on the Muted E, Part 2

Article excerpt


THE CARRYING OUT OF THE FRENCH muted e in lyric diction is a complex issue that transcends linguistics. The causes and the motives that stirred and fed the passionate debate that unfolded around it at the close of the nineteenth century were outlined in the first part of this article. This section will take an experimental and more practical stance, and will survey the performances of singers that collaborated with the composers who broke ties with traditions.

Thanks to recordings made in the early 1900s, it is possible to evaluate if the innovative ways of notating muted es prompted a novel style in singing them-above all, if the performances on records are uniform. The performers selected are Reynaldo Hahn, singing or accompanying his songs; Debussy accompanying soprano Mary Garden, his first Mélisande; Charles Panzéra, Jane Bathori, and Ninon Vallin, who have together collaborated with, and premiered works by Fauré, Debussy, Hahn, Ravel, and Satie, among others.

One short essay, published by Pierre de Bréville and reviewed in Part 1, lays out several ways of carrying out the final muted e, but does not allow any leeway to the performer in its execution. According to Bréville, each alternate notation corresponds to a unique interpretation. Such a radical method may be unrealistic with the elusive nature of the schwa.

Eleven mélodies, Bizet's "Habanera," and a short excerpt from Pelléas were surveyed for this study. Evidently, thirteen excerpts represent a small fraction of the repertoire; they cannot be considered a definitive model, but the historical performances on recordings, shown in Examples 9 through 18, reveal patterns that clearly indicate a deliberate approach. Recognizing them will benefit current knowledge.

To save limited space in the figures, the conservatively written schwas were excluded when carried out according to the tradition (in 80% of the cases). The twenty-four exceptions were included in the examples.


VoceVista 3.2 was used in order to transcribe the excerpts.1 The length of a syllable, consequently the note value corresponding to that note, was calculated uniformly starting from the onset of a vowel, and ended at the onset of the subsequent vowel (or at the end of phonation for ends of phrases). Although the readings with the spectrogram would not have been sufficiently defined to identify the formant values of the vowels, they were showing accurately their timing in microseconds. Note values were rounded up to the sixty-fourth note. Voce Vista proved essential to recognize if a neutral vowel was phonated in words ending with a consonant. There was no ambiguity on the spectrograms.

The Notation Patterns: Pattern a through e

Altogether, 137 examples of final muted es notated in five alternative patterns were accounted for within the songs surveyed. Four of those patterns involved the use of a tie: eighty occurrences (58%) between two notes on similar pitches. Such occurrences will be referred as pattern a in this article (Example 1). Twenty-six occurrences (19%) on two different pitches will subsequently be referred as pattern b (Example 2). Six occurrences (4%) between a note and an appoggiatura will be referred as pattern c (Example 3), and three occurrences (2%) between a note and a rest correspond to pattern d (Example 4). The last alternative, pattern e, consists of a unique note for both penultimate and final unstressed syllables (Example 5). It occurred twenty-two times (16%).

Those five patterns represent the prevailing innovative notations of muted es, although additional notations (the use of parentheses, for example) occur randomly in other isolated works.2

Schwa Types: Type 0, Type 1, and Type 2

The performers on the recordings did not carry out the five patterns described above uniformly. What seemed so one dimensional in Breville's "Note on the muted e" (see Part 1) does not correspond to the practice. …

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