Jump to content

Restrictions of Language in Vocal Music

Charlie Carroll

Recommended Posts

Very recently I have been exploring vocal music, figuring out how it differs from instrumental music and how it similar.  It took me some time, but I've started to get the hang of writing semi-acceptable vocal music.  A couple of days ago an idea popped into my head.  "What if I wrote a piece of music for a choir, but had multiple languages being sung by different sections of the group."  I suggested it to some of my "non-musician friends" (of which I have plenty), but they immediately shot the idea down claiming that it would sound too strange and jumbled.  This leads me to my questions:

1. Is it acceptable to write a work like this.  My worry is that it may be messy, but I also would enjoy exploring the boundaries of vocal music.

2. Has such a piece been written before?  I have searched for such a piece, but have come up empty handed.  If you know of one, I would love to hear from you!

3. Can exploration go too far?  Is there a point when music becomes more of a science than an art, and is that okay?  Obviously creating a balance between chaos and order between the languages will be one of the most difficult things to achieve, and it may become "scientific" in a way.


I would love to hear your opinions on this topic



Charlie Carroll

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I believe that everything is acceptable in composition, as long as everything has a function and everything is treated carefully. For me this is art. 

Your concern may be right, but does messy immediately mean wrong? I think the idea is wonderful, even ingenious. 

Yes, I know a piece that uses multi-language lyrics. It is a piece by Mozart, which I discovered accidentally (LOL). It is a sex-related canon by Mozart called Bona Nox, K.561. The lyrics is as follows, the languages in brackets:

Bona nox! (Latin)

bist a rechta Ochs; (German)

bona notte, (Italian)

liebe Lotte; (German)

bonne nuit, (French)

pfui, pfui; (Probably German exclamation)

good night, good night, (English)

heut müßma noch weit; (German...)

gute Nacht, gute Nacht,

scheiß ins Bett daß' kracht;

gute Nacht, schlaf fei g'sund

und reck' den Arsch zum Mund.


Mozart, the bastard! 

The composition I am working on right now has an English text (written by me), but there are some parts where a German soldier is speaking, so I used German at these places. In this case, the variation in language emphasizes contrast.


The third point you mention is a very difficult one. There is no clear line where art transits into science and vice versa. Some science can also be seen as art. I think we need science and knowledge to create art, but I dare not to give a defenition, because I am not able to give one.


In my opinion, you can use several languages in one piece, I even encourage you to experiment with it!

Have fun and good luck! Please share the music if you like the result!





Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yes, you can absolutely combine languages.  There used to be very strict rules about how text was used that came from church leadership.  Since the church was the main patron of choral music, (they paid the composers), they could set whatever rules they liked, and to the church, clarity of the text was very important.  Mozart was fired from his first church job for composing a work with too much counterpoint, which was felt to be sacrilegious because it obscured the text.  Haydn was rebuked for writing a mass that "telescoped" the text.  (Different sections of the choir sang different sections of the text at the same time.  It gets you through the long, wordy, but required sections faster and makes it much more fun that it usually is, since your ear is trying to follow all four choir sections at once). But those rules have long since gone out the window, and now you can play with text to provide rhythm or texture without every word being perfectly distinguishable.  We've discovered that, yes!, the human brain really can sort out multiple lines heard simultaneously, and that people usually find it very fun.  The fact that audiences are now literate and you can print all the words in the program also removes some stodginess about clarity.  If someone misses a word here or there, they can read the whole text during intermission.  John Rutter uses multiple languages simultaneously in his "Mass of the Children."  The Gloria movement has an adult choir singing in latin while a children's choir sings the same text in English.  The Dona Nobis Pacem finale movement has the adult choir singing the traditional "Dona nobis pacem" latin mass text, while a soprano soloist sings an adaptation of a 5th century english poem, and then the adult choir sings the "Agnus Dei" part of the latin mass text while the children's choir sings a second poem with an english text by poet Thomas Ken.  Here's a link to a youtube of the finale.  It's a bit long, but you might find it helpful.  If you want to pull something like this off, repetition can be your friend.  Repeat each line from the text several times, so that the listener can take their time figuring out what's going on.  "Oh!  These people are singing "Dona nobis pacem," over and over, and these people are singing, "Christ be with me in my waking and my sleeping, Christ be with me in joy and in sadness."  Or whatever it is.  It can also be helpful to have noticeably different musical functions for each vocal section, to help the ear make sense of it all.  Maybe the basses are singing in one language with a very repetitive rhythm, while the sopranos a more melodic line in a second language.  Maybe one section is singing long, held, whole notes while another section has running eighths.  There are no rules and you only know something works or doesn't by trying it.  You can try recording yourself speaking the rhythm of all the parts in Garageband or a similar application to see if you can still understand everything, even if you don't have the range to sing all the parts.  (:


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...