Although, as my name suggests, German is my “grandmother tongue”, English is definitely my mother tongue, and I spent the first 24 years of my life in England.
After studying Medieval and Modern French and German language and literature at the universities of Cambridge, where I sang in the choir of Trinity College, and at the university of Hamburg, I moved to Paris in 1980, since when I have enjoyed singing with several “Early Music” groups in France and abroad, including Les Arts Florissants, Collegium Vocale Gent, Organum, Le Concert Spirituel, Ensemble Gilles Binchois, A Sei Voci, The Harp Consort, Daedalus, Lucidarium, Balthasar Neumann Chor…
However, it was in the course of more than 25 years singing as the bass in the Paris-based Ensemble William Byrd that I have had ample opportunity to try to work out how Byrd’s own singers would have pronounced English, since the ensemble’s director Graham O’Reilly had the brilliant idea of doing all Renaissance and Baroque English music with what is now commonly called “Original Pronunciation” (OP).
Initially Graham thought (on the whole rightly) that it would be easier for French singers to sing OP rather than modern (Southern) English; however we also found that the sound of OP English blended better with “period” instruments, in particular viols… but also – wonder of wonders! – we realised that ALL the rhymes in the songs of Dowland and the other Lute-song composers, and the treasure-trove of English madrigals really can rhyme, and indeed MUST rhyme!
As far as I know Ensemble William Byrd is the only group to have systematically and unfailingly sung OP English over more than a quarter of a century.
Having spent so many years pondering the complexities of OP as presented in the very earnest 1,082 weighty pages of Professor E.J. Dobson’s English Pronunciation 1500-1700 (OUP 1957, 2nd edition, 1968) and singing in numerous concerts the wonderfully virile but also (dare I say?) sensuously feminine sounds of OP English – and noticing the pleasure it gives to audiences and our instrumental colleagues! – I would like to share the fruits of this by now very long experience with as many singers as possible.
I make no secret of the fact that the pronunciation I propose is of necessity a kind of synthesis assembled from the multiple possible pronunciations that Professor Dobson had found in the numerous source-books he discusses. As the majority of English vocal music of this period was mostly performed in the rather formal settings of the Royal Court, the church, palaces and manor houses, I opt for a somewhat “cultivated” pronunciation. This accounts for my opting for an elegant “Italianate” (or Scottish?) trilled R over the (to my ears) incomparably beautiful Irish R; it isn’t only that I find that the trilled R gives greater rhythmic contour and energy to the sung words, but also because I hope to avoid the charge of proposing a pronunciation that some might (rightly or wrongly) find “rustic”.
I should add that none of the sounds I propose has become obsolete, as all of them are still very much alive and in everyday use in many regions of the British Isles, notably in the North and the Midlands.