Language Characteristics Influence Music Characteristics

Recently I'm listening to professor Robert Greenberg's audio lecture How to Listen To and Understand Great Music while I'm commuting to work or doing household chores. 

Today I encountered lecture nine: Rise of German Nationalism. From late 15th century on, German music starts to differ vastly from the Italian music. There is certainly religious and political background for it: Martin Luther published 95 theological thesis to claim "that a sinner is freed of his guilt not by priestly absolution but by inner grace and faith". He also held that each individual might read the bible and freely make his own interpretation according to his own conscience....He also regards music the most spiritual and lifting activity of human, and wrote music curriculum himself. All these of course helped the prosperity of music in Germany. But there is a more important factor to form the unique characteristics of German music, and distinguished it from the music from the South Europe countries. That is, the German language. Professor Greenberg said in his lecture: "....the nature of the language set to music will determine the nature of the melody that results."

Ancient Western music is mostly vocal music. It bears the function of articulate some ideas and meanings in tones. Instrumental music appeared long after vocal music. In the languages that are closer to Latin, for example Italian, vowels are big and fat, they are by themselves melodic enough. There is few sharp or harsh consonants, even fewer explosive articulations.  When sung in tones, the vowels can run on and on, which led to the smooth and conjunct contour of early Italian music (music before the time of late Renaissance). But the German language is different. There is a lot of harsh consonants sitting densely in words, vowels get much less room than in the Italian language. Professor Greenberg compared "What a lovely evening." spoken in Italian and in German, and here is the findings in his original text:

Spoken or sung in Italian, the phrase gives us five incredibly juicy vowels, and a variety of colorful consonants to separate them: che bella sera (kay-bel-la-se-ra). My goodness, sung in Italian, the phrase could be sustained for days, and the words still understood. When it comes to beauty of vowel and clarity of consonant, Italian is indeed the “chosen language.”

And in formal German? Welch ein schöner Abend (Velk-ein-chernar-ah-bent). The German version is much more about guttural, explosive consonants than vowels. German-language melodies tend to be syllabic, meaning that they feature one pitch per syllable: Welch ein schöner Abend. But a setting of the Italian che bella sera could feature multiple pitches on virtually every syllable. Big difference.

We say that Italian is a melismatic language: a language that by its nature allows for long, soaring melismata (multiple notes per syllable) when set to music. We say that German is a syllabic language: a language that, generally, allows for but one pitch per syllable when being set to music.

Thus, German-language melodies will tend to be syllabic, with one pitch per syllable. The sharp, sometimes guttural articulations of the German language will be reflected in the sharp, clearly articulated rhythms of the melody. A sharply articulated, compact language such as German will tend to create, when set to music, sharply articulated, compact melodies. Taken all together, this is the essential nature of music in German, a language not exploited musically until the Protestant Reformation.

As we move through the Baroque, we will observe two often very different musical traditions that developed side by side, one of them in Protestant Europe and one of them in Catholic Europe. A composer growing up in Lutheran Saxony perceived music differently, spiritually and linguistically, from an Italian growing up in Catholic Florence. The Lutheran Saxon would perceive melody more syllabically, not only because he spoke German at home but also because he sang in German at church and was surrounded by a municipal culture that played and celebrated German-language melodies at every occasion. In Lutheran Europe, complex polyphonic and instrumental music was cultivated on a par equal to that of vocal music.
--Greenberg, Robert (2011-04-26). How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart (The Great Courses) (pp. 60-61). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

Indeed interesting. A while ago I learnt a little bit Italian. Yes the density of vowels in Italian is much higher than in German. If one can really control his voice, the German language can also sound very gentle and soft, Italian can also sound harsh. But in general, I think professor Greenberg gets a very good point. Music from different countries does have some colours rendered from the acoustic characteristics of different languages.

But, how to explain the pompous and spiky "French Preludes"? The French language in general does not sound like that. Well, in that case, let me try to explain, the historical political situation reflected more than the French language in the French preludes. Even music is multi-dimensional.  

PS: Professor Greenberg's lectures are amazing. His text is so coherent and vivid, and he taught with great energy. I wish all the lessons on history, politics and culture could be taught like that in schools and universities, so that nobody will be bored.  As thanks to professor Greenberg, I have bought this lecture in two other formats (printed book and e-book). 

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