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  • Graham Abbott

Adding the Spoken Voice

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

I’m always intrigued by music which combines sounds in an unexpected manner. This post is about music containing an element which is not often heard with playing or singing: the spoken voice. Here’s a good example; see it through to the end and see what you think. [listen]


Two voices: one singing, one speaking. Just when you think that’s simply a song for voice and piano, the speaking enters, and did you hear the very brief entry of a violin section in the middle? There’s a whole orchestra waiting to enter, but they don’t play in that section. That was an extract from Lélio, or The Return to Life, by Hector Berlioz. This was written as a sequel to Berlioz’ far more famous Symphonie Fantastique. In the symphony, which is purely orchestral, the artist hero, under the influence of opium, suffers the pangs on unrequited love and dreams of his own death and that of the object of his affection. In Lélio, the artist returns to the real world, and this song comes at the beginning of the piece. The singer and the piano are heard in the artist’s memory, and the artist is the speaker, recalling his past.


Petit: Hector Berlioz (1863)

The use of a spoken voice in music is a device used by composers when a particular dramatic effect is required. In Lélio, Berlioz sets the suffering artist apart by making him speak rather than sing, and the singers - both solo and choral - are in a way manipulated by him, as is the orchestra.


Of course, the simplest reason a composer might use the spoken voice is to act as a narrator. Works like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, or Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra would be well-known examples of this. But what I’m talking about here goes beyond merely saying what’s happening. I want to share examples of composers using the spoken voice as an instrument in its own right, with its own colours and means of expression, on a par with the singing voice or instruments.


Sometimes, a composer dictates not only words but actual rhythms for a speaker, making the voice almost a percussion instrument. Stravinsky’s delightful The Soldier’s Tale, written in 1917, is scored for eight instruments, one of which just happens to be the spoken voice. In The Soldier’s Tale the speaker moves in and out of specified rhythms, taking on different roles. [listen]


One of the most dramatic and historically important works to use a speaker is A Survivor from Warsaw, written in the United States in 1947 by Arnold Schoenberg. It’s a work derived from information the composer had heard directly and indirectly about a survivor from Nazi oppression in the Warsaw ghetto of the 1930s. Scored for a large orchestra, the story is told by a spoken voice, speaking in rhythms specified by the composer. At the end of the narration, which is in English, the defiant Jews go to their imminent death singing the Sh’ma Yisroel, the fundamental statement of Jewish faith from the Torah which begins, “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” A male chorus sings these words in Hebrew. The whole thing is a powerful, complete, fully-formed drama, and it lasts only seven minutes.


Arnold Schoenberg (1948)

In the narrator’s part, Schoenberg indicates relative pitch of some of the syllables. By this I mean that sometimes he stipulates when the voice is to rise and fall, and when syllables are to be extended or clipped. It’s almost singing, but not quite. In this performance, the narrator’s part is taken by a singer (a very famous singer, Hermann Prey), something which in my opinion makes the part clearer, and a more accurate reflection of the composer’s intentions, than using just an actor. [listen]


Lest you get the impression that works with spoken voice are always serious, I should point out that some works use the spoken voice with really funny results. In Façade, dating from the 1920s, William Walton followed Stravinsky's lead in The Soldier’s Tale written a few years earlier: a piece for spoken voice (or voices) and a small group of instruments. Walton stipulates the rhythm of the voice in these silly songs, which have no deeper purpose than to amuse, something they do superbly. There are 21 poems in all in Façade; here’s an extract. [listen]


Now for something way out of left field. It’s interesting that sometimes the tone of the spoken voice can create a totally false impression. This piece uses spoken text, but doesn’t specify rhythm for the speaker. The text is also in German, and if you don’t speak German, it will probably make you think of something which could not be further from the actual meaning of the words. That’s intended. It's designed to make you think of one of Hitler's speeches. The mechanised music, the use German, the way in which the voice pitch rises, and the cheers of the crowd… all of these make us think of something very sinister.


In fact the speaker is reciting a recipe for something called “The Eggs [or Balls] of Satan” (which, in German, is also the title of the piece). These are small balls of dough that have a little bit of Turkish hash in them. They're baked on a greased baking pan for 15 minutes at 200 degrees, and so forth. The evil-sounding refrain - “und keine Eier” - simply means “and no eggs”. It's the work of the rock group Tool, led by their extraordinary lead singer Maynard James Keenan. This video version has the words in both German and English on the screen. [listen]


Tool performing in Mannheim in 2006

Let’s swing again to another extreme, and I readily admit that the inclusion of this next extract is a bit indulgent on my part. In Adelaide in 1993 I conducted performances of Peter Combe’s concert musical for children based on May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and a large contingent of solo and choral singers. The role of May Gibbs in this production is a spoken role, and in our performances it was played by the late Ruth Cracknell, one of this country's finest and best-loved actresses. At the end of the first half, the narrator rounds off the first part of the story and sends the audience off to interval with a speech that is given over the top of music in the orchestra. This sort of thing requires quite a bit of rehearsal, because Ruth had to time her delivery to fit in with the amount of time the orchestral music took to play. On the other hand, I also had to pace the music to suit her delivery; it’s very much a collaborative give and take. As you’ll hear in this recording of the live performance (later released on CD), her timing was impeccable, ending exactly at the point the orchestra rises in volume to round things off. [listen]


Ruth Cracknell

I first discovered the work of the Sydney-based composer Matthew Orlovich in 1996 when I heard the first performance of his beautiful choral work The Listening Land. I fell in love with the piece right away and had the privilege of conducting its first Melbourne performance the following year. Scored for unaccompanied choir, the text is based on the writings of two authors. Victor Carell’s poem The Listening Land was inspired by a research trip undertaken by the author in Central Australia in 1953, during which time he lived with Indigenous tribes. It evokes a sense of quiet timelessness, a mood also evident in the other text used, excerpts from the narrative of Ernest Giles’ third expedition into the interior of South Australia in 1875. Despite having travelled 220 miles without seeing water, and having grave fears for his own survival, Giles wrote of the “gorgeous constellations” he saw at night, his only source of comfort. The music, which sets Carell’s poem, conveys the limitless expanses of the Australian landscape. Over the top of this we occasionally hear extracts of Giles’ narrative, spoken by one of the choir members. The singing and speaking combine to create a picture which is so beautiful, and so Australian. [listen]


Matthew Orlovich

And so to our last work, something by one of my favourite composers, and something I hope you’ll find very special. In 1942 Aaron Copland was commissioned by the conductor Andre Kostelanetz to write a piece of music celebrating a great American. Copland eventually settled on Abraham Lincoln, but then agreed with the assessment of his colleague Virgil Thomson that no composer could do justice to a figure the stature of Lincoln. Copland decided to write a work in which Lincoln himself would speak, or rather, Lincoln’s own words would be the focus of the work, and Copland’s music would be a prelude and an accompaniment.


Aaron Copland (1962)

The result was Lincoln Portrait, a work for speaker and orchestra which encapsulates some of the greatness of Lincoln’s statecraft and the depth of his humanity by placing five spoken extracts from Lincoln’s great speeches against an orchestral accompaniment.


The work is about fifteen minutes long, and the introduction includes quotes from old American folk songs like Camptown Races. The speaker enters about halfway through and the simplicity of the concept is part of its success. The speaker in this particular recording is Katharine Hepburn, recorded in 1986 when she was 79. Many famous people have read the text for Lincoln Portrait, but few give it the power and poignancy that she does. [listen]


Katharine Hepburn, in Rooster Cogburn (1975)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2003.

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