It might seem on the face of it to be impossible to know how people spoke 400 years ago, before the invention of sound recordings, but in fact there has been considerable research in this area and we can be pretty certain about some aspects of the way that Shakespeare or Jonson or Dowland would have pronounced their texts. I’m going to call this “OP” (for “Original Pronunciation”), without distinguishing the different varieties of it which have been proposed by modern scholars. If you want to get a quick taste of how it sounds, have a listen to this:
OP in lute songs
OK, so you’re going to do a concert of English lute songs, and you have thoroughly researched the texts and you understand the poetry quite well – how are you going to pronounce the words? In your “everyday speech” voice (which might be one of many varieties of British or American English)? In your “singing voice” which imitates the way other people (notably your singing teacher) sing? In some other way, perhaps an attempt at OP? And whichever you choose, what impact will this have on the audience?
Bob Spencer, a great teacher and performer of lute songs, used to say that there was a danger that OP would distract an audience (“Ooh, that’s a funny way to pronounce move”) or give them problems with comprehension.
On the other hand there are many musical settings of words where some aspects of it can hardly be avoided. For example, all those words ending in “ion”, where this ending is set to two notes rather than one – “act-i-on” as opposed to “acshun”. And all those past participles ending in “ed” which are routinely contracted in modern speech – “lov-ed “ (two syllables) or “lov’d” (one syllable) – were less often contracted in the 17th century, so musical settings often give the extra note. These examples usually give us no trouble in comprehension, they just sound a bit quaint or old-fashioned when the ending is an extra syllable, like verb forms which are no longer used such as “gavest”.
And there is much to recommend in the fact that rhymes work, so rhyming “love” with “move” suddenly makes sense, as does “speak” and “break”, as in a famous madrigal by Thomas Morley: “Come dainty nymph and speak, shall we play barley-break?”
Differences in pronunciation can also change the emotional impact. Some words in OP come with a less neutral colour – “darkness” in modern Southern English sounds quite bland – something like “daahkness”. But in OP the “a” vowel was short, like “a” in “hat” (or modern Northern “bath”) and the “r” would probably be rolled, giving a whole different colour to the word and enhancing its emotional force. Think of Dowland’s devastating song “In darkness let me dwell”, where the first syllable of “darkness” coincides with the introduction of a dissonant harmony against the bass.
Maybe we should consider OP after all.
OP in the theatre
But how would we feel about a whole Shakespeare play being performed in OP? As with the songs, it might enhance the sonic aspects of the poetry (and the jokes) but would it lessen comprehension? Shakespeare’s language is already remote from us, and even words which we think we understand carried different meanings in his day (e.g., “prove”, “curious”, “quick”, “conceit”), also words which are no longer used (“recure”, “contemn”, “fain”) so we’re already dealing with something far removed from the everyday speech of the 21st century.
And if we did decide to try OP, which OP would we choose? Regional accents were at least as strong in the 16th century as they are now. And would we lose something if all the characters in the play spoke the same way, instead of speaking in a way which revealed their social standing and degree of education? Would Hamlet have spoken in the same way as Bottom?
Go for modern?
But we seem to accept someone singing a Scottish song in a strong Scottish accent (in any case some of the words don’t really exist in modern “standard” English) or for that matter the almost universal use of a mock-American accent used by British pop singers since the 1950s. Far from hindering comprehension, the accents can convey style and emotional content, despite the fact that they’re usually feigned.
On the other hand, people singing in “Received Pronunciation” – what used to be called “BBC English” (though the term is now inappropriate since many of the broadcasters are Welsh, Scottish or Irish) can sound distinctly mannered or “posh” in a way that is itself distracting. Just try listening to radio broadcasts of even 30 or 40 years ago and try not to feel slightly disturbed or at least amused by the way people speak.
I wonder how German-speaking singers have negotiated this? They have a marvellous repertory of songs from the 19th and 20th centuries, from Schubert to Wolf and Mahler. They presumably sing in some kind of “standard” German pronunciation, even though regional accents are well preserved in Germany (and in any case all three composers were Viennese). The same goes for Italians, who had (and still have) a huge diversity of accents and dialects.
Be true to your origins
I wonder whether it is ever sensible to sing in an accent which is not the one you usually use when speaking.
You could make the same argument for singing only in your native language, and certainly it seems rather absurd that audiences regularly sit through whole operas in languages they don’t understand. Surtitles and programme notes can give the gist, but surely this is a second-best compared to receiving the language directly. This has been going on for a long time, with Handel (a native German-speaker and reputedly never very fluent in English) composing pieces in English and Italian, and Mozart (also natively German-speaking) composing operas in Italian as well as German. In these cases, though, the problem belongs only to the composer – the pieces were set in the native language of the audience, whatever that happened to be at the time.
Perhaps we should perform Dowland with a New York accent in New York, and in German translation when performing the same songs in Hanover?