Original accents/original instruments?

I just came across this fascinating documentary on the original pronunciation of Shakespeare by the father-and-son team David Crystal, a linguist, and his son Ben, an actor. Although I’ve been an enthusiast of the historically informed performance practice of music for many years, the idea that there could be an equivalent in theatre hadn’t really occurred to me. (I am a little embarrassed to say that I never attended a play at the Globe during my years in London; my only excuse is that I was too busy going to concerts.)

The accent the Crystals demonstrate sounds, to my foreign ears, a lot like the West Country accent you can still hear in the BBC radio drama The Archers. (I was very fond of this show when I lived in England, although I could understand almost none of what the characters said.) The piratical enunciated R and the rustic vowels and diphthongs seemed to provoke Ben Crystal to use a deeper, more earthy tone of voice in his acting. This made me think of certain scintillatingly fast, vigorous recordings of Vivaldi concerti grossi on original instruments that have come out in the past few years. Could it be that using equipment similar to that of the composer’s time frees us to be wilder and less “careful”? Shakespeare’s plays and classical music both have an undeserved reputation for being a bit precious and prissy, but we forget that at the time they were written, they were like the latest movie or pop song.

I was also struck by Ben Crystal’s insistence that some of the in-jokey puns in Shakespeare’s plays simply don’t work if an actor speaks them in modern Received Pronunciation. Pointing to a passage that plays on the word “hour,” he demonstrates that if we pronounce the vowels the way Shakespeare apparently did, it becomes a bawdy joke that is totally lost on actors who don’t use original pronunciation (and thus is lost on audiences too). This reminds me of certain facets of HIPP that we can deduce simply by looking at musical scores of the time, such as the way we can tell that Bach wanted us to use “low” fingerings on upper strings rather than “high” ones on lower strings in the fifth cello suite by examining the way he wrote the scordatura. If you ignore Bach’s hints, you miss out on the special resonance he was trying to create.

While we will never know the answers to some questions about a long-dead playwright’s or composer’s intentions, we don’t need a time-machine to figure out others.

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