The president’s throat

Shocking news: “scientific research” shows that Hillary Clinton sounds like … a perfectly average middle-aged woman. Unfortunately, her voice being “average in pitch and loudness for her age and gender” also necessarily means it is not average for a candidate in a presidential race.

There are numerous questions to be asked of this type of research. Why, for example, are we looking for pitch and loudness when we know full well that prosody and timbre play a much larger role in people’s attribution of various traits to voices and speakers? And why should Hillary’s voice deserve such scrutiny in the first place? Why is her relatability predicated upon her particular practices of enunciation and breath?

As Jordan Kisner has noted, Hillary joins a long line of women whose voice has been reviled the moment they had the temerity to speak in public. “The public sniping at women’s voices”, Kisner points out, “reflects a deeper cultural anxiety about whether they have a right to speak at all”.

And yet, it’s not as if we do not hear and appreciate strong female voices in other contexts. The powerful sounds of divas across genres, from Beyoncé to Damrau, are perfectly audible, and their competence, authenticity and femininity are beyond question … as is their right to raise their voices. Crucially, however, these divas don’t aspire to the role of president. They are queens. Rather than adopting the neutrality of the political voice, which has to speak to and for all, has to speak of rationality and the good of the nation, has to speak of utter command over one’s faculty and emotions … they passionately embrace the visceral pleasure they can draw from their throats and elicit in their audience. But doing so almost immediately also elicits feelings of delectable confusion and of delicious fear that are intimately tied to the physical nature of the voice and its place of production. As Wayne Koestenbaum points out in The Queen’s Throat,

it is difficult to avoid noticing that the spookily genderless voice box has been clothed with a feminine aura. And it is difficult to know what to do with this information.

The hidden nature of the embodied voice sits uneasily in the identity of the political speaker, who has to exude ideological ‘transparency’, and therefore the voice’s age-old association with the feminine is scary, especially when launched from a female throat. And thus Hillary does not sound to us like a president, she sounds like a queen. Powerful and strong, but also volatile and vengeful. It is perhaps no coincidence that the more florid descriptions various pundits have provided of her speech could just as well serve as snide reviews of a performance of the Queen of the Night aria. It is “shrill”, “sticks in your ear like an ice pick”, “makes me envy the deaf”.

But if we, as her audience, are culturally incapable of hearing the female voice as the vehicle of presidential speech, and always hear royal coloratura instead, then maybe queens’ voices are the place to look for comparison and aspiration for the female politician.


Queens, after all, by virtue of being heirs to an empire, or by commanding their own pop-empire, are naturally prone to vocal greatness. In 1857, speech therapist James Hunt described the sound of Queen Victoria’s voice in parliament as follows:

Her Majesty is gifted by Nature with the power of managing her voice properly, and in the delivery of her speeches on the opening or closing the sessions of parliament, speaks in so clear and distinct a manner, that not a syllable is lost throughout the crowded expanse of the House of Lords. From how few of her hearers could the same important qualification be expected? Not from one in twenty!

Clear, distinct and well-enunciated, the Queen’s voice revels in its unique status, as a sound that stands out in a sea of masculine murmurs.

The best thing for Germans to do


Sutro’s grave in his adopted homeland


In 1904, German-born American businessman Emil Sutro published his second book. Duality of thought and language, was presented as a piece of original research studying “the inner being of the spoken language”, but it also contains a reflection on the author’s journey as a German in what he calls an Anglo-Saxon world. It particularly shows his struggle to acquire the language: through the book Sutro represents “a constant endeavor and effort during many years towards a single end, namely, the attempt to master the idiomatic expression of the English tongue by a German and from a German standpoint”.  Learning to “produce foreign sounds”, he noted, ultimately interfered with his abilities with his native tongue, and this observation gave rise to his research – resulting in a novel and wildly eccentric interpretation of the connection between the soul and (spoken) language.

For Sutro, speech – which is “spiritual-material”- not only expresses but also significantly contributes to the individual ànd collective characteristics of, for example, Englishmen and Germans:

Belonging to the English race, all his acts and performances are of the order of that race. While all men are alike anatomically, they differ in respect to the manner in which their anatomy is set in motion for the production of their idiomatic expression, for the outcome of their artistic, literary and other work. I speak English, hence I am an Englishman or an American – in fact, an Anglo-Saxon. I belong to the Anglo-Saxon race. Or I speak German, hence I live and think like a German, etc. I belong to the Germanic race.

This racial understanding of language throws an interesting light on the practices of migration and assimiliation. On the one hand, ‘being’ German, for Sutro, seems an almost innate quality, whilst on the other hand acquiring another language appears as an – albeit potentially soulsplitting – way to affect a racial transformation. It is a problem Sutro recognizes, and claims to have found a solution to with his theory of the ‘duality’ of thought and language. His very corporeal system, which he unfortunately fails to set out with much clarity, allows him to enter the “soul” of the language. A practice that would lead to a perfect, and accent-free, embrace of any idiom.

An Englishman after acquiring the French pronunciation will still pronounce French with an English accent; he will not speak it idiomatically correct. This distinction must be prominently borne in mind in connection with these studies. The Englishman acquires the physical habit, the dress of the French language, in his pronunciation, its soul he cannot acquire. I have entered into the soul of language, and in so doing have inadvertently entered into the soul of man.

And because “the inmost motive powers of our soul-life are imbedded in the language we speak”, properly acquiring another language with the help of Sutro’s methods, would lead to actual transformation: “the evolution which makes an Englishman out of a German is one that we can observe step by step from beginning to end”.

Should Germans become Englishmen, however?

Sutro’s answer to that question is fraught with the hierarchical notions of humanity of his time – eerily echoes in more current imaginations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants. In a general sense, he advocates complete assimilation. Not only for the sake of the host society, but for the cultural and moral state of the immigrant himself.

Whole races are civilized by means of a “higher” language. The “Irish question”, as far as that term signifies the animosity of the Emerald Isle against England, will be settled as soon as the lower classes of the Irish population exchange their peculiar brogue for a correctly intoned and pronounced English, and so become, to all intents and purposes, English themselves. Everything else would then settle itself. The Austrian question is, as is generally recognized, in the main a question of language, for the various traits of character of the different Austrian races are determined in large measure by the language spoken. The sympathies and antipathies of the races towards one another rest almost entirely upon grounds that can be traced back to a linguistic origin. The “Jewish question”, too, would be solved if the Jews would take the trouble to speak the language of the people among whom they live exactly as their neighbors; that is to say, if they would abandon their dialect, traces of which are noticeable in the speech of even many of the educated among them.



H. Strickland Constable visualizing the differences between the ‘Irish Iberian’ and the ‘Anglo-Teutonic’.

What applies to the Irish and the Jews, however, does not so easily translate to those who, according to Sutro’s hierarchical understanding of the ‘races’ of the world, already employ a ‘higher’ language. Speaking German, he argues, has resulted in a rich cultural and spiritual life that no part of the world should be deprived of.

I will not enter further into this matter than to say that German immigrants can best serve their own interests and those of their adopted country by remaining true to their inborn propensities and ideals, which have borne fruit in so many directions and have assisted in elevating the people of this country, by imparting to them a more reasonable, hopeful and cheerful view of life, in which contemplation, sentiment, repose and feeling enter, holding the balance to its but too rapid onward march of material accomplishment. It is not German music alone which has contributed much to this end, but German ideals, learning, philosophy, art and character blended with such excellent native characteristics as a burning desire for liberty and independence allied to a great love of country; a thirst for knowledge; a desire for the truth; the exercise of patience under trying circumstances; a thrift which knows no bounds; a feeling of justice, helpfulness and charity for all, which extends beyond the boundaries of this country to the suppressed and downtrodden of all nations. Hence the best thing for Germans to do, when they come here at a mature age, is to remain Germans in the best sense of the word.

It’s a trick the compilers of the World Happiness Report seems to have missed: for more joy, invite more Germans, for reasonable cheerfulness.

Lost for words

I just spent what is probably too much time trying to make sense of my notes on Finnish for the last semester – or rather, trying to remember the construction to express necessity (or lack thereof). This is of course something we practiced ad nauseam in class (Minun täytyy harjoitella nesessiivi!) , but I was, as per usual, distracted by the unintentional politics of language learning.

The ‘necessive’ is not particularly complex, as it turns out…genitive, fixed formula, infinitive, et voilà! The possibilities are endless. Or they are at least in theory. If, like me or my classmates, you’re working with a pitifully small vocabulary, the possibilities become very limited – and limiting- indeed. And thus we listened with mounting horror to the simplistic opinions our ignorance (and the manual) forced us to express:

no food in the fridge? should have saved!

office closed? learn to come on time!

no money? get a job!


We were left wondering whether this is what happens in the heads of today’s populists and political scaremongers. Do they frantically look for the right words to express their nuanced opinions, only to be reduced to extremism because of their linguistic limitations?

coloured skin? go back home!

muslim background? stay off our women

homeless and poor? get a job!

One doesn’t want to extrapolate from anecdotal evidence, of course. But I can think of at least one person who, despite brazen announcements to the contrary, seems to have trouble with ‘words’.

Pardon their French

The French cannot read […] and when they read or speak in public, their diction generally lacks accent and intonation.

In 1852, Emmanuel Le Maout, botanist, ornithologist and proud Frenchman noted with horror that ‘the Italians’ were unimpressed with French speakers and readers. Or that is at least what he claimed to have heard au delà des monts. Rather than worrying about Italian sensibilities, however, he seems to have been keen to give voice to his own diagnosis of the sound of French. And like any self-respecting intellectual of the nineteenth century, he was appalled at the state of the world in general, and that of his own country in particular. The beautiful language of Racine and Bossuet was done great disservices in the Académie, and the sound of parliamentary speech was, apparently, so abhorrent it could not even be described. A sad state of affairs that was confirmed three years later by Edouard Mennechet, who noted morosely that not only the French language was subject to great abuse. Speech, “a gift from God” and an “instrument of divine creation” was necessarily dependent on its “use” which was a “human invention” and therefore unavoidably faulty.

How can we not be surprised to see a civilized nation like ours persevere in ill-fated habits that, from childhood onward, deform, disparage and denaturalize one of the most noble faculties of man, one of the most precious divine gifts, speech!

And yet, according to Mennechet, one should not be quite so surprised at the inability of the French to read. Much like the cultural pessimists of today, he attributed his fellow countrymen’s failings to the social ills and political instability of (what was then) the modern world.

What prevents them from reading nowadays is the present Zeitgeist; it is the constant agitation that does not allow them to focus; it is the ebb and flow of opinions which does not leave time to think; it is this preoccupation –inevitable after revolutionary times – that torments man, some by incertitude, others by hope; some by greed and others by ambition; and all by egotism and fear.

Uncertainty, greed, egocentrism, exaggerate ambition and short attention spans had apparently robbed the French of the ability to read and speak properly. (One shudders to think of what Mennechet would have made of the Twittersphere).

Luckily, both Maout and Mennechet presented the public with a solution: a manual – consisting respectively of ‘leçons’ and ‘études’ to practice reading aloud. With sufficient analytical rigor and practice, they claimed, everyone could (re)gain the capacity to not only pronounce French in a correct and pleasing manner, but also to inflect their voices artistically and emotionally move their audience. The premise, that one could (and should) be taught how to speak properly was, as both authors pointed out, rather uncomfortably close to the one satirized in Molière’s Would be Noble.

And thus they hastened to point out that reading well cannot be systematized so easily, that there are no hard and fast rules and that, above all, the reader has to mobilize his own intelligence, his morality and his emotional sensibilities to make a text come to life and ‘move’ an audience. For those who did not have the time or energy to apply themselves to a long study of the inner passions of the greats of French literature, however, Le Maout very helpfully included a range of texts ‘annotated’ for breath, rhythm and inflection. If you want to sound like a sophisticated Frenchman of the 1850’s, I highly recommend “the monkey and the magic lantern”.

Rude silences

Rather belatedly, I want to share the wonderful work of my Finnish colleague Taina Riikonen, former artist in residence at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

When I first listened to her ‘soundscape’ of my current workplace, it sounded a bit harsh to my ears. From where I was sitting – as a recently arrived foreigner who could quite easily escape into a comfortable office, and with little responsibilities beyond my own research endeavours – the halls of the Collegium were blissfully quiet, the coffee room a pleasant hum of scholarly and silly talk in equal measure, occasionally punctuated by the arrival of baked goods (or the sound of the impossibly loud doors of this building). All of this is still true, of course, but with my more recently acquired insights in the ongoing reforms of the university (and its results for both close and distant colleagues) the soundscape suddenly sounds a lot closer to the truth.

Do listen to Painful Decisions, and know that there aren’t nearly enough doors slamming in this piece.


Taina’s text:

Painful Decisions is a sonic statement and protest towards drastic financial cuts in the universities in Finland. The cuts, executed by the Finnish government, hit particularly painfully to the University of Helsinki. The duration of the sound work, 570 seconds, dedicates one second for each fired university worker (the first round of layoffs, in January 2016).

The work investigates the sound of silence. The main sonic material is a series of recordings that are made in the hallways of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (at the University of Helsinki). The silence in the hallways near the researcher offices is not a void emptiness, but more a subtle sonic accents of profound and critical pondering, signified through foot steps, subtle door slams, rustle of paper, the speech of texts. This dense sound of silence is now under a threat, the government wants to eliminate it of the science and academia. The scholarly silence with its diverse critical resonances is not an allowed sound in the current university. The offered option is superficial and cacophonic fuzz [pöhinä], hasty solutions: an assembly line of fast and commissioned applications. This, if something, is a truly painful decision; it is painful for free, independent science, and it is painful for the whole future of the research and academic knowledge.

In the sound work, the particular sound of silence is manipulated forcefully, which makes the original muffled hum of the ventilation and fluorescence lamps scream literally painfully and as stubbornly demanding. The texture sonificates the unheard arguments of the cuts, the rhetoric of forced solutions, and that silence is very different than the silence of critical, scholarly thinking. The muteness of the unjustified, rude cuts is a monotonic and nonchalant void. Painful decisions.

Ein Mädchen ging nach Indien

Sometimes, the little old books I read present me with the most unlikely of heroes. Meet la comtesse Jana Wynandina Gertrut d’Aubigny von Engelbrunner, (or Nina, as most people called her). Born in Kassel in 1770, she was destined for a life of aristocratic sophistication and leisure, and educated accordingly. By the time she was an adult, Nina not only spoke several languages but was also a trained soprano. By all accounts, she could rival the professionals of her time even though she did not (originally, at least) embark on a musical career. Throughout her twenties she acted as a governess to her nieces and to the daughters of members of her extended family. A quiet, respectable life for an unmarried lady of (presumably quite moderate) means.


Nina d’Aubigny

At the age of 33, however, she seems to have tired of teaching abc’s and started travelling. First to the UK, where she stayed for seven years and despaired of her inadequate grasp on the English language, and then to India where she stayed a bit longer and mainly despaired of the English. In her diary (quoted here as transcribed in Manfred Elsberger’s biography of d’Aubigny), she wrote



Mein Gott, die Engländer sind solche phlegmatische Schlafmützen, dass man durchwegs nichts mit ihnen anfangen kann. I don’t know! Das Wort, das mein Blut allemal in Wallung bringt, hört man aus jedem Munde…Die Schwarzen sind so milde, so nachgebend; wenn man nur winkt, so läuft ein halbes Dutzend, um unsere Befehle mit freundlichem Gesicht zu erfüllen. Das nennt der Brite kriechend! Und in seiner Meinung sind alle Menschen Schelme. Er schimpft sich durch das ganze Alphabet, weil ihre Sitten und Lebensart nicht die seinen sind…Ich betrachte sie wie Kinder.

Her travel to India had started quite unhappily as well, which may have coloured her perceptions. Being cooped up in a ship for months on end, with little personal space and surrounded by Englishmen with very fixed notions of what an unmarried woman might be doing on ship, was not an ideal introduction to colonial culture. The description of the trip in her diary makes her sound less than happy:

Die ist nämlich der allgemeine Glauben unter ihnen: ein Mädchen ginge nur nach Indien, um einen Gatten zu finden. Diese Idee ist so fest angenommen, dass es umsonst ist, zu hoffen, sie würden andere Ursachen annehmen. Und da es auch Brauch unter den Engländern ist, ihre überflüssigen und veralteten Töchter und Schwestern dorthin zu Markte zu senden, so findet es sich meistens, dass diese Frauenzimmer nicht schnell genug mit ihrem Eroberungsplan anfangen können.

Exactly why she herself went to India, is unclear. She started out as a governess in Kolkata as well, but as her employers left or fell on hard times, she too had to look for other streams of income and she started performing as a singer again. The colonial music scene was perhaps a bit more forgiving of middle-aged women on stage than Paris or London would have been. No doubt, the teaching, singing, writing, and travelling were partly a matter of necessity, but in her Briefe an Natalie (a singing manual written as a series of letters to an imaginary friend), it is very clear that the Singer also deeply cared about female education. In her first ‘letter’ she strikes a positively proto-feminist note which, even if she tries to be tactful about the status of girls in her native Germany, must have hit close to home for some of her readers.

Nicht als Sklavinnen roher Menschen, nicht als Modepuppen leerer Köpfe, oder Zeitvertreib des Flachsinns, betrachtet man uns im deutschen Vaterlande, und vernichtet durch widrige Behandlung die vielfältigen Mittel zur ferneren Entfaltung, wie dies das traurige Loos unsers Geschlechts in so manchen Ländern ist.

Competent, concerned about women’s education, more than a bit eccentric and (apparently) permanently irritated…it’s hard not to like Miss von Engelbrunner.

Fairy tales and tuberculosis

After extensive sampling, I have now picked my favourite Finnish Christmas carol. It’s a typical ‘traditional’ song (that is, composed relatively recently but fervently embraced as something that has always been around. Nothing like invented tradition to keep a girl going). More importantly, it has everything one could possibly want in a Christmas song: children’s sparkly eyes, joy overflowing, stars, a broken heart, a touch of bitterness and (possibly) a brush with tuberculosis. Gloria in excelsis deo!

By now, I’ve heard some conflicting reports on the origin of the song – which I feel may be a contributing factor in its inclusion into the pantheon of classics – but the basics of the story are generally agreed upon. The lyrics were written by the then young and idealistic schoolteacher Elsa Koponen in 1913 (or after the Independence War, in 1918, as some claim, or during the Winter War as others would have it…but hey, who’s counting?). She wrote the text, according to Ilta-Sanomat last year (and who am I to doubt them) as she was listening to children’s joyful voices the week before Christmas whilst she herself struggled to hold back tears.


There was, arguably, quite a bit to cry about in her Karelian home town of Sortavala, no matter what date we accept. Aside from a long history of crippling poverty, the town became a highly contested place in the power struggles between Finland and Russia and its population was evacuated at least twice to comply with reigning ethnic and cultural politics. And so, as Koponen listened to a rare moment of unadulterated joy; she penned the first verses of her Christmas poem:


Now shine forth, ye stars of Christmas eve,
Shine along with children’s starry eyes;
Tell the story of the Christmas night,
Ever new, and ever wondrous bright,
Comforting us like when we were children.

Now sound forth, ye songs of Christmas eve,
Chime from chests whose joys are overflowing;
Make the music, let the games be played,
Happiness of hearts be here displayed,
Comforting us like when we were children.

(translation by A. Jokinen)

It’s a poem befitting a caring school teacher, but something in the insistence on childish innocence foreshadows the sadness of the third verse, which is reported to have been inspired by Koponen’s personal tragedy at the time of writing. Earlier that week, her fiancée had broken off their engagement (other stories have him dying the in War, which is somewhat more romantically pleasing). He had contracted tuberculosis and, fearing for his life – so he wrote – felt it more honourable to free his fiancée from this burden. Koponene cried her eyes out, wrote a sentimental poem and henceforth devoted herself to teaching. She never married. The perfect Christmas heroin.

It is not entirely how the story ends, though: as it turns out, the sick fiancée recovered from his illness and died a couple of decades and two wives later. Koponen survived him by 8 years and – although it’s unlikely the two met each other again – it rather pleases me that the third verse of her poem is a somewhat mean, bitter warning

Time comes, when the Christmas story ends;
Gravest grief like fog will shadow all;
Day will come when tears will overflow,
Waves of suffering will greatest grow;
Thus now, starry eyes, you must shine forth.

A Christmas carol doubling as a break up song? Surely that makes Koponen a much better role-model than any sentimental idealised maiden.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The anthem that wasn’t

Last week, I gathered with a couple of hundred Finns to sing a birthday song to a man who wasn’t there and who had specifically written said song for orchestra and not for voices. Cuz that’s how the rebels of Helsinki roll.

Happy birthday, Sibelius!

Happy birthday, Sibelius!











The event did seem to meet with cosmic approval: Sibeliuksen päivä was a gloriously sunny day in the midst of gloomy autumn, and it would have been impossible to ignore the festive atmosphere. “Finlandia” seems to do that to people – and I’m no exeption. It’s a beautiful piece, and being surrounded by voices rendering it with genuine conviction was truly touching. A perfect expression of Finnishness at its best (that is, evoking the beauty of the country’s nature and the resilience of its people; rather than the harsh cold of winter/some of today’s politics and an inexplicable penchant for disgusting candy – salmiakki, anyone?).

As noted before, it was not intended to be sung: Sibelius wrote it as an orchestral piece, but soon received numerous questions to write a choral version, and he gave in eventually, stating that “if the world wants to sing, one cannot do anything about it”. (And the Finns seem particularly prone to liking a good sing-along). The lyrics that eventually became associated with the closing hymn of Finlandia were written by V.A. Koskenniemi in 1940. It’s a ‘midsummer hymn’ betraying its birth in a fairly recently independent nation that had just (if only barely) survived the Winter War. It’s no wonder that the ‘sunrise’ is such a central metaphor in the song.

Despite its obviously patriotic nature (and despite some discussion of the issue) Finlandia never became Finland’s national anthem. And perhaps it shouldn’t. There’s something astoundingly beautiful in the existence of a hymn that expresses unity rather than exclusion; and the strength of the ‘country’ rather than its institutionalized borders and officially enshrined political cohesion. According to one proposal to make Finlandia the country’s official anthem, “we sing Maamme (‘Our Country’) for the sake of form, but Finlandia, that comes straight from the heart”. Judging by the teary-eyed singers on Senaatintori last week, that is easy to believe.

Aux armes?

When the whole tribe, when the whole nation is emotionally moved, the tribe, the nation assembles and hundreds, thousands of unified voices intone a religious or warrior anthem. That is the origin of choral singing.

In 1856, choral expert Laurent de Rillé noted that “all emotions manifest themselves through song”, especially when the collective emotions of the ‘tribe’ are at play. It seems an old-fashioned notion, in a liberal world in which the nuclear family seems a bit dowdy, communism is laughable and nationalism suspect. Communal singing is hardly common, or popular. And yet, in moments of great emotions, it seems to surface again. When the frightened masses left the Stade de France on Friday, they seem to have spontaneously burst out in song. More publicly (and probably less spontaneously, but in a powerful display of emotion) the members of the Assemblée Nationale did the same after the attacks in January. In times of crisis, of deep-seated fear and sadness, they have sought solace in the sense of unity that communal (and especially unison) singing affords.
And indeed, it seems that this practice, as de Rillé suggested, connects us to our ‘tribe’, makes us feel surrounded by like-minded, trustworthy people who will give us the comfort we need. They are, after all, singing the same familiar song, breathing in tandem with us as we intone the same words in the same language. It is, however, a bit chilling if the lyrics of our communally intoned lullabies of comfort also contain the phrases “aux armes citoyens” and “qu’un sang impur abbreuve nos sillons”. Because whilst assuaging the fears of those belonging to the tribe cultivated in the anthem, it also seems to cement notions of belonging and otherness, of the “enfants de la patrie” who will receive the protection and consolation they crave, and all those other children who can now be eyed with distrust.


La liberté guidant le peuple (Eugène Delacroix)

It’s understandable to sing the Marseillaise when leaving a stadium to go into a scary night that has been filled with gun-fire. It’s an anthem than can bolster one’s courage, it stresses the unity of those walking out, and (more practically, in a society that doesn’t sing often) it’s the one song all soccer-fans are likely to know. But before it turns into the rallying-cry of all who have been scared, can the French (and all of us) please remember the fine tradition of less aggressive communal, and revolutionary, singing?

Les hommes robustes du Nord

Last weekend saw the first edition of the Helsinki Lied competition. An excellent occasion to discover that not all Finnish music was composed by Sibelius, hear some truly brilliant voices, and note that Finnish artists write and sing remarkably well about loneliness, silence and Winterreisen (no surprises there).

Once again, however, it was hard to find any sign of a national character within vocal sounds. And yet, all of my nineteenth-century specialists seem to have agreed that such a thing not only existed, but was also easy to spot. According to Theodore Schmauk,

the voice of the Frenchman, the Scandinavian or Russian can frequently be distinguished by its national timbre.

It’s all a matter of temperature and climate, apparently: “in cold climates”, Schmauk remarked, “we may look for notes of storm, ruggedness, and battle and conquest”. His French colleague, Colombat de l’Isere, concurred: “It is probably owing to the influence of the temperature that the people of the south have in general a finer and more sonorous voice than the inhabitants of the cold countries”. After all, “in the warm seasons the voice is more beautiful and more sharp; in winter, on the contrary, it is more grave and hoarse”.
The cold, according to these (relatively southern) men, was not for the faint-hearted and it therefore made perfect sense that colder regions produced rough, dependable, manly men with voices to match. According to de l’Isere, “the difference of the climate probably exerts an influence over the taste of nations, as well as over the sweetness of their tongues”. And his fellow countryman Mansuès-François Ramont even went so far as to suggest a gender-like dichotomy between North and South:

Melody is the domain of a sensitivity produced by the influence of a burning sun; and harmony, male and agitated, is that of the robust men of the North

Exactly how the climate managed to produce such differences in taste, timbre and pitch was not entirely clear, but the influence of cold wind on the relative percentage of vowels and consonants in different languages was thought to play an important role. German voice teacher Böhme-Köhler posited that “the Northlander closes his mouth due to the cold climate”. This resulted in a limited development of vowel sounds on an individual level, and a harsh, or even “jaw-breaking” language on a collective, national, level. “The Russian” according to Schmauk, “ seems to be very harsh indeed, yet when sung, it is said to well deserve the title of the Italian of the North”.

Open mouthed vowels. Only advisable in the South. (F. Helmore, 1847)

Open mouthed vowels. Only advisable in the South. (F. Helmore, 1847)

Other northern languages were less well-received. William Gardiner remarked on the lack of music in all words that “have their origin in severer climes, and partake so much of the nasal and guttural tones as to destroy every vestige of melody”.

The Dutch and Northern languages are so guttural, that in the delivery of some of their words you might suppose the speaker were choked.

And yet, the Nordic singers of today seem to be perfectly capable of producing warm, melodious (if somewhat depressing) tones. Must be global warming.