Nineteenth century’s got talent!



How sad is the condition of vocal music in our time!

Writing this is not, as one might expect, some pompous pundit lamenting the somewhat unpolished charm of a hopeful at yet another theatrically televised talentshow, but Madame Emma Seiler, singing teacher and pioneering female scientist in 19th century Leipzig. She wasn’t done with that observation, either.

Mediocre talent is now often sought, and rewarded far beyond its desert. One is often tempted to think that the public at large has wellnigh lost all capacity of judgment, when he witnesses the representation of one of our operas. Let a singer, male or female, only drawl the notes sentimentally one into another, execute a tremulo upon prolonged notes, introduce very often the softest piano and just where it is entirely out of place, growl out the lowest notes in the roughest timbre, and scream out the high notes lustily, and he or she may reckon with certainty upon the greatest applause.

Madame Seiler’s snide comments are on my mind these days, as I’m trying to piece together a history of female contributions to vocal education – and struggling hard not to turn that into a parade of exultingly fiery and sassy ladies, stridently claiming their place in the male world of science and knowledge. This is particularly difficult with my three favourite voice teachers: Nina d’Aubigny, Caroline Prückner and the delightful Madame Seiler. Fighting for girls’ education and good musical taste in equal measure, all three strike me as sharp minds (with the sharp tongues to match), who did not suffer fools in any of the many languages they mastered and had no patience for anything other than utter dedication and excellence. The kind of insufferable women I like to surround myself with, bref.
It’s unlikely they ever met each other, but I like to imagine that I can somehow get them together in the same room. Behind a judges’ table, perhaps, elevating their refined voices to shut up Simon Cowell, whose discourse sounds positively boring and tame next to their elegantly scathing remarks.


A young woman timidly ascends the stage and greets the judges. They look at her kindly but shrewdly, weighing her up. So, when did you first start singing? they ask her. She clears her throat nervously, and declares hat her papa engaged a singing master for her when she was fifteen. He’s Italian! she gains in confidence now, drawing strength from the exellent credentials of her teacher, he introduced me to the real Bel Canto method. The judges turn their heads, looking at each other knowingly. Yes, the old Italian method has many merits, they agree. Meanwhile, Emma turns to Nina and goes on under her breath about all these kids with Italian teachers these days “Without considering in what a sadly superficial way music – and vocal music especially – is now treated in Italy, many have given in to the erroneous idea that any Italian who can sing anything must know how to educate a voice. Thus many incompetent Italians have become popular teachers in other countries”.
But no matter. They ask the girl what she is going to sing. She is performing Casta Diva, she whispers, and is greeted by a delicately arched eyebrow. The girl glances around nervously, but the pianist has already started playing the intro, and so she courageously draws breath (the judges wince when they see her raise her shoulders at this first inhalation) and sings.
She has a pretty voice and the audience, as charmed by her timid manner before as by her passionate display during the performance rewards her with raucous applause. She throws back her head as she belts out the last note, bows to her admirers and then stands up again, overcome with emotion and exertion, straining to catch her breath. Did she just hear someone mutter ‘clavicular breathing’ in a disapproving tone? She lets her shoulders drop but, as the audience is still cheering, decides she must have misheard and takes another bow.
In front of her, the three judges wait patiently for the noise to subside. Nina offers the singer a measured smile. Isn’t it wonderful, she offers, that young girls now receive sufficient education to have musical taste, and ambitions of their own. They are no longer shackled to the kitchen and the nursery. The young girl nods and straightens her back. They have noted her taste and ambition! But, Nina goes on, it is even more important that women of all walks of life should know how to sing, so as to cultivate their children’s voices well. She turns to the girl on stage and assures her that, in time, she will surely be able to be very good at this.
Caroline nods emphatically. Yes, you have a very pretty voice, she repeats. But can I ask…why did you choose this particular piece? The girl throws a sideways glance at the wings. My mother chose it. She says it shows off my dramatic talents.
Mmmm, a theatre mother eh? Caroline turns to her colleagues, expounding on the subject “the theatre mother always overestimates her daughter and her talent, often she overestimates the daughter and underestimates the talent, which is even more injurious to the daughter’s work”.
The girl’s lip is trembling now, as the three judges confer amongst themselves, quite oblivious to her discomfort. Finally, Emma adresses the young woman delicately, assuring her that she would be quite capable of being a repertoire singer, perhaps even a soloist, should she find an adequate female teacher. “As it is impossible for a man to give a female pupil a correct perception of the tones of the head register and of the second series of the falsetto, with its peculiar female timbre, so its is impossible for a woman to singer and teach correctly the deep, sonorous chest tones of the male voice”.
The young singer shuffles off, unsure about all the talk of register and head voices, whilst the judges turn to each other again, congratulating themselves on their wise decision. Once again, they have saved the world from the terrible curse of dilletantism, a young girl from prematurely overstraining her voice, and female education from the low expectations so often found in girls’ schools.


Making the academic’s mouth

In 1897, speech therapist Emil Behnke lamented the lack of vocal training for the academically gifted.

Every day young men are launched from academic into public life, crammed, it may be, with useful information, and brimming with original ideas, but handicapped by never having their ‘mouths made’.

It is a complaint that can occasionally still be heard, often in the same terms in which Behnke framed it over a century ago

They are sent forth fully equipped for the intellectual side of their work; but the physical preparedness, without which the stores of knowledge become practically useless to them, is almost entirely neglected.

And yet, Behnke had been so optimistic about the future of educated young men called to public speech. His own work would provide a scientific basis on which the cultivation of strong, melodious voices would be built, the college curriculum would come to include “regular daily practice” in voice training, and on the “happy day when rubber-tyred motor cars replace the clattering of horses’ hoofs and the rattle of iron-bound wheels” public speaking would become less physically taxing.


Defining the perfect (‘educated’) O (E. Behnke, The Speaking Voice, 1897)

It was not to be…rubber-tyred motor cars have turned out to be quite noisy after all, and Behnke’s dream of universal voice training for the well-educated has yet to materialize. And yet – thinking back over the past week filled with the occasionally shaky but always captivating voices of Helsinki’s doctoral students, I can only conclude that Behnke missed the most glorious aspect of the vocal culture of his future (and our present): the magnificent diversity of voices in academic discourse. Rather than attaining a world in which ‘educated young men’ have uniformly trained voices, adhering to strictly defined rules of pitch, elocution and pronunciation, we now get to listen to a delightful jumble of different (gendered) pitches, colourful accents and exotic timbres. And we’re much richer for it.


Van Sinterklazen en schoorstenen

Hij komt, hij komt!

Nu ja, in Antwerpen is hij er al, en hier moet ik hem wellicht niet verwachten. Dat heb je als je stomweg verhuist. Dan is het wachten geblazen op een kerstmannetje dat ooit een geit was, of zoiets. Er is weinig dat ik mis aan mijn thuisland (behalve de chocolade dan; die mag iemand wel eens in d’één of d’andre hoek komen strooien), maar Sinterklaas maakt me toch altijd even nostalgisch.

Daarbij moet gezegd dat in ons gezin heel grondig aan Sinterklaas werd gedaan. Wekenlang kregen we verhaaltjes voorgelezen, werd er gezongen voor, rond (en als we gekund hadden ook op) de schouw, werd er gesjouwd met schoenen, verscheen marsepein op de meest onverwachte momenten (want bij ons vond ‘Nicolaas’ altijd wel een moment waarop vier kinderen tegelijk niet keken…je zou hem voor minder heilig verklaren) … en dan, in het holst van de nacht nog, vloog er ineens een handvol nic-nac jes de slaapkamer in. Ons hart klopte vol verwachting, maar toch ook vooral van het schrikken en een licht tekort aan slaap.

Om maar te zeggen, ik kén de Sinterklaastraditie. Of ik dacht tenminste dat ik die kende. Tot ik een paar jaar geleden ging grasduinen in oudere Sinterklaasverhalen, en onderzoek deed naar de geschiedenis van die traditie. Er waren in eerste instantie geen grote verrassingen te vinden. We weten allemaal dat Sinterklaas in de loop van de tijd minder streng, minder jong, en minder katholiek is geworden, en dat hij zijn attributen zowat overal en in verschillende tijdperken heeft opgepikt (speculaaskruiden hebben we waarschijnlijk aan de VOC te danken, en de stoomboot is ook niet meteen Middeleeuws). Al bij al volgt de Sinterklaastraditie een relatief voorspelbaar pad van verandering, waarbij nieuwigheden worden omarmd zodra ze ook elders gemeengoed geworden zijn; en verouderde praktijken geleidelijk verdwijnen (het afranselen van stoute kindertjes is merkelijk minder populair geworden).


De onbarmhartige Sint Nicolaas


En toch zijn er ook evoluties in de Sinterklaastraditie die niet zo voor de hand liggen … of die we klaarblijkelijk vergeten zijn. De negentiende eeuw was naast een tijd van modernisering (de stoomboot!) en globalisering (mandarijnen uit Spanje!) , ook een periode waarin kinderen geleidelijk aan een meer ‘beschermde’ maatschappelijke status kregen. Kinderjes uit de middenklasse gingen naar school en niet uit werken, en ondanks schrijnende kinderarbeid in de moderne fabrieken (of misschien net daarom) groeide het besef dat in armere gezinnen geen plaats was voor een onbezorgde kindertijd, en al helemaal niet voor de magische huiselijkheid van Sinterklaas.(Het is, met andere woorden, net op het moment dat Sinterklaas echt een kinderfeest wordt, dat duidelijk wordt dat kind-zijn niet voor iedereen een feest is).

In 1859 schreef dichter Jan Van Beers een lang gedicht over “Sint Niklaas” dat zich afspeelde in het “lage, vunzige kamerkijn” waarin een vaderloos meisje, klein Mieke, woont met haar arme moeder. Tijdens lange bedeltochten in de stad had Mieke allerlei lekkers zien staan in de uitstalramen, en gehoord over de Sint, die al dat lekkers zomaar zou brengen … als ze maar braaf genoeg was.


Uitstalramen vol lekkernijen in Brussel (ca.1900)

Wanneer ze weer thuiskomt moet haar moeder haar teleurstellen want, zo zegt ze

weet, de Sant

komt enkel in langs schouwen

waar bij dag heeft vuur gebrand.

Mieke gaat triest naar bed in het koude kamertje. Zij kan alleen maar dromen van Sinterklaas…en dat doet ze dan ook.

En zie! – daar was’t op eenmaal,
Als groeide de starre tot een zon,
Die, goud en purper stralend,
Steeds lager en lager klom.

Daar borst die zonne plots open,
Met hemelsch en nooit gehoord geluid;
En heel een leger van engeltjes
Brak er blij-fladderend uit.

En alle die engeltjes droegen,
In korfkens, lekker of speelgoed; en
Een man dreef, traag en statig
In lichtgloed, midden van hen.

Hij droeg eenen gouden mantel;
Als ’t witste zilver blonk zijn baard;
Hij daalde, met alle zijne engeltjes,
Steeds nader en nader tot de aard!

En de zoldering was verdwenen;
Daar zweefde de man aan Miekens zij,
En kuste haar zacht op ’t voorhoofd,
En fluisterde: “Kom met mij!”

En hij stopte haar onder zijn mantel,
Hij drukte haar tegen zijn hart, zoo teer;
’t was Mieken als vloog ze; – ze voelde
Geen kou of honger meer!

De volgende ochtend pas, wanneer Miekes moeder wakker wordt, merkt ook zij dat Sinterklaas toch is gekomen:

[…] zij boog zich om Mieken te kussen,
Het oog van tranen verblind.

Maar plotseling week zij terugge,
En staarde een wijle, verstomd en dwaas,
En gilde: “Dood! Versteven!
Dit was haar Sint Niklaas!”

Het is een gedicht dat we niet zomaar aan kinderen zouden voorlezen, hoewel het geschreven werd voor de lagere school. Kinderen werden in negentiende eeuwse gedichten wel vaker aan de eindigheid van het (of hun) leven herinnerd, maar met dit gedicht wordt ook de rol van Sinterklaas als kindervriend uitgelegd. Hij treedt op als de beschermer van wie te zwak, te ziek of the arm is om zomaar mee te draaien in de snel veranderende wereld van de negentiende eeuw.

De schouw is centraal in dit sinterklaasverhaal – niet omdat acrobatische helpers daar al dan niet helemaal zwart van worden, maar omdat het koude kamertje van Mieke zo’n contrast vormde met het knetterende haardvuur dat de lezertjes van dit gedicht waarschijnlijk met Sinterklaasavond associeerden. En dus kon het een symbool zijn van de verborgen wereld van armoede waartegen kinderen meestal werden afgeschermd, maar die Sinterklaas maar al te goed kende. De ellende die onzichtbaar was voor andere buitenstaanders, was net waar de Sint zich op richtte, en de aandacht naar trok: het schrijnende gebrek aan een haardvuur. In dezelfde periode waarin Van Beers het gedicht schreef gebruikten allerlei liefdadigheidsverenigingen het Sinterklaasfeest op dezelfde manier: verkleed als Sinterklaas konden anonieme weldoeners toegang krijgen tot armere huiskamers, om een helpende hand uit te reiken naar vooral gezinnen en jonge kinderen.

De oplaaiende emotie rond het pietenpact lijkt te suggereren dat aan ons verlangen naar knusse winteravonden rond de schouw weinig is veranderd. Sociale media lopen over van oproepen om ‘onze’ tradities te beschermen, en het verhaal van de schoorsteen ernstig te nemen … maar de rol van die schoorsteen lijken we intussen wel heel eng op te vatten. Als we het dan toch traditioneel en huiselijk willen houden op 6 december, laten we dan dit jaar deze tradities vieren (ze zijn tenslotte even negentiende-eeuws als die van zwarte piet). Die van onvoorwaardelijk geven, vooral aan wie nergens anders terechtkan, onder de anonieme mantel van een bejaarde kindervriend. En die van echt willen zien, en beseffen, dat niet iedereen de luxe heeft van een brandend haardvuur. (Want alleen een goed gebruikte schoorsteen wordt echt zwart …geen wonder dat piet alleen maar vegen heeft).



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!