Many years ago I sang in a madrigal group that performed at the local renaissance faire. I had never had a music lesson when I joined and my command of my voice was shaky at first, but I eventually became a reliable but unspectacular part of the ensemble, booming away on the bass and baritone parts while more accomplished singers trilled more ornamented lines. It was a challenge and a delight to be part of that group, to weave my voice in with the others, hearing their parts while singing mine and creating something sonically complex.
We were directed by an enthusiastic amateur who was the best kind of teacher, noticing and praising singers who became more adept, working with everyone to make us confident performers as well as steady singers. This teacher added new material to our repertoire as soon as we had mastered a song, and after a few years we had a wide range, belting out drinking songs and also crooning tender and sad pieces in English, Italian, Latin, and French.
There was a particular French madrigal that was a showpiece for us, a slow, wistful song called “Mon Coeur Se Recommande A Vous.” It’s a demanding piece with some high notes and a sudden shift in tempo, but for most of us the bigger problem was that we were unused to the difference between written and spoken French. The language isn’t written phonetically at all - the words on the page had silent letters, dipthongs, and whole sections that had to be slurred together while other bits were drawn out in ways that don’t work in English, and we had not a single native French speaker to explain it to us. Our director tried to make up for this by distributing cassette tapes of recordings, but it was very difficult to hear individual parts through the sonic complexity. We spent more time working on that song than any other we had ever attempted, and in time we reached a consensus on what the thing was supposed to sound like.
That tune eventually became one of our showpieces, and we performed it with increasing confidence until one fateful day. We had lined up on the steps of a stage in a way that showed our costumes to an advantage and gave everyone a in the crowd a good view of the performers and vice versa. It was a sunny day and many people were happy to sit in the shade and listen to us sing, and we delivered one of the best performances I could remember. We had the whole audience rapt right up to the moment we started into “Mon Coeur,” and then something strange happened in the front row. A whole line of people started reacting in ways we found confusing – some laughed, some looked pained, others started talking to each other animatedly. All of us in the group saw it, and we glanced furtively at each other – were we off key? Was something happening on the stage behind us, where we couldn’t see it? Had one of the sopranos breathed in so far trying for a high note that parts of her were now above her blouse?
We finished that performance rather less confident than we started, wondering what the heck was going on. Were these perhaps in a madrigal group themselves, one that performed this song differently? We found out soon enough when one of them came up and introduced himself. They weren’t a madrigal group at all – they were just a large family on vacation. From Paris. Where they speak French a great deal, and have definite ideas about what it should sound like. Apparently we had mangled the pronunciation in a way they had never heard before, and they had been unable to conceal their reactions. They apologized if their reaction had disrupted our performance, and they complimented us on the harmonies, which they assured us we had executed very well.
We retired that piece from our repertoire for a while until we could find a French speaker who tutored us in some of the things we had been doing wrong, but we never felt quite as assured as we once had. I know that mine was not the only set of eyes that scanned each audience as we began, looking for some person whose eyes widened as we started the first line. I still love the song, but when I get together with friends at parties and sing the ones we remember, somehow it’s not in our repertoire.
I was moved to think about this when I considered Mitt Romney’s attempts to humanize himself to middle class voters. Like us, he has the music down through long practice, but he is saying words whose meaning he does not understand, and it comes out awkward and funny. He has been tutored even as we were by people who didn’t speak the language – his political consultants know as much about living on a middle class wage as our hard-working director knew about 16th century French pronunciation. Romney’s message sounds convincing to his pampered friends and big donors, and they can’t figure out why the front row is laughing.
Romney can work on is speeches all he wants, perhaps even bringing in a tutor – and can’t you imagine what it would be like to try to lecture Mittens on what it’s like to feed a family on minimum wage, or to make healthcare decisions with one eye on the bank balance? Even with the best coaching, he will have a problem that we didn’t. Our tutor was able to clean up our French so it sounded good in one carefully rehearsed performance, while Romney is going to be constantly put in unscripted situations were his ignorance is obvious. Remembering how embarrassed and confused we were on that day at the Faire, it almost makes me feel sorry for the guy. Almost, but not really.
And one last thing... here's what that song sounds like when it is sung correctly: