“Sing everything like you are singing bel canto” is something I repeat frequently. Bel canto means “beautiful singing,” but it also means to sing everything with smooth phrasing and as legato as possible. Legato is the connected and uninterrupted production of sound, and it requires the singer to understand which vowels and consonants they are singing and how these relate to each other. How do you achieve this if you are not singing in Italian? More specifically, how do you accomplish this while singing in French? Without diving into the numerous French liaison rules, here is a quick explanation of three different ways you can link words in your French singing.
The word vowel is taken from the Latin word vox, meaning voice. For singers, a proper understanding of all the vowels in every language t is at the top of the list of essential things to know. The unvoiced consonant stops or blocks the vowel completely, while the voiced consonant partially stops the vowel which causes an audible adjustment to the vocalic flow. Unlike English or German, French seems to run together with no clear separation between words, making French, much like Italian, a very singable language. The legato in the French language is the constant vowel flow within words and between words. This word-to-word flow is achieved by linking words to each other, known as “liaison.”
Here are three methods of linking up words in French:
Liaison occurs when the usually silent final consonant is pronounced because it is followed by a word starting with a vowel or a mute h. Please note, we never pronounce the “h” sounds in French as we do in English (like in the word “hat.”) For more on the h in French, click here as I have dedicated an entire blog post to this letter, which is not pronounced in French, ironically.
Example: Elle est arrivé avec un homme (She arrived with a man) [ɛl‿ɛ ariˈve aˈvɛk‿ œ̃n‿ɔmə]
Notice that the t of est and the n of un are in liaison with the following vowels. Usually, these final consonants would be silent (see example below).
Example: Il est venu avec un cadeau (He came with a gift) [il‿ɛ vəˈny avɛk‿œ̃ kaˈdo]
The t of est is now silent as is the n of un because consonants instead of vowels follow them.
The singer, working with liaison, should make the now sounded consonant rapidly and quite late because we don’t want to emphasize the liaison. It should also not alter or shorten the vowel preceding it. The use of liaison is more present in lyric diction rather than in spoken French. In everyday speech too much use of liaison makes someone sound quite stiff and old-fashioned. There are quite a few rules related to liaison; some are optional, some are mandatory, and some are forbidden. In some cases, a wrong liaison (for example, making a z sound instead of a t) or choosing not to make a mandatory liaison can demonstrate a lack of taste or education.
When using liaison, be aware that some phonetic changes occur with the consonant affected.
- The s becomes a z: Les amis (the friends) 
- The d becomes a t: Le grand arbre (the tall tree) 
- The x becomes a z: Deux amis (two friends) 
- The f becomes a v: Neuf heures (nine hours) 
Be sure not to get confused with these phonetic changes as they should not change the word’s meaning.
Sans amour (without love) [sɑ̃z‿aˈmur]
Sens exatasié (senses in extasy)[sɑ̃s‿ɛkstɑˈzje]
As we can see, in the first example, the liaison from the s in the word sans meaning without the s is always silent, but in the second example, we always pronounce the s in the word sens meaning senses; we are just linking the words to each other.
Elision is the omission of a final, unstressed -e in a word followed by a word beginning with a vowel or a mute h.
Example; Elle est assise depuis une heure (She has been sitting for an hour) [ɛl‿ɛt‿aˈsizə dəˈpɥiz‿yn‿œrə]
Here we make elision on the final e of elle because the following word, est ,starts with an e, so the l of elle is sounded right before the word est. Elision is commonly used both in lyric diction and in everyday speech.
- LINKING UP or “enchaînement”
Linking up or enchaînement occurs when we pronounce the final consonant, whether a vowel follows it or not. It is neither an elision or liaison, and it happens pretty naturally in singing and speaking.
Example il est ici (he is here) [ilɛt‿iˈsi]
The link between il and est is just that, a link. You do not need to show the link in your IPA translation only from a liaison or an elision.
As you get more familiar with liaison, you will have the knowledge needed to opt-out of some liaisons that seem excessive. To quote Pierre Bernac (see below), who was an authority on “French Mélodie”: “There are a great number of cases when the liaison is optional, and left to the taste of the performer.” However, for a singer to know when they can leave out a liaison, they must have a thorough knowledge of singing in French.
Consulting a French Lyric Diction coach or an excellent French diction manual will be the best course of action rather than asking a friend who speaks French. Everyday French does not necessarily require the knowledge of the relatively large set of rules used for singing in French. There are many things to consider when singing in French, so always make sure you cover all your bases.
Did you know:
An excellent book to start building your library is The Interpretation of French Song by Pierre Bernac. He explores the musical analysis and suggested liaisons in the texts to help you find your way with French Mélodie.
Pierre Bernac (12 January 1899 – 17 October 1979) was a French singer, a baryton-martin, known as an interpreter of the French mélodie. He had a close artistic association with Francis Poulenc, with whom he performed in France and abroad. Poulenc wrote 90 songs for him during their 25-year musical partnership.
Bernac was well known as a teacher; among the singers who studied with him were Elly Ameling, Grace Bumbry, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Carol Neblett, Jessye Norman, and Gérard Souzay. He gave masterclasses in France, Britain and the US.
Bernac wrote two highly regarded books about the interpretation of mélodies in general and Poulenc’s in particular.
Pierre Bernac – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Bernac