You don’t need to enunciate your consonants as precisely as Cécile McLorin Salvant to clearly communicate the desperate emotional energy of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. The shape of the words, their meaning and the music are so closely woven together that the trail is easy to follow. Like breadcrumbs through the forest.
Think of this as Kate twirls in her red dress: you’ll notice she doesn’t dwell on the final t of Wuthering Heights. She rushes past, to reach the word Heathcliff. Of course. So how does Kate place the whole word ‘Heights’ clearly in your head, whether you’ve read Emily Brontë or not? Once she’s sung the H, your mind can’t go anywhere but Heights. Listen, and feel yourself filling in the blanks:
It’s crucial that the word Heights is easily understood. Kate can’t afford to leave her audience distracted at this point. She’s just about to name her beloved – Heathcliff – and she wants her audience’s full attention.
She doesn’t have time or breath to emphasise the t of Heights herself. She makes you do the work for her. Kate places so many diphthongs, consonants and rhymes in your path that your mind can’t help but complete the word Heights. It’s a very poetic word game and a useful songwriting tool.
The word Heights isn’t as predictable as the word love or you in other songs. So Kate takes a lot of trouble to lead you to it. We’ll come to that in a minute. Let’s begin at the beginning:
The lyrics of Wuthering Heights are simple words. It’s the way that they’re arranged that gives the song its atmosphere. Kate moves between rhyme patterns, unsettling the listener and building up the shape-shifting, ghostly atmosphere. Her assonance rhymes of home, cold, and window are just inexact enough to set the listener on edge as Cathy’s ghost knocks at Heathcliff’s window in the middle of the night.
The song begins with the sporadic internal rhymes of green, jealousy, greedy and leave me. Enough to unite the poetry, but nothing to grab hold of. Nothing secure. The repetition of you attracts the listener’s attention. Repetition is reassuring. It’s a pattern, at last. We’ll find out who the ‘you’ is in a minute. He’s the subject of the song.
If you’re singing a cover: you have to be willing to embrace the unsettling nature of the rhyme scheme. For example, in the lines: When I needed to, possess you, don’t be tempted to force the rhyme of you and to, by skipping over possess. Possess carries no rhyme, but a load of emotional energy. Don’t seek neatness where there is none.
The night, fight, right, rhyme is one of the few exact rhymes you’ll find at the end of a line in Wuthering Heights. Kate leads you towards it through the rhyme of I hated you. I loved you too. The ‘you, you, too’ rhyme primes the listener for the upcoming, exact rhyme of night, fight, right. After the unpredictable rhyme of the first verse, the listener is looking for some stepping stones of certainty. For contrast, if nothing else.
The exact rhyme of night, fight and right, diphthongs and consonants, sets you up to expect the rhyme of Heights. Night, fight and right are all easy to hear because they’re such everyday words – and, as if that wasn’t enough, Kate leads you straight to them: bad dreams in the …? going to lose the …? to put it …? etc. There’s nowhere else to go but night, fight and right. A clever use of linguistic cues.
Kate wants to move quickly on to the crucial word: Heathcliff. She doesn’t have time to dilly-dally on the t of Heights. So she makes the word clear and complete to her audience through expectation, rather than enunciation. She’s free to swoop eagerly on Heathcliff.
The word Heights isn’t important for its meaning in this song. It’s only important to complete the title of the book Wuthering Heights.
Kate has far more fun with her repetition of the wonderfully evocative Wuthering. Three-syllabled words carry music within them. Unusual three-syllabled words like Wuthering gather extra energy when they’re sung three times, like a spell. It would be hard to spin round and round to a word like Heights.
As a singer, it’s wise to follow Kate’s lead through her song. She has said, in interviews, that she developed her particular singing style to suit her music. In Wuthering Heights she chooses to sing in a higher register to sound more ‘ghostly’ . You don’t need to mimic her, but you do need to understand why she’s made her choices.
How will you sing the words cold and window? Would you sing the final t of night, fight and right sharply, to give your listeners even more of a clue to the upcoming Heights? Especially now that the song isn’t as famous as it was in 1978, or if you’re singing in a country where the novel isn’t well-known.
If English isn’t your first language: get a lyric sheet and mark the words that Kate emphasises as she sings. The emphasis falls in unusual places. Be open to that. Don’t switch to the ‘usual’ spoken intonation. Think of the words as poetry, not prose. Choose Kate’s emphasis over a ‘standard’ English classroom emphasis. She wrote the song and she gave each word a cargo of meaning to carry.
Be sure to give too as much length as possible in too hot, too greedy. Listen to Kate’s original version.
Don’t overemphasise the word hot. The word greedy deserves more of your attention. Let the rhyme scheme lead you to the important words.
This is one of those songs where you need to forget the standard English pronunciation that you learnt in school. Standard spoken pronunciation won’t work here. Kate stretches her words to fit the emotion and the music. You need to do the same.
Make sure that you understand the context of the song before you sing it. This isn’t an ordinary love song.
In fact, Wuthering Heights is a perfect song to sing for practise when you’re training yourself to separate the English that you sing from the English that you speak. They’re not the same language.
© Sing Better English, 2014