The English counter-tenor, Alfred Deller, was the man most responsible for the renaissance of music for counter-tenor in the 20th century. He was a pioneer in popularizing the current practice of authentic early music performance, and he revived the counter-tenor voice as a vehicle for accurate performances of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music.
Alfred Deller was virtually completely self-taught. His father was a PE teacher for the Army and not musical. Alfred began to sing as a boy soprano, later developing the alto (counter-tenor) range. He sang in the choirs of the Canterbury Cathedral from 1940 to 1947, and at St. Paul in London. Michael Tippett heard him with the Canterbury Cathedral choir and invited him to London to make his debut.
Alfred Deller came to the attention of the English public after a 1946 radio broadcast of Purcell's Come, ye Sons of Art, away. During the early years of his career, he concentrated on performing English Baroque and pre-Baroque composers such as Purcell and Dowland. His scholarship and musicianship brought him, international admiration.
In 1950 Alfred Deller formed his own vocal and instrumental ensemble, the Deller Consort, acting as conductor and soloist in a repertoire of early English music. The group which dedicated itself to performing early music using authentic performance practice. This unique enterprise of distinguished singers led to a modest revival of English madrigals of the Renaissance. From 1955 until 1979, they toured internationally, bringing the music of this period to a new public. They set a high standard for authentic performance practices of Baroque music, ranging from J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel through John Blow, Henry Purcell and John Dowland. In 1964, Deller's son, Mark, joined the Deller Consort, also as a counter-tenor.
Alfred Deller founded the Stour Music Festival in 1963 in order to have another venue for his Consort and to team with other early music specialists such as Frans Brüggen and Gustav Leonhardt. In 1960, he sang the role of Oberon in the premiere of Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Aldbourough Festival. This was the first important counter-tenor role in opera of the 20th century (unfortunately, he was replaced for the Garden Opera House, London performance the following year). Other composers who wrote works specifically for Deller include Fricker, Mellers, Ridout, and Rubbra.
Alfred Deller set the standard for counter-tenors for many years. His voice was very light with a wonderful lyric quality. His voice in it's prime was of a singular timbre, clear and penetrating, allied to an exquisite musicianship. One quality in Deller's singing which was often remarked upon was the fullness of his tone, unlike the piping boy-soprano sound often heard. He was most effective in the more contemplative pieces, but when necessary he was able to sing very florid pieces extremely well. Although he could sing the dramatic arias of G.F. Handel, he never allowed his voice to be pushed beyond its basically light sound. Though the G.F. Handel operas were not in fashion during the height of his career, he sang counter-tenor in many of that composer's oratorios. His expressive voice literally was the cause for the discovery of an entirely new repertoire for British concert-goers, and his hundreds of recordings are still prized by collectors. Without him, the international recognition of counter-tenor voice might not have come as quickly as it did. It is no exaggeration to say that the careers of such popular singers as Brian Asawa and David Daniels would have been impossible to realize without the pioneering work of Alfred Deller, in educating the public as to the role of the counter-tenor voice in the history of music, and also unearthing many of the musical vehicles they currently are performing.
In 1970 Alfred Deller was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He died while on vacation in Italy.
Alfred Deller's recordings cover the entire range of his repertoire from the lute songs of Dowland to Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with many stops along the way.