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Altos in Bach’s Vocal Works

Bach's altos

Bernard Sherman wrote (July 16, 1998):
John Howell writes:
< Now that brings up an interesting question. The English cathedral tradition seems quite clear: the boys were trebles, young men (countertenors) were altos. Does anyone actually know whether the same was true for bach's singers or not? The boys at the Thomaschule were not, of course, a "boy's choir" in the sense of the Vienna Choirboys or the American Boychoir. Evidence? The uniform SATB choral writing of Bach. So since university students sang the tenor and bass, did they also sing the alto? >
This is a tricky issue, and I've discussed it with various people over the years. All we know for sure about Bach's Leipzig practice is that the body of students from which he drew his singers ranged up to 23 years of age--that is, it included young men as well as boys. Thus, in principle, his altos could have been either boys or men.

Although modern performers have sometimes assumed that Bach used boys (pre-pubescent males, i.e.) to sing the alto parts in his cantatas, there is exactly no positive evidence that he did so. But is there positive evidence for his using adult male altos? Well--not really; but a couple of things suggest that possibility.

First, I find it interesting that in a 1729 memo he praises a certain 14-year-old (that is, probably pre-pubescent) named Neucke, who is listed as an alto, for having a "strong voice and quite fine proficiency"; but in the famous Entwurff from 1730, Neucke (now 15?) is listed only among the motet singers, who need more training before they are ready to sing concerted music, i.e., cantatas. Perhaps that at least suggests that the altos Bach used in cantatas were older, that is, post-pubescent. Perhaps not; it's slim evidence at best. His 1720 sentence could have just meant "quite fine proficiency for a motet singer." And, who knows, Neucke may have hit puberty earlier than the 14-year-olds who are listed as sopranos. But still.

Another reason:
Joshua Rifkin points out that the standard practice in the German courts of the time was to use adult males to sing alto (this is well documented by court payment records and the like). This applies to Weimar, so in the Weimar cantatas, Bach did use adult males on the alto lines. In the absence of any other information, we might guess that he observed this practice when he got to Leipzig, since it was (again) standard in German courts.

Conclusions:
(a) At the very least, we cannot assume that boys sang the Bach alto lines;
(b) Men are at least as likely, indeed more so.

< The answer would make considerable different to our perception of Bach's music. >
Perhaps; but (as I'm sure John would point out as well) even if Bach's altos were men, it is not at all clear that their style of tone production, declamation, or phrasing would have resembled the now-familiar style of English countertenors. To deal just with production: adult male altos in Bach's Germany may well have used more chest voice in the lower notes than today's English countertenors do. Or they may in general have been high tenors rather than simply falsettists.

Hope this helps,

 

Bach's Altos...

Brian Link wrote (March 9, 2002):
Just wanted to poke my head in this specialist newsgroup and ask a few questions.

I observe two types of "alto" written for by Bach. One a mezzo-soprano ("Erbarme Dich"), the other more of an haute-contre ("Wiederstehe, doch ihr Sunden"). The current continental tradition places alto lines in the custody of boy altos. I therefore assume that the "mezzo" alto soloist Bach had in mind was a boy, and perhaps the "haute-contre" soloist a high tenor. Does this reflect current understanding? Is there any evidence that Bach ever employed falsettists?

As a countertenor, I often find myself pressed into duty to perform Bach as a nod to "authenticity". My own understanding is that there were no falsettists in Bach's choirs, so I hope to either be proved wrong, or to at least gain a better understanding of the character of the voice I'm meant to represent.

Thanks for any info you can pass along.

Tom Hens wrote (March 9, 2002):
[To Brian Link] When Bach took up employment at the court of Weimar in 1708, he and his wife moved into an apartment in the house of Adam Immanuel Weldig, who was employed as a falsettist in the court chapel. So at least during his time in Weimar the ensemble that performed his music included at least one falsettist. During his time in Leipzig he obviously used boy altos from the Tomasschule. (There are several examples of colla parte accompaniment in soprano and alto arias in Leipzig cantatas, where an instrument simply doubles the vocal line, and none with tenor or bass arias, which points to a not-too-secure boy singer being given a bit of a helping hand.) Whether or not adult falsettists (university students, for instance) were also used isn't really known, to the best of my knowledge. My purely personal guess would be that they probably were, given Bach's frustration over the lack of singers I don't think he would have turned down any competent singer who was willing to help out.

Mark Slater wrote (March 9, 2002):
Is falsettist the right word, or boy soprano and male alto?
WILD EAGLE 1053: I am not a good speller Meteorite52: how long is it ?

Beth Diane Garfinkel wrote (March 10, 2002):
[To Mark Slater] Well, that depends. A "male alto" usualy implies an adult male singing falsette. Apparently what Bach used wsa more likely to be a pre-adolescent boy whose voice was on the low side. Some children do have alto voices. My sister did as a little girl and by and large still does, for example.

Charles Francis wrote (March 10, 2002):
[To Brian Link] Joshua Rifkin, a reputed scholar regarding Bach's vocal forces, notes that the churches at Leipzig used boys for the soprano, while boys and perhaps young falsettists were used for the alto. This provides a context for Bach's later religious works. Rifkin notes an important exception, however, in relation to Bach's B minor Mass (BWV 232), since the electoral chapel at Dresden appears to have had only adult singers, castratos and women as sopranos. However, it remains uncertain as to whether these women sang in church as well as in the opera.

Hope this helps somewhat.

Altos

Continue of discussion from: Voice Types [General Topics]

Michael Telles wrote (January 24, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] Here's a question which may may not be entirely relevant: is the "countertenor" a relatively recent phenomenon, or did Bach's age have an analogous equivalent? Is the countertenor our best attempt at a castrato sound, or are they altogether different in tone? Yoshikazu Mera knocks me out; his voice has such a strange, haunting, detached sound. Have you heard his singing on BWV 54? Unbelievable, as is BWV 161. I haven't heard any others of his particular tone.

Didn't mean to cut in on the gender conversation.

Doug Cowling wrote (January 25, 2005):
[To Michael Telles] If you thought the question of who sang "soprano' was controverted, wait till we start in on who sang "alto"!

In !8th century Germany, boys sang the alto parts. This is still the custom with boys' choirs in Germany. This is the "top-down" solution with the head tone extended downwards into the lower register. Many boys have surprisingly large voices in this register. The early Harnoncourt soloists were very interesting voices.

In England, the alto parts were sung by male altos who cultivated the head-tone after their voices changed. You can tell an English alto by asking him to sing from middle C to the G above it. They can do it two ways: one in head voice another in their normal changed voice. The arrival of the Queen Mother's casket at Westminster Hall was accompanied by the Abbey choir singing ATTB superbly.

In France, there was a special voice type the "haute-contre" or real counter-tenor. This was a tenor who extended a light tenor sound upwards without any "break" - the point around E above middle C where most men have to shift to a falsetto. It's hard to know what this voice sounded like although many contemporary counter-tenors on the opera and concert circuit have developed an ability to rise across the break without shifting gears.

In Italy, the countertenor was probably the voice type used through to the early Baroque but they were quickly replaced by castrati.

Women did not sing alto in church music except in the unique situation of Vivaldi's Pieta choir where the women sang everything -- soprano, alto, tenor AND bass! Women of course sang in opera where every voice type was encountered. There were even female coloratura altos.

The ubiquitous use of English-style altos in Bach today ignores the fact the voice type was unknown to the composer. The modern concert industry cannot accommodate chiildren. There was a hilarious incident a few years ago when the child-labour laws were tightened up in Austria, so tight in fact that the Vienna Choir Boys couldn't sing Christmas Midnight Mass for the first time in centuries!

Michael Telles wrote (January 25, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] Thank you for taking the time to answer a question that I'm sure is rudimentary. I'll be saving your response for future reference! It completely cleared things up for me.

Yoël L. Arbeitman (January 25, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote:
< In France, there was a special voice type the "haute-contre" or real counter-tenor. This was a tenor who extended a light tenor sound upwards without any "break" - the point around E above middle C where most men have to shift to a falsetto. It's hard to know what this voice sounded like although many contemporary counter-tenors on the opera and concert circuit have developed an ability to rise across the break without shifting gears. >
Marc-Antoine Charpentier was a haute-contre. Unfortunately most CDs I have in their French part use the term haute-contre for counter-tenor whilst the German mostly says Altus. Yes, occasionally pseudo-french seems to use contre-ténor.

Bradley Lehman (January 25, 2005):
< Women did not sing alto in church music except in the unique situation of Vivaldi's Pieta choir where the women sang everything -- soprano, alto, tenor AND bass! Women of course sang in opera where every voice type was encountered. There were even female coloratura altos. >
Likewise, and for similar reasons of the original performance conditions, I'm still hoping to hear an all-female performance of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" someday. The Aeneas part does go down only to tenor D, which is well within reach.

Bradley Lehman (January 25, 2005):
<< In France, there was a special voice type the "haute-contre" or real counter-tenor. >>
< Marc-Antoine Charpentier was a haute-contre. >
So were Henry Purcell and Antonio Lotti. In the latter's motet "In omni tribulatione" the way the fugal bit leads off with Lotti's own sung line reminds me of the finale of Brandenburg 4, leading off with Bach's viola. Or, viola leads in the Mozart string quartets. Who better to establish the correct mood and tempo but the composer?

 

The Bach Altos

Continue of discussion from: Cantata BWV 83 - Discussions Part 2

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 28, 2006):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< So I'd like to put a simple question to the musically wise on the list. Why chose a countertenor over a mezzo at all? Desire to reproduce any kind of "authentic" performance can't be part of the equation as boys have been shown the door by everyone since Harnoncourt finished his cycle. Are some cantatas better suited to one type of sound as opposed to another? >
My objection to the use of male altos, falsettists, counter-tenors or haute-contres in Bach is that they produce a sound completely different than that of the teenaged boy altos which sang in Bach's choirs.

The very term "altus" (=high) was assigned to adult males because they were singing in a high register and this produced a clear but highly intense sound. If we look at a work like the triple choir "Magnificat" of Gabrieli from the turn of the 17th century, we see that the layout of the voices is SSAT, SATB and ATTB. When sung by modern choirs with women as altos, the third choir sounds hopelessly mudddy because the women are singing in their lowest register. Put male altos on the line and the choir suddenly sounds as bright as the SSAT choir.

Choirs with boys on the soprano line and adult male altos has been standard in England to this day. In France, the alto line was taken by the haute-contre singers who rather than using falsetto, extended the tenor voice upwards (there are very few singers today who can recreate this technique). In Spain, male falsettists often sang both soprano and alto. In Italy, boys for the most part took the soprano line with male altos, but the castrati soon displaced both. Interestingly, the Sistine Chapel Choir did not have male altos or boys until the end of the 19th century when the final castrati died off. There is a early recording of a castrato.

In Germany (in both the Catholic and Lutheran churches) the composition of the choirs was different. Boys sang both the soprano and alto parts. We can assume that as boys entered their teens, they gradually moved to the alto line as their voices became heavier as puberty approached. Today when boys' voices are changing as early as 12 years of age, we really can't hear the sound that an older teenager would have made in Bach's choir -- Haydn's voice did not change until he was 18! I suspect that some boys were able to extend the sound of their voices beyond puberty without resorting to falsetto. This still happens with boys today who sing past the time when the rest of their bodies have moved on to other hormonal manifestations.

The "Bach Alto" was an older teenager with a rather large, baritonal-sounding voice. It was not the laser-beam intense voice of the modern counter-tenor. There are many examples of arias where the counter-tenor voice simply fights Bach's music. The most notorious example is "Es ist Vollbracht" where the voice is clearly intended to be dark like the obligato viola. The modern counter-tenor's sound is just too bright .

The logistical problem of course is that it is impossible for children to be a regular component of the professional Bach performance industry. There just aren't enough boys to go around anyway. What I object to is the fuzzy thinking that because counter-tenors sound "Ye Olde" to the general public that they should sing the music. Today, it is almost a Period Performance Commandment that counter-tenors should be used, when in fact a good argument could be made that women mezzos actually produce a sound closer to the historic Bach Alto.

Julian Mincham wrote (February 28, 2006):
This discussion brings to mind an interview (interspersed with his recordings) with Scholl on BBC radio 3---a few years ago---possibly it was one of the weekly broadcasts from Bach year. He made the point that, at moments which conveyed great spirituality, Bach often used the male alto voice. He quoted a number of examples including the well known alto arias from SMP BWV 244 and the sublime 'es ist voll-bracht' from SJP BWV 245. The C18 associations with the different voice ranges was also referred to bt J Elliot Gardiner in the recent BBC 3 Bach Christmas.

My own view is that this is one of those areas where true 'authenticity' is not possible--I would guess that Koopman's pragmatic approach might suggest that this is his position. I have heard excellent renditions of all these arias by both male and female voices--but, for my taste the female voice needs to be not too 'thick' oroverladen with vibrato as was often the case with mid C20 singers. The lighter mezzo coloratura voice can often be very effective.

But who can deny the searing beauty of a great male alto of whom Alfred Deller was surely the patriach. His recordings of the solo alto cantatas (BWV 170 and BWV 54) stand supreme even 50 years on---as do his versions of individual movements such as the Agnus Die from the Great Mass (BWV 232). I don't think that anyone has improved on the sheer musical range of vocal colour that Deller brought to these works.

(Incidentally, for Deller fans harmonia mundi brought out, in 2004 to mark 25 years since Deller's death, a 4 CD box of his work----opera and stage music, sacred song, solo song and folksong-----unfortunately no Bach though!)

Tom Hens wrote (March 1, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< My objection to the use of male altos, falsettists, counter-tenors or haute-contres in Bach is that they produce a sound completely different than that of the teenaged boy altos which sang in Bach's choirs. >
A blanket statement that Bach didn't use falsettists and only teenage boy altos is demonstrably false. When he moved to Weimar, he moved into an appartment in the house of Adam Immanuel Weldig, one of the six singers employed by the court chapel, with the job description "falsettist". (He's also the man from whom C.P.E. later got his third name.) Weldig was 41 at the time. Besides Weldig, two tenors and a bass, the chapel also employed two male "discantists", i.e. sopranos. Wolff doesn't give their years of birth, but these are all full-time adult court employees, not schoolboys. This doesn't exclude the additional use of boy sopranos and altos from the local Gymnasium, of course, but at least for the Weimar cantatas we know with absolute certainty that male falsettists must have been used for soprano and alto parts.

As to the Leipzig works, even assuming he only used singers from the Thomasschule for those parts (which I don't think can either be proven or disproven), it's quite possible that some of the older pupils in that school had moved on to singing alto, or even soprano, parts in falsetto. This is still common practice in English cathedral choirs, where trebles whose voice break often continue singing as countertenors. This avoids the long break that is usual in places where there aren't any countertenors in choirs, and boys have to wait until their voice settles down before they can sing again. Many English countertenors got started in their voice range this way.

< In France, the alto line was taken by the haute-contre singers who rather than using falsetto, extended the tenor voice upwards (there are very few singers today who can recreate this technique). >
It might be worth pointing out that just what constitutes "falsetto" or not, especially when you're trying to interpret written accounts from centuries ago, can't be established with certainty. Until very recent advances in medical technology put things on a somewhat more scientific footing, a lot of descriptions of vocal technique were (and most still are) highly subjective, and very often based on completely erroneous ideas held by both singers and listeners about what the singer is doing anatomically. The field also shows a high number of arguments from supposed authority that are endlessly repeated with great confidence, but without any factual underpinning that I can see. (I'm thinking of claims like: "Women don't have a falsetto register", which I've seen several times, never with any anatomical explanation as to what the speaker means with "falsetto", and why only male vocal tracts would be capable of doing it.)

< when in fact a good argument could be made that women mezzos actually produce a sound closer to the historic Bach Alto. >
Without any recordings of historic Bach Altos to listen to, that remains an extremely subjective opinion. I've heard some (not many) wonderful boy altos, and I wouldn't be unhappy if all alto parts in Bach were sung by voices like that. But none of them sounded in the least like any female alto I've ever heard. Just like female sopranos never sound like boy sopranos, BTW. If they did sound the same, why bother with boy singers and all the practical problems they entail in the first place?

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 1, 2006):
Tom Hens wrote:
< A blanket statement that Bach didn't use falsettists and only teenage boy altos is demonstrably false. When he moved to Weimar, he moved into an appartment in the house of Adam Immanuel Weldig, one of the six singers employed by the court chapel, with the job description "falsettist". (He's also the man from whom C.P.E. later got his third name.) Weldig was 41 at the time. Besides Weldig, two tenors and a bass, the chapel also employed two male "discantists", i.e. sopranos. >
Thanks for the correction. I still labour under the heresy that Bach's Leipzig situation was normative for all of his music.

Jeremy Vosburgh wrote (March 1, 2006):
Counter-tenors

I unfortunately don't have the large scholarly knowledge that many of you have been demonstrating the past two days. Hence, please imagine an invisible IMHO before each thing I am about to say! I do have an opinion that I thought I'd share. I vastly prefer counter-tenors, but not for any of the reasons people have been discussing. I respect the reasoning of Doug and the lexicon and literature that Thomas brings. I simply like that fact that the four parts SATB when all sung by males give entirely contrasting sounds from four versions of the same sex person. For example, you have the extremes of expression by having a man sing the very low voice of Jesus/God. You also have a male singing the high part of the Christian soul. The tenor is the most normal sounding voice and represents a commentary or narration. That leaves the alto which is by far the most interesting. The alto voice represents the holy spirit and allusions/conversations about it. To have a woman sing it would sound too much like "mother." The admittedly strange and bright sound of the counter-tenor voice is the sound that a man can make but isn't normally associated with. This removes the "sex" of the voice and makes it idealy suited to the complex personification of the holy spirit. The voice of the soul, the soprano, is also a rather difficult part to intepret for a woman. Many on this list have slammed Harny's boys as shreaking and howling off pitch. This unfortunately is true for most of them. But what I have found is that the good boys (Jelosits why did you have to grow up!) gave a naive yet dignified edge to the often naive part that the soprano represents in the soul. A women soprano interpreting the same part would end up sounding like "joan of arc" or a little girl, in her attempt to sound wishful or naive. In other words, many of the female soprano singers I've heard (especially with all the high notes Bach likes to interject at random times for emotional effect) sound plain old "emotionally unstable", while when sung by a boy sound simply what it is supposed to sound like: naive and innocent. You know that the boy will grow up some day. You're never quite sure about the female soprano.

All this being said, I prefer women to boys and counter-tenors in Bach's secular cantatas. It is only the sacred pieces where you need the contrast in voices from the same "sex" singer to exemplify the personifications of the parts they are interpreting. The problem I have with most Bach singers today (excluding tenors) is that they throw too much of their mature humanity in your face. Bach's soprano was supposed to be naively innocent. His alto was supposed to be rather removed and other worldly. His bass like Jesus himself. If those aren't tall orders, I don't know what is.

Feel free to rip these opinions apart.

John Pike wrote (March 1, 2006):
[To Julian Mincham] I agree with this very strongly. singing like that of Deller in BWV 54 and BWV 170, who cares about authenticity?

D. Kerr wrote (March 1, 2006):
[To Douglas Cowling] AGREE ! The ultimate sound for the cantatas is BOY altos. Not only teenagers, though--too often, in the past, we rejected younger boys at try-outs because they couldn't "hit the high notes". (Or, worse, we took them and forced them into the soprano range.) They were natural ALTOS--what a waste, over the years, of good musicians and good readers. I loathe the countertenor hoot (especially the British one), which destroys tambre and texture of Bach choral works...

Julian Mincham wrote (March 1, 2006):
D. Kerr writes:
< I loathe the countertenor hoot (especially the British one), which destroys tambre and texture of Bach choral works... >
A bit sweeping surely? Does this apply to Deller? I do hope not!

Julian Mincham wrote (March 1, 2006):
John Pike writes:
< I agree with this very strongly. With singing like that of Deller in BWV 54 and BWV 170, who cares about authenticity? >
I'm so grateful that I am not the only one who continues to adore Deller's performances---I was beginning to think I was!! He is still one of the very few singers who's recordings can bring tears to the eyes because of the sheer beauty of his sound and phrasing.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 1, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< A bit sweeping surely? Does this apply to Deller? I do hope not! >
Deller was a consummate interpreter and a pioneer in early music, but no can really say that he had a beautiful voice nor a dependable technique. Over and over in his recordings you hear him gasping for air and reaching for high notes that just aren't there. The Deller Consort's recording of Medieval Carols is one of my favourite recordings, but his performance for "Conditor Fut" is just embarrassing. His performance in the original recording of Britten's "Midsummer Night's Dream" is wonderful, more so because the voice can barely get the notes -- Britten reduced the orchestration after the first performance to help him. The next generation of counter-tenors such as James Bowman had much finer natural voices and had learned to use them effectively. The present generation of singers, such as Daniel Taylor, can really sing the Baroque repertoire. Alas, Deller could not.

D. Kerr wrote (March 2, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< I'm so grateful that I am not the only one who continues to adore Deller's performances---I was beginning to think I was!! He is still one of the very few singers who's recordings can bring tears to the eyes because of the sheer beauty of his sound and phrasing. >
DELLER is at his best singing "Where the bee sucks, there suck I" (sic!) For Bach, forget him!

D. Kerr wrote (March 2, 2006):
[To Douglas Cowling] ESPECIALLY TO DELLER !

Yoël L. Aebeitman wrote (March 2, 2006):
D Kerr wrote:
< DELLER is at his best singing "Where the bee sucks, there suck I" (sic!) For >
What is this, please do tell. Not all of us collect sucking songs:-).

Yoël L. Aebeitman wrote (March 2, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< I'm so grateful that I am not the only one who continues to adore Deller's performances---I was beginning to think I was!! He is still one of the very few singers who's recordings can bring tears to the eyes because of the sheer beauty of his sound and phrasing. >
Yes, having revisited this on its CD incarnation (had the LP forever), it remains impressive in the extreme, something which I cannot say about the Tippett conducted Purcell "Hail! Bright Cecilia" which I find pretty awful, Deller or no Deller.

D. Kerr wrote (March 2, 2006):
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote:
< What is this, please do tell. Not all of us collect sucking songs:-). >
Song, I believe, by Purcell--REALLY--Shakespeare text.

Yoël L. Aebeitman wrote (March 2, 2006):
[To D. Kerr] Thank you. I am sure that it is real. I was just ignorant.

D. Kerr wrote (March 2, 2006):
Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In a cowslip's bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat's back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

There's an old (MHS?) LP of Deller with this on it...

D. Kerr wrote (March 2, 2006):
Not any more ignorant than I was for writing "tambre" (EEK--AAAAARGH--must be age--or something) instead of "timbre"--surprised no one jumped at the chance to...

Raymond Jolly wrote (March 2, 2006):
[To D. Kerr] The sucking bee is Ariel (TEMPEST, V i).

John Pike wrote (March 2, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< I'm so grateful that I am not the only one who continues to adore Deller's performances---I was beginning to think I was!! He is still one of the very few singers who's recordings can bring tears to the eyes because of the sheer beauty of his sound and phrasing. >
I agree. My father has a number of old LPs with him singing in a broad repertoire and I grew up loving his voice from an early age.

I know that Brad Lehman also thinks very highly of his recording of BWV 54 and BWV 170.

John Pike wrote (March 2, 2006):
D Kerr wrote:
< DELLER is at his best singing "Where the bee sucks, there suck I" (sic!) For Bach, forget him! >
I can certainly agree with you about Deller's singing of this (and indeed many other Shakespeare songs) but, as you know, I am great admirer of his Bach in BWV 54 and BWV 170 as well.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 2, 2006):
[To John Pike] Yes, having revisited this on its CD incarnation (had the LP forever), it remains impressive in the extreme, something which I cannot say about the Tippett conducted Purcell "Hail! Bright Cecilia" which I find pretty awful, Deller or no Deller.

Santu de Silva wrote (March 2, 2006):
Suction

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote:
< What is this, please do tell. Not all of us collect sucking songs:-). >
Shakespeare's words in Tempest set to music by Arne, I believe (or maybe Purcell). Very lovely.

Julian Mincham wrote (March 2, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Deller was a consummate interpreter and a pioneer in early music, but no can really say that he had a beautiful voice nor a dependable technique. Over and over in his recordings you hear him gasping for air and reaching for high notes that just aren't there. The Deller Consort's recording of Medieval Carols is one of my favourite recordings, but his performance for "Conditor Fut" is just embarrassing. His performance in the original recording of Britten's "Midsummer Night's Dream" is wonderful, more so because the voice can barely get the notes -- Britten reduced the orchestration after the first performance to help him. The next generation of counter-tenors such as James Bowman had much finer natural voices and had learned to use them effectively. The present generation of singers, such as Daniel Taylor, can really sing the Baroque repertoire. Alas, Deller could not. >
A view with which I disagree so strongly that I am tempted to reply with passion rather than with academic restraint. Before responding to the criticism above, I revisted Deller's recordings of Bach, Purcell and folk song to see what I had been missing. Whatever it is, I am still missing it. I know that Deller fought a hard battle in the early days against academics who thought that his lack institutional/academic training made him an inferior musician, but I thought this attitude was long since dead.

I saw Deller (with Desmonde Dupre, lute) live when he was at the peak on his powers. I have seldom had the experience of being within an audience of hundreds completely tranfixed by the musicianship with one man with such a relatively small sound (Segovia, before his later decline could do it too as I also was lucky enough to experience)

However, as with so many artists if one didn't see them live one can only judge by the recordings which may or may not be a good representation of their art--but it's all we can do. I cannot see how anyone can make the sweeping claim that 'no can really say the had a beautiful voice'. Doug Cowling is entirely justified in saying that he does not find the voice to be 'beautiful" But he cannot make that claim for me--or anyone else. I continue to find it a most beautiful sound constantly enhanced by the continuously varied vocal colour which, to my ear,e ven some of the greatest singers of recent years lack. It is a matter of individual taste and judgement--but please, Mr Cowling, express you own but to not attempt to speak for the rest of us!

Re technique, true he had his faults. One can often hear him touching a high note and moving quickly away from it before it shows too much--but as often as not this is a calculated part of the phrasing and a possible weakness is turned into a strength. And he could be accused of a degree of cheating in that both BWV 170 and BWV 54 are transposed down--one a tone the other a semitone. Whilst remaining inconsistent, this is not out of line with the thinking of the time (the Bach cantatas were recorded 52 years ago) when it was generally believed that concert pitch had risen between a tone and a semitone over the centuries. (Modern scholarship has revealed a much more complicated story about the pitches used in Bach's time, often reflected in contemporary performance. Koopman's recording of BWV 170 is down a semitone and BWV 54 --with Andreas Scholl-- is actually up one semitone.)

Deller's excursions with Britten and other directors were not usually so successful the reason being that he was, by nature, an individualist who gave his best as a soloist or as the leader of a small ensemble. His voice and temperament were unsuited to Covent Garden and the large orchestral forces. (Rather like Art Tatum in an entirely different musical world, he gave of his best on his own or with minimal ensemble).

For myself I would not like to be without his versions of the cantatas although I would not want them to be the only ones. I would not wish to live without his many other excellent renditions of Purcell (ode to music, for example) and the Bach Agnus Dei. I do not believe that his technical limitations are such that they detract strongly from the beauty of phrasing and musical colouring and I find nothing in the cantata recordings that is embarrassing.

Mr Cowling has a perfect right to his opinions; but they are his ----and others will differ. I think that Aryeh's notes on Deller to be found on the website are balanced and informative.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 2, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< A view with which I disagree so strongly that I am tempted to reply with passion rather than with academic restraint. Before responding to the criticism above, I revisted Deller's recordings of Bach, Purcell and folk song to see what I had been missing. Whatever it is, I am still missing it. I know that Deller fought a hard battle in the early days against academics who thought that his lack institutional/academic training made him an inferior musician, but I thought this attitude was long since dead. >
I hope I expressed my admiration for Deller's artistry adequately in my previous posting, but I stand by my feeling that his metier was the Renaissance repertoire not the Baroque. It's interesting to compare Deller to Russell Oberlin, another pioneering counter-tenor. His famous recording of Baroque arias -- the first by a counter-tenor, I think -- shows a much more natural voice and a more consistent technique.

Yoël L. Aebeitman wrote (March 2, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< For myself I would not like to be without his versions of the cantatas although I would not want them to be the only ones. I would not wish to live without his many other excellent renditions of Purcell (ode to music, for example) and the Bach Agnus Dei. I do not believe that his technical limitations are such that they detract strongly from the beauty of phrasing and musical colouring and I find nothing in the cantata recordings that is embarrassing.
Mr Cowling has a perfect right to his opinions; but they are his ----and others will differ. I think that Aryeh's notes on Deller to be found on the website are balanced and informative. >
I am sure that on all music lists when each of us gets somewhat less than precise in his phraseology and careful choosing of his wording, he will tend to make sweeping statements.

I don't know Doug or anyone else on this list (in a way that I have come over the years to know persons on other lists, some for the worse and some for the better). However, while I am in no need of speaking for him, I am rather sure that he was expressing only his own opinion.

On lists such as this one where persons post incessantly one does not always phrase things in such a way as to say that "to my ears his sound is wanting in X or Y way".

All such judgments are very subjective. There are obviously matters in music that are objective. Did that violin come in a milli-second too late? Was the pitch lowered for singer W?

And many other matters.

However that one person is swept away by a certain interpreter and another person is not very much moved by him, this is a matter of personal "chemistry".

While I am personally deeply fond of the Deller Bach (the Agnus Dei with the two cantatas), I am even more overwhelmed by any Bach and Mahler which Hilde Rössl-Majdan did and I have found over the years on lists (Mahler, Bach, and opera) that just about nobody in the world shares my passion for this singer.

Doesn't really bother me in the least.

Recently I ran into a private recording of a German radio broadcast where she did Berlioz's Kassandra in German with Josef Traxel as the Aeneas.

Since I deem her a true contralto and not a mezzo, I did not expect much of this Funkfassung of Berlioz's huge work.

In the event I found her Kassandra magnificent as likewise I so find Traxel's Aeneas. Alas the Dido is not very interesting at all.

And so it goes. My first occasion of being flamed about music did not occur on a list. It occurred in NYC's Avery Fisher Hall when a work-mate came up to me and simply dismissed the Rössl-Majdan cantata BWV 53 recording.

As I recall (but it was so many years ago) he was enamored of the Helen Watts recording.

More to the point, is the Deller Bach CD still not available? I got it when Vanguard/ Bach Guild was having a going out of business sale on the web a few years ago. I replaced my LP of that and of whatever Vanguard Rössl-Majdan was available which, alas, did not include the C.P.E. Bach Magnificat.

The real point is that it is a privilege and a pleasure or it should be to have a few persons with whom to discuss these things. I do not believe that for most of us (who are not in Bach church choirs and related institutions) we have occasion in daily life to discuss whether we respond to Lesne or Ledroit or Deller or Rössl-Majdan and so forth (pardon the syntax there).

May Ahura Mazda allow us all our individual tastes and thus fulfill a divine purpose which often becomes one of mutual intolerance.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 3, 2006):
Yoel L. Arbeitman wrote:
< The real point is that it is a privilege and a pleasure or it should be to have a few persons with whom to discuss these things. I do not believe that for most of us (who are not in Bach church choirs and related institutions) we have occasion in daily life to discuss whether we respond to Lesne or Ledroit or Deller or Rössl-Majdan and so forth (pardon the syntax there). >
Easy to pardon the syntax (here or there), because the meaning is perfectly clear. I agree with the meaning.

< May Ahura Mazda allow us all our individual tastes and thus fulfill a divine purpose which often becomes one of mutual intolerance. >
OK, how about a little tolerance for the scholars, right or wrong (or even just aggravating)? It has only been a few years since scholars and Church were one. With precious little tolerance for creative thinking. Think Galileo, as a famous example. Then along came Luther, the Lutherans, and Bach. Soon enough, precious little tolerancbetween Lutherans and Calvinists. (Pardon the approximate history). And even less tolerance for creativity ("Hey, Sebastian, why the girl in the choir loft?"). More in coming weeks regarding Rössel-Majdan, who I know from early LPs (Scherchen on Westminster, reissued on CD, I believe). Girl in the choir loft, indeed. Not to mention Helen Watts and BWV 83 (light alto? I am not saying another word about that!).

Neil Halliday wrote (March 3, 2006):
Helen Watts in BWV 83/1 (wasThe Bach Alto)

Ed Myskowski wrote:
<<"Not to mention Helen Watts and BWV 83 (light alto? I am not saying another word about that!)">>.
I might be missing something, but I wish you would enlarge on this!

I normally find Helen Watts' vibrato to be distracting, in the Rilling cycle; but in this piece she seems to complement the strong instrumentation - a violin concerto fortified with oboes and horns - in a pleasing, or at least tolerable, fashion (and I notice John Pike shares this view). Even when I turn the volume up, as I believe is necessary for this cantata, on this CD, she remains in good balance with the orchestra (whereas Arleen Auger blasts me out of the room - on some high notes - if I leave the volume setting unchanged, for the next cantata).

Her biography at the BCW lists her as a contralto/mezzo soprano, successfully singing Bach arias under direction of Malcom Sargent; she has also sung in Wagner's operas, which I would have thought were more suitable for her voice, but I have limited knowledge of such matters.

Possibly she was past her prime during her recordings with Rilling.

Robert Sherman wrote (March 3, 2006):
[To Ed Myskowski] Interesting all the recent discussion of Helen Watts. I had regarded her as kind of a female Gwynne Howell -- a place-filler soloist who gets the notes OK but doesn't do anything memorable with the music. -- not in the league with Baker, von Otter, or Minton. But as I re-listen to her baroque stuff more recently, I become increasingly impressed.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 3, 2006):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< I normally find Helen Watts' vibrato to be distracting, in the Rilling cycle; but in this piece she seems to complement the strong instrumentation - a violin concerto fortified with oboes and horns - in a pleasing, or at least tolerable, fashion (and I notice John Pike shares this view). >
The old recording of Watts singing "Widerstehe" is one of my all-time favourite Bach recordings. I can't listen to her "Schlage Doch" without tearing up. It's the wrong voice and the interpretation is very old-fashioned, but her artistry is incomparable. I feel the same way about the Klemperer SMP (BWV 244) and the Beecham "Messiah" -- I love hearing Jon Vickers rip the hell out of "Every Valley" and the crash cymbals in the "Hallelujah Chorus" never fail to thrill. It's all so wrong and un-Baroque, but the Wagnerian in me keeps these performances very dear.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 3, 2006):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
<<"Not to mention Helen Watts and BWV 83 (light alto? I am not saying another word about that!)">>.
Neil Halliday wrote:
< I might be missing something, but I wish you would enlarge on this! >
Sorry for any confusion. I was just making a joke as a follow-up to a previous post. I think this particular recording (Rilling BWV 83/1 with Watts) is wonderful, an example of an excellent alto at the opposite end of the style spectrum from the boy altos (also potentially excellent) so much under discussion. Now I really am not saying another word about that!

Jeremy Vosburgh wrote (March 3, 2006):
Majdan & Question

I'm glad Yoel and Ed mentioned Hilde yesterday.

She is one of the very few woman altos who has convincing sung sacred Bach in a period attempt imho (I know that seems like a contradiction in terms). I never warmed to Watts' interpretations although I greatly respect her technical ability and voice in general. That being said; I recently went on a rant about how I always prefer counter-tenors because of the greater apparent contrast in voices due to the same sex of all the singers. I must now make an exception for solo cantatas where this is not a factor. Especially with BWV 53 which is not even a Bach cantata and is very much an occasional piece.

Another note: can someone tell me why with all the professional recordings of BWV 53 there is not one that uses real bells? To me this is a travesty! I don't know if any of you are pyromaniacs, but I imagine I get a similar feeling when I think about large bells! Lets all petition Suzuki to not skip BWV 53 and use real bells when he does.

Can someone tell me once and for all: did bach use boy altos or late teen altos or full grown counter-tenors or some mixture? Somehow on this list, we seem to go on the subject again and again without actually nailing the truth down. Bach taught students in Leipzig. Isn't there a roll somewhere with the age and voice parts that everyone sung? How is it that we still don't seem to know today how many singers were present when the cantatas were sung. I seem to remember a description of one of his performances of the Matthew passion which described the two choirs being greatly physically separated and the evangelist and Jesus being the only soloists who were separated from the choir. If we are able to have this great detail about one performance of Bach's, why don't we seem to agree on how many singers he had per part, etc.?

Continue of this part of the discussion, see: Non-Bach Cantatas - Discussions Part 3

Julian Mincham wrote (March 3, 2006):
aesthetic opinions

[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] I agree with much that you say except that I do not think that all aesthetic discussion is a matter of personal opinion. Matters of technique are frequently matters of fact--notes and rhythms may be contrary to what the composer is known to have written and this is surely, not a matter of opinion.

However there is also, I feel, a more interesting 'grey area' in the matter of interpretation. Some years ago I met a man who told me that he preferred to play most of his Baroque 33 LPs at 45 RPM. He liked the quicker tempi and the brighter sounds. Admittedly this was at a time when many baroque tempi were slow and plodding; nevertheless it seemed an unacceptable distortion of the music, presenting it at the wrong pitch, with the wrong instrumental sounds etc etc.

This is a problem which occurs in many ways and at many levels. Doug Cowling writes

I always try to fight against the bloated Romantic style which passes for Bach in many church choirs

A sentiment with which I wholly concur. The 'authentic' movements of the last 4 decades have, in part, been attempts to throw off the Romantic sediment (hooray to that) and, as Eric has already articulated, to try to find out what the composer may actually have sought for and heard---an admirable objective which still leaves room for a wide latitude of opinion as this web site testifies. But what sort of 'romantic' interpretation is simply a matter of taste, and what is such a gross distortion that it goes beyond personal taste? e.g. what of the early Stokowski transcriptions, the performances of which were sometimes so varied in tempo and rhythmically distorted as to be (in my opinion) unlistenable. I have heard the view expressed that they are great because they express the spirit of their age---which is fine if they are treated as a kind of social document but I do not think that they express the spirit of the composer.Nor do I think that they do due service to the music.But to what extent is this simply a matter of my opinion (which, of course it is) and to what extent is it a more or less universally accepted cultural view of the nature of the music? (Also, what does this say about contemporary culture and the very different views we have of Bach's music as opposed to those of 70 years ago?)

So I wousuggest that there is a line to be drawn between what is legitimately a matter of individual taste and opinion and that which is incorrect or so bizzarely distorted as to be virtually beyond taste. Of course the line is never fixed and there is a grey area around it which invites further argument and discussion.

Further to this, I'd like to add a word about kind of provocative statement designed (I assume) to stimulate reponse(as when Doug Cowling stated of Deller that no-one can say that he had a beautiful voice). This is demonstrably untrue because many people do feel it to be beautiful. As a statement of individual taste a dislike of the voice is unassailable, as a provocative statement aimed at provoking opinion it is a perfectly good stimulant. But if it is intended as an assertion of fact or an opinion which has universal acceptance (i.e. the expert has pontificated so it must be true) then it needs to be challenged.

Clearly, any discussion of aethetic matters involves emotion and individual viewpoint, and perhaps because of this very fact we need to be careful and as precise as possible in the mode of expression of our opinions.

One of the pleasures of this forum of discussion however is the wide range of backgrounds and experience of the listeners and contributors. I just have this niggling concern that some expressions of 'personal taste' range beyond that of avowed personal opinion. (But that is just my personal opinion!!)

But hey ho---it still forms a basis for continuing and stimulating argument and discussion.

Ralph Johansen wrote (March 4, 2006):
Doug Cowling wrote:
< I hope I expressed my admiration for Deller's artistry adequately in my previous posting, but I stand by my feeling that his metier was the Renaissance repertoire not the Baroque. It's interesting to compare Deller to Russell Oberlin, another pioneering counter-tenor. His famous recording of Baroque arias -- the first by a counter-tenor, I think -- shows a much more natural voice and a more consistent technique. >
A lurker lured out by Doug Cowling's observations sufficiently to say that I agree with what he says here, about both Deller and Oberlin, and I also agree that personally it would be difficult to think of Deller's voice as beautiful. To me many of his phrases were, to search for an expression, gulped or swallowed in a way that I did not find pleasing, except for the pleasure of hearing his repertoire and his accomplished stylistic renderings. I have recordings of his Purcell, English folk songs and other Renaissance and Elizabethan works, but I don't think I have anything of his performances of Bach's compositions. Counter-tenors like Oberlin and Scholl come across much more naturally, to my taste.

I gather it is formal etiquette to introduce myself on first appearance. I have only recently signed on to the list. I am retired and living on Mauii, half way up Haleakala volcano. I have a lifelong love of Bach's music, having been from the age of 8 a member of a boys' and mens' choir at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in St. Paul, where my father was the baritone soloist and the organist and director was a Canadian, George Herbert Fairclough, FAGO.

I have other than that little or no formal training, although I am a fairly competent sight reader. I have sung the B Minor Bass several times with different San Francisco groups, as well as the Magnificat, Christmas and Easter oratorios and many cantatas. I also have a quite extensive collection of Bach's works, vocal and instrumental, on LP and CD. My first exposure to critical reviews of music were the writings of Irving Kolodin, Harold Schonberg, and writers in the American Record Guide.

I thoroughly enjoy the exchanges here and Aryeh Oron's exhaustive compilations - and with this I will return to my perch and continue to read others' informed and interesting offerings.

Ralph Johansen wrote (March 4, 2006):
< While I am personally deeply fond of the Deller Bach (the Agnus Dei with the two cantatas), I am even more overwhelmed by any Bach and Mahler which Hilde R?ssl-Majdan did and I have found over the years on lists (Mahler, Bach, and opera) that just about nobody in the world shares my passion for this singer.>
Can't remain quiet about this either. I fully agree about Rössl-Majdan. I think her performance on Cantata 106, in the duet with Poell under Scherchen, like most of her performances, is serene, sublime and unforgettable.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 4, 2006):
Rössl-Majdan

Jeremy Vosburgh wrote:
< She is one of the very few woman altos who has convincing sung sacred Bach in a period attempt imho (I know that seems like a contradiction in terms). I never warmed to Watts' interpretations although I greatly respect her technical ability and voice in general. That being said; I recently went on a rant about how I always prefer counter-tenors because of the greater apparent contrast in voices due to the same sex of all the singers. I must now make an exception for solo cantatas where this is not a factor. Especially with BWV 53 which is not even a Bach cantata and is very much an occasional piece. >
[To Jeremy Vosburgh and Ralph Johansen] Cantata BWV 53, when it was still by Bach, was the first place I heard Hilde Rössl-Majdan when NYC's mad DJ Bill Watson played it over and over again one night in the wee hours in the morning. This was in the early 1960s, early years of that decade.

There are many great singers I appreciate both in Bach and elsewhere. In baroque some of these are counter-tenors and some are (oh, my sin!) females. There are many of either gender whom I don't appreciate. I have no firm doctrinal opinion on this matter. I do know that R-M pretty much kills me in both Bach and Mahler and try the recording of Weber's Euryanthe on Gala (a very cheap label). This is from 1949 and she is simply wild.

Ralph Johansen wrote:
< Can't remain quiet about this either. I fully agree about Rossl-Majdan. I think her performance on Cantata 106, in the duet with Poell under Scherchen, like most of her performances, is serene, sublime and unforgettable. >
All the CANTATA performances with Scherchen are now happily easily available from Archipel and the transfers are simply stunning. Two of them are at Berkshire. The other two I had to go to Norbert and Peters for.

The Matthäus-Passion with Scherchen is hard to find on CD and I spent a long time getting a copy. I never owned it on LPs.

The Johannes-Passion under a conductor that nobody knows, issued on Remington LPs, I have never been able to find in any format, LPs, Tape, CDs, etc. That is a shame. We all know that a Passion takes more than one singer but for all that I do want to find this.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 4, 2006):
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote:
< She is one of the very few woman altos who has convincing sung sacred Bach in a period attempt >
By coincidence, I am listening to the alto aria from my old Westminster LP of BWV 76 (spelled Roessel-Majdan there, sorry) as I scan the mail. Truly inspiring voice. I have had this LP for many years, but never listened to it with proper respect until now. Discussion brings it out. Which was your point, Yoel, from an earlier post. A joy to have a place to share the enjoyment!

Maybe I mixed up Jeremy's post with Yoel's. No matter. Denada.

Tom Hens wrote (March 4, 2006):
Majdan & Question

Jeremy Vosburgh wrote:
< Can someone tell me once and for all: did bach use boy altos or late teen altos or full grown counter-tenors or some mixture? >
Yes. Definitely.

< Bach taught students in Leipzig. Isn't there a roll somewhere with the age and voice parts that everyone sung? >
No.

< How is it that we still don't seem to know today how many singers were present when the cantatas were sung. >
Because it happened a long time ago, and no videotape survives.

< I seem to remember a description of one of his performances of the Matthew passion which described the two choirs being greatly physically separated and the evangelist and Jesus being the only soloists who were separated from the choir. If weare able to have this great detail about one performance of Bach's, >
We aren't. If such a contemporary description existed, it would be quoted in full in every book about Bach.

Richard Raymond wrote (March 4, 2006):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< She is one of the very few woman altos who has convincing sung sacred >
Sorry but I do not agree with most of the judgements about Cantata BWV 53 and Rössl -Majdan. I think that the music (by Hoffmann or Stölzel) is very poor, those bells are ridiculous and the harmony is primitive.. The voice of Roessel-Majdan lacks harmonics and she is out of pitch on higher notes. I do prefer Maureen Forrester...

 

Old discussion

Ed Myskowski wrote (October 11, 2006):
Back in the Spring, I responded to a note which said, approximately:
<It is well know that Soprano = soul, Alto = Holy Ghost (Spirit, or Geist), Tenor = narrator, or similar, and Bass (or Baritone) = Jesus, the Savior.>

I asked for the original reference, without response, at the time. Now I am already unable to recover either the post or my question, via search, so much for the marvels of technology (or my lack of skills) .

I am able to remember, by the ancient but still functioning organic brain cell method, the open question. In the notes to Herreweghe, <Cantates pour Alto>, BWV 35, BWV 54, BWV 170, German original by Thomas Seedorf, Eng. trans. by Derek Yeld, typographic errors by Harmonia Mundi (presumably):

In his collection of sermons,und Saitenspiel" (sic) (Coburg, 1676), the theologian Theodor Schneider writes, "The Bass is appointed / that was the belief / to be seen by JESUS / who is the basis and foundation of our salvation; you descants [trebles, sopranos] soar on high / and thus / let your prayers penetrate the clouds / and do not cease / until you reach the Almighty Trinity; see / they open up the roof on high and set poor man down before the feet of the Lord JESUS; the Holy Ghost himself bore the Alto(s) and caused them / if not with their mouths / yet with their hearts: JESUS / you Son of David / have mercy on us!". The alto was accordingly regarded as the voice of the Holy Ghost which can manifest itself in mankind in various ways.

As best I can tell, the typographic error (where I inserted sic) is not critical to the meaning, but does omit most of the full title of Schneider's cited work, der Predigsammlung: "Das Lieblich-klingende Orgein und Saitspiel".

The final sentence quoted: <The alto ...various ways.> is appropriately fuzzy, not to say Ghostly. Or blame it on the translator.

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 11, 2006):
Ed myskowski wrote:
>>The alto was accordingly regarded as the voice of the Holy Ghost which can manifest itself in mankind in various ways.<<
>>The final sentence quoted: <The alto ...various ways.> is appropriately fuzzy, not to say Ghostly. Or blame it on the translator.<<
Let's blame it on the translator. "Voice" has not been properly defined here. It is left to the reader to make the usual modern assumption that "Voice" here means a "singer who sings the alto part", but the context of this quotation is extracted from a sermon explicitly directed at and focused upon "organs and string instruments". This is no specific mention of the human voice except that, as we know, these instruments imitated singing and also had specific ranges similar to human voices. Throughout the 17th century and even as late as during Bach's tenure in Leipzig, instruments of the same type with varying ranges were grouped into 'choirs', the same word that was also used for such an assemblage of human voices.

My reconstruction of the German reference is:

>>der [perhaps a preposition like 'aus' is missing here] Predigtsammlung: "Das Lieblich=klingende Orgeln und Saitenspiel" (Coburg, 1676) von Theodor Schneider<< ("From the collection of sermons (Coburg, 1676) by Theodor Schneider, there is one sermon entitled ,The Pleasant-Sounding Music Played by Organs and String Instruments'").

In attempting to correct the title without having the original reference before me (some words may indeed have been spelled as you gave them or even differently with regional dialect forms of which I am not aware), I have come to the conclusion that Schneider is not referring to human voices at all but rather to 'voices' in instrumental choirs and/or organ, the former may have consisted of viols, lutes, other string instruments (violins, violas, violoncellos).

Historically in the 16th and 17th century, and this may be the reason why Schneider chose this analogy, the alto part was the last part to be composed after the other three standard parts (STB) had been completed. Similarly perhaps the Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit was the last of the Trinity to appear to the disciples (and to mankind), hence the connection of alto part with the Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit. This may truly be an interesting conceit on the part of Theodor Schneider, but I do not think that this belongs in the same category as "the bass singer often is the 'vox Christi', the tenor singer often plays the role of the Evangelist, and the soprano singer sometimes represents the human soul."

Any other thoughts on this?

Douglas Cowling wrote (October 11, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Historically in the 16th and 17th century, and this > may be the reason why Schneider chose this analogy, the alto part was the last part to be composed after the other three standard parts (STB) had been completed. >
Do you have a source for this?

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 11, 2006):
Douglas Cowling asked:
>>Do you have a source for this?<<
Kurt Gudewill's article on "Alto" in the MGG1.

In the middle of the 16th century in Germany, when more and more 4-pt. compositions were being made and even more in 5-pt. writing where the alto was the 'vagans' filling in the missing gaps/intervals left behind by the other voices, the alto was "die letzterfundene Stimme" ("the last-to-be-composed voice/part").

Ed Myskowski wrote (October 12, 2006):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
<>
< In attempting to correct the title without having the original reference before me (some words may indeed have been spelled as you gave them or even differently with regional dialect forms of which I am not aware), I have come to the conclusion that Schneider is not referring to human voices at all but rather to ëvoicesí in instrumental choirs and/or organ, the former may have consisted of viols, lutes, other string instruments (violins, violas, violoncellos). >
Reply:

Sorry for the difficulties in keeping the details straight. The booklet notes to Herreweghe's <Cantates pour alto> are in fact written in German by Thomas Seedorf, with English and French translation provided. I cited from the English translation, but went to the German to get the full title of Schneider, because of the typographic lapse in the English text. So the Schneider title I cited is indeed the German, as provided by Seedorf.

It is a bit of a chore for me to transcribe German text, but I can do so for Schneider as cited by Seedorf, if that would be helpful. Let me know. I will leave it to you and the other German speakers and musicians to discuss the fine points, but your suggestion is intriguing.

I believe the original post which initiated my the question was near March 2006. I did a BCW search for <alto "holy ghost">, which returned 22 hits. For some reason I can access only the first three, none of which are the one. In any case, I don't believe the earlier 2006 post was supported other than by the phrase <as is well known>, or similar.

Not a major point, I suppose, but now is as good a time as any to return to the question: why is it well known? And to add the question, is it well know correctly?

Thomas Seedorf appears to be a reputable scholar of vocal performance, including Bach. Perhaps the Schneider connection is his discovery?

An amusing sidelight on translations, literal versus accurate. The best looking page on Seedorf is in German, so I gave the Google <translate this page> function a try. Thomas sea-town hamany publications on the compositions of brook. Can't be faulted for lack of precision.

Chris Rowson wrote (October 12, 2006):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< An amusing sidelight on translations, literal versus accurate. The best looking page on Seedorf is in German, so I gave the Google <translate this page> function a try. Thomas sea-town has many publications on the compositions of brook. Can't be faulted for lack of precision. >
Comment:

I´m afraid I have to dissent here: the German word "See" is generally more accurately translated as "lake". The German word corresponding to the English "sea" is generally "Meer". So "Thomas Laketown" please! Or since "Dorf" is really more of a village, maybe "Thomas Lakeville".

Otherwise, I have to say that I will be travelling for the next couple of weeks and unable to contribute here. I have been trying to look at BWV 180, particularly the flute parts, but haven´t been able to finish catching up with the existing materials.

Oh well, maybe next time.

Raymond Joly wrote (October 12, 2006):
[To Chris Rowson] Die See (fem.) is the sea, der See (masc.) is a lake. Everyday German today.
Was it always so?
Raymond Joly, in a hotel in Brussels.

Ed Myskowski wrote (October 12, 2006):
Bach and altos [was Old discussion]

I recently wrote (Oct. 10, 2006):
>>Back in the Spring, I responded to a note which said, approximately:
<It is well know that Soprano = soul, Alto = Holy Ghost (Spirit, or Geist), Tenor = narrator, or similar, and Bass (or Baritone) = Jesus, the Savior.>
I asked for the original reference, without response, at the time. Now I am already unable to recover either the post or my question, via search, so much for the marvels of technology (or my lack of skills).<<

With a bit (and only a bit, I emphasize) of additional effort, I have recovered the following, filed in the lengthy <Bach and Altos> thread.

Jeremy Vosburgh wrote (March 1, 2006):
Counter-tenors
>>I simply like that fact that the four parts SATB when all sung by males give entirely contrasting sounds from four versions of the same sex person. For example, you have the extremes of expression by having a man sing the very low voice of Jesus/God. You also have a male singing the high part of the Christian soul. The tenor is the most normal sounding voice and represents a commentary or narration. That leaves the alto which is by far the most interesting. The alto voice represents the holy spirit and allusions/conversations about it. To have a woman sing it would sound too much like "mother."<<

I am repeating all this without my characteristic attempts at brevity for two reasons:

(1) Apologies for attributing my presumption <it is well known> to Jeremy. He simply states it as if it were fact.

(2) The quest for the source interested me at the time, and since it was unanswered, continues to be of interest as a pending question (one of many thousands).

The reference to Schneider, cited by Thomas Seedorf in the booklet notes to Herreweghe's <Cantates pour alto> looks like a reasonable attempt at a source, and Tom Braatz' question as to whether the reference is to vocal or instrumental voices (or ranges) seems valid, as well. Worth pursuing, to my mind. I have no expertise to add, but can always apply a bit of common sense and the occasional reference.

Chris Rowson wrote (Oct. 11, 2006) on this thread:
The German word corresponding to the English "sea" is generally "Meer". So >>"Thomas Laketown" please! Or since "Dorf" is really more of a village, maybe "Thomas Lakeville".<<

The point I laughed at most about the translation program was how all German nouns, even proper names (Bach or Seedorf) were automatically translated and converted to lower case (brook or sea-town). Perhaps even more precisely, lakeville. Or perhaps not.

Final word for the moment to <Raymond Joly, in a hotel in Brussels.>
(Oct. 12, 2006)
>>Die See (fem.) is the sea, der See (masc.) is a lake. Everyday German today.
Was it always so?<<

Tom Hens wrote (October 19, 2006):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< An amusing sidelight on translations, literal versus accurate. >
There is no such versus thing. There are good translations and bad translations, not "literal" ones vs. "accurate" ones. Just because on this list one prolific contributor likes to label his short essays expounding his idiosyncratic personal views, based on free association from small snippets of eighteenth-century German texts, "translations" doesn't mean the rest of us have to go along with this abuse of the term. Or with the absurd notion that the only alternative to his creative prose, which can easily be twice the length of the texts he's supposedly "translating", are computer-generated non-translations, which he labels "literal translations".

< The best looking page on Seedorf is in German, so I gave the Google <translate this page> function a try. Thomas sea-town has many publications on the compositions of brook. Can't be faulted for lack of precision. >
Yes, it can, because it isn't precise at all, and it isn't even a translation. The Google "translate" function, if I'm not mistaken, is a reincarnation of what used to be called Babelfish, which in turn is an on-line reincarnation of the ancient Systran program. It never worked, but somehow, they've managed to keep on selling this non-functional piece of crap for decades. (If I'm mistaken, and the Google "translate" function is based on an entirely different piece of crap, I apologise to the owners of the Systran piece of crap.)

Years ago, just for fun I ran the English text of a web page I'd written through Babelfish into several languages, and then from the purported destination language back into English. Just going from English to German managed to turn the simple phrase "fan effort", as in "this page is purely a fan effort" into the magnificent German neologism "Ventilatorbemühung". It still makes me chuckle. Going from English to French and back again managed to turn the simple phrase "Chad's address" into "the house of the confetti". I thought this was both mysterious and hilarious. It wasn't until years later, when the Florida election farce happened, that I realized just how, somewhere from the depths of Systran, the word "confetti" might have emerged as a substitution for the name "Chad" -- that particular obscure American meaning of "chad" to mean a small piece of paper was unknown to me until then.

The reasons why computer-generated "translation" cannot possibly, ever, work, unless you create a computer program that has the same understanding of the world a human being does, were already accurately formulated by Yehoshuah Bar-Hillel in 1964. Bar-Hillel wasn't just some philosopher throwing up abstract objections, but probably the world's first scientist working full-time on computer translation. But somehow, people keep on making money off this crazy idea. (I'm sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.)

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 19, 2006):
Tom Hens wrote:
>>Just because on this list one prolific contributor likes to label his short essays expounding his idiosyncratic personal views, based on free association from small snippets of eighteenth-century German texts, "translations" doesn't mean the rest of us have to go along with this abuse of the term. Or with the absurd notion that the only alternative to his creative prose,which can easily be twice the length of the texts he's supposedly "translating", are computer-generated non-translations, which he labels "literal translations".<<
I, and I am certain that there are many others, await with eager interest some of your succinct "translations" of 18th-century German texts, many of which I have shared in the original German for direct comparison. Most of these quotations from original sources are available on the BCW. Choose any one of them that has not yet been translated into English (or where you believe that I had translated incorrectly) and give us a demonstration of what you mean by a good translation which helps a reader truly understand what German 18th-century writers were likely trying to say.

 

Adult male altos in Germany at the time of Bach?

Teri Noel Towe wrote (July 24, 2007):
In an editorial in the current issue of Classic Record Collector, Tully Potter, its distinguished and knowledgeable editor writes:

When I was already planning this piece, a CRC writer said to me, unprompted: ‘I don’t know of any evidence for adult male altos in Germany at the time of Bach.’ Quite so. Yet it is getting difficult to find a Bach choral recording without a countertenor soloist hooting away. Last year a reductio ad absurdum was reached when an ‘authentic’ recording of the Christmas Oratorio used a male alto.
http://www.classicrecordcollector.com/Editorial.asp

I may thrive on "anachronistic" performances, but somehow or other, I find this allegation a bit too strong, but I also am the first to admit that I am not a specialist in this musicological area. For that reason, I am sending this quote out to some appropriate discussion lists and musicologically knowledgeable individuals in the hope that we can either confirm or refute Tully's contention.

John Wall wrote (July 24, 2007):
[To Teri Noel Towe] Adult male falsettists certainly were well-established performers of church music in Germany as late as the early 18th Century. See the following excerpts from Kerala Snyder's book, Buxtehude, Organist in Lübeck:

All of Buxtehude's vocal solists, including the singers of his soprano parts, appear to have been men. The more usual singers of soprano parts -- boys, castrati, and women -- were not readily available to him. The choirboys were reponsible to the cantor. There were no Italian castrati residing in Lübeck, although a visiting castrato did sing in St. Mary's on Easter Sunday of 1672, duly note in the account book. Female sopranos were not permitted to perform in church. Male falsettists cultivated the soprano range to a much greater extent in the seventeenth century than they do today, however. . . . The practice extended well into the eighteenth century; Walther's definition of 'Cammer-Ton' includes the information that performance at lower pitch was chiefly for the sake of adult Sopranisten, who do not command such a high range, and Johann Petri tells of a Sopranist -- not a castrato -- whose falsetto range extended to f'''.

The principal singer of Buxtehude's soprano parts in Lübeck must have been Hans Iwe, the versatile municipal musician who assisted Buxtehude at the large organ from 1674 until his death in 1692. Iwe is most often listed in the pay records as a Sopranist, although he appears once as a Violist. In 1677, a second sopranist, Johann Albrecht Schop, was paid for the year. The participation of boy sopranos from St. Catherine's school in Lübeck cannot be ruled out, of course, and in Stockholm the soprano parts were regularly sung by boys. The range of Buxtehude's soprano parts is not particularly high; approximately half of both the first and second soprano parts extend only to g''. The highest pitch encountered is one b'' in BuxWV 80. Since this work would have been performed in Chorton at St. Mary's, this high note corresponds to c-sharp'' at modern pitch of a' = 440, still well below the top notes of Petri's sopranists.

[pages 370-371]

---

Further on Hans Iwe, he wrote in his initial application that "... I do not hesitate to play violin, viola da gamba, violone, all manner of woodwinds, cornetto, dulcian, trombone, bass trombone and flutes in a suitable manner; also if necessary I can serve with keyboard and vocal music." (p. 51). He was also a composer. (p. 52).

Snyder, Buxtehude, Organist in Lübeck. University of Rochester Press. 2d edition 2007.

On a related issue, I wonder if anyone could furnish information about the introduction of women singers in German churches. In his liner notes for the Hungaroton recording of Telemann's Brockes Passion, Telemann authority Carsten Lange speculates that the cast at the 1716 inaugural performances in Frankfurt may have included two famous sopranos, Margaretha Susanna Kayser and Anna Maria Schober, as well as the alto castrato Antonio Campioli.

 

Alto lines

Anne (Nessie) Russell wrote (November 7, 2009):
In dulci jubilo BWV 751

This is not a major Bach event, but it concerns a group member. I bought Doug Cowling's choral arrangement of In dulci jubilo for my community choir. We had our first practice this morning. It sounds wonderful. I highly recommend this to choir leaders.

Verse 2 gives the men a chance to shine. Also in verse 2 there is a spot for the poor altos to be in the spotlight. I say "poor altos" because I used to sing alto. Alto lines are notoriously boring.

Best of all - it is easy to sing and sounds wonderful. I heard good things from the choir members. Trust me - if there was anything bad to say about it- I would have hear that!

This is a great anthem. Good work Doug.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 7, 2009):
Anne (Nessie) Russell wrote:
< I bought Doug Cowling's choral arrangement of In dulci jubilo for my community choir. >
Wait till you hear "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" on a clarinet!

Thanks.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 8, 2009):
Anne (Nessie) Russell wrote:
< I say "poor altos" because I used to sing alto. Alto lines are notoriously boring. >
Douglas Cowling replied:
< Wait till you hear "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" on a clarinet! >
Douglas Cowling also wrote, re BWV 154:
< The chorale, "Jesu, mein Hort" is the 4/4 version of the chorale which in its 3/4 version will become so famous as "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" -- Bach's most frequently performed choral movement. >
My hermeneutic clarinet is at the ready. Just let me know if you want Trinity or Cross.

Apologies for snipping the thread a bit too aggressively. I wanted to say, re the notoriously boring alto lines: If all else fails, try more vibrato.

Julian Mincham wrote (November 8, 2009):
alto lines OT

Ed Myskowski wrote:
< Apologies for snipping the thread a bit too aggressively. I wanted to say, re the notoriously boring alto lines: If all else fails, try more vibrato. >
Can't resist--know the old one about how to get a viola player to do a rapid vibrato?? give him a long note and write 'solo' above it.

Might work for an alto too??

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 8, 2009):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< Can't resist--know the old one about how to get a viola player to do a rapid vibrato?? give him a long note and write 'solo' above it. >
I wrote a theatre piece for actors and symphony orchestra called "Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery"which dramatized the life of Vivaldi. After several performances, word came back that the viola sections did not appreciate the jokes at their expense which I had used in the script. I switched the jokes to the bassoons and there were no more complaints.

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 8, 2009):
[To Anne (Nessie) Russell] I have to disagree on the point of alto lines being boring!

I have sung as alto in our choir in some 40 Bach's cantatas now (+ motets), and I have never found them boring - but often difficult and sometimes not melodic at all, I agree on that.

On the other hand, our artistic director tries not to have in the same concert two cantatas where the sopranos have the cantus firmus because they would find it boring! (I would also...)

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 8, 2009):
Thérèse Hanquet wrote:
< I have to disagree on the point of alto lines being boring! >
Yes, my voice nearly jumped into the alto range when I read Annes post. Fortunately, I bit my tongue (or sat on my hands), other than a bit of wit, and waitedfor a genuine alto to rise to the defense. Thanks, and nice to hear from you. Makes me think about going out for a local Belgian ale, I will do just that!

Anne (Nessie) Russell wrote (November 9, 2009):
Thérèse Hanquet wrote:
< I have to disagree on the point of alto lines being boring!
I have sung as alto in our choir in some 40 Bach's cantatas now (+ motets), and I have never found them boring >
I have never been involved with a choir good enough to sing Bach Cantatas. Few (if any) people harmonize as well as he did. I certainly did not mean that Bach wrote boring lines for anyone. Since this is a Bach Cantatas list I can see how you thought that was what I meant.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 9, 2009):
Music for alto [was: BWV 751]

Anne (Nessie) Russell wrote:
< I have never been involved with a choir good enough to sing Bach Cantatas. Few (if any) people harmonize as well as he did. >
Thank you for being so gracious, it is always soothing when some of you ladies join in! Also, thank you for providing an opening for me to share a few on-topic anecedotes. On-topic or not, I will strive to be concise.

A few years ago, John Harbison provided a very informative and witty introductory lecture to a Cantata Singers (Boston) performance of his work, <But Mary Stood>, on the same program with the Motet, BWV 227. He began by saying:
<I am going to talk to you about two works, one of which I wrote, and one of which I did not, not even in my wildest dreams.>

That was the same lecture where John subsequently noted that Bachs music always becomes snake-like when the text mentions Satan, or the Pope! Which remark I have shared previously on BCML, with the promise that I would try to substantiate it. I recently had the opportunity to give John a chance to retract or soften that statement, but he smiled and chuckled, in confirmation. The occasion was the Boston premier (Sep. 25, 2009) of his new work <The Seven Ages>, setting poems of Louise Gluck, jointly commissioned by Boston Musica Viva and performed by them, accompanying alto (OK, officially mezzo-sop.) Pamela Dellal. A moving performance (great writing for alto!), and poetry worth seeking out, as well, if you are of such a mind.

Lorraine Hunt (Lieberson)'s career blossomed with Bostons Emmanuel Music. She began her musical life as a viola player, then became a mezzo-soprano (singing alto roles), ultimately simply dropping the mezzo from her voice description. She always expressed a fondness for the inner lines, violan and/or alto.

Hang in there, altos!

Evan Cortens wrote (November 9, 2009):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< Lorraine Hunt (Lieberson)'s career blossomed with Bostons Emmanuel Music. She began her musical life as a viola player, then became a mezzo-soprano (singing alto roles), ultimately simply dropping the mezzo from her voice description. She always expressed a fondness for the inner lines, violan and/or alto. >
While on this topic, it seems fitting to mention that, in his letter to Forkel, his father's first biographer, C.P.E. Bach said the following:

"He [J. S. B.] heard the slightest wrong note even in the largest combinations. As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness." [NBR, p. 397]

It's also worth noting that when the Vanhal, Dittersdorf, Haydn and Mozart got together to play string quartets, it was Mozart who played the viola. [for easy reference, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haydn_and_Mozart#Playing_chamber_music ]

Interesting!

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 9, 2009):
Thérèse Hanquet wrote:
< On the other hand, our artistic director tries not to have in the same concert two cantatas where the sopranos have the cantus firmus because they would find it boring! >
Try being a second tenor and sing the 16th century music of Sheppard, White and Taverner. Beautiful but mind-numbing!

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 9, 2009):
Evan Cortens wrote, citing C.P.E. Bach:
< "He [J. S. B.] heard the slightest wrong note even in the largest combinations. As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness." [NBR, p. 397] >
Thanks for adding this, including reference. I was tempted to paraphrase it from memory, but chose to let it slide. Did we already mention Mozart, as well? Hindemith?

More power to the altos

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 9, 2009):
Anne (Nessie) Russell wrote:
< I certainly did not mean that Bach wrote boring lines for anyone. Since this is a Bach Cantatas list I can see how you >thought that was what I meant. >
Yes I probably misunderstood your remark! Sorry.

And we agree: even with very simple lines to sing (it happens - not very often - that altos have the cantus firmus), Bach's works are fun to sing when you listen to the harmony while you are singing (which is strongly advisable...).

But if you like strange leaps and melismas, alto parts are often a lot of fun by themselves!

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 9, 2009):
Thérèse Hanquet wrote:
< But if you like strange leaps and melismas, alto parts are often a lot of fun by themselves! >
Choral singers often comment on the difference between Bach and Handel's sequential 16th note runs. Handel's sequences in movements such as "Zadok the Priest" or "For Unto Us A Child Is Born" are always regular and predictable; Bach are nearly always irregular with an expected 2nd suddenly becoming a 3rd. The Tallis Choir of Toronto is presently preparing the music for our upcoming recreation of a Bach Christmas mass. "Lobet den Herrn" opens with a fugue based on a arising arpeggio. Near the end Bach suddenly varies the theme so that there are two fourths in the sequence. Even after three weeks, those voices crashed and burned when the pattern shifted. One alto asked plaintively, "Why does he do that?" as if Bach had spoiled her fun in what is a wonderful work to sing.

Santu de Silva wrote (November 11, 2009):
Anne (Nessie) Russell wrote:
< Verse 2 gives the men a chance to shine. Also in verse 2 there is a spot for the poor altos to be in the spotlight. I say "poor altos" because I used to sing alto. Alto lines are notoriously boring. >
Though the alto lines were notoriously boring for most altos, some of them are lovely. As a youthful alto, I took a perverse delight at the ends of chorales, etc, in that clichetic skip from the leading note to the fifth! In the Bach harmonization of Est ist ein Ros entsprungen, that skip is disguised beautifully with a detour above the soprano line---very endearing and unique!

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 11, 2009):
Melismas [was: In dulci jubilo BWV 751]

[To Douglas Cowling] I certainly agree: Bach's melisma's (or sequential 16th note runs) are almost always unpredictable!

And within the same work they almost always differ in some way (but often they are alike enough to make you confuse them...).

Automatic drive is certainly unknown in Bach's choruses!

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 21, 2009):
[...] altos in Bach

>I, myself, herein am only concerned with this one matter and in many ways it comes down to a question of whether Leonhardt and Harnoncourt were right or wrong in their giving for the most part the alto roles to counter-tenors and the soprano roles to boys. <
The tenor (pun intended, of course) of the post is evidenced by the first three words, when a simple I would suffice.
<>
Xmas is coming, cannot we all just get on board?

 

Mezzo-sopranos
Boys & Mezzos
Women in 18th century choirs
Mezzos/Boys

Michael Cox wrote (November 8, 2010):
Mezzo-sopranos

Michael Cox wrote:
<< There are a number of subjects that I wish to discuss with those in the know. >>
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< For instance, the difference between a boy alto (I used to sing alto solos when I could no >longer sing treble) and a counter-tenor. I remember hearing a choirboy aged 18 who still sang treble - I think that this was pthe sort of voice Bach wrote for - older teenagers.
On the other hand, most male altos in the English choral tradition sing falsetto, which is what >I did to reach the high tenor notes. Now I sing bass because singing tenor was getting a strain.
What an opportune moment to join the ongoing chat, given that I recently cited comments re *wobbly* counter-tenors in BWV 106, from both BCW archives and amazon.com reviews. Note that I specifically indicated that I thought the judgement to be harsh.
Many of us consider a female alto equally *authentic* (and often more enjoyable to hear) compared to a male counter-tenor singing falsetto (if that is always the case) in most recent recordings. The comment re authenticity presumes that Michael is correct: Bach wrote for boy altos, in the original performances of all those outstanding (and extended!) arias, arguably the single most *consoling* elements in his vocal works, and also arguably representing the Holy Ghost, much of the time. >
As to counter-tenor versus female alto in the works of Bach, my personal preference is for a mezzo-soprano rather than a female alto or counter-tenor.

I'd like to mention 4 ladies whom I have heard live and who have made an indelible impression on my mind and memory.

1. Britta Schwarz in the St. Matthew Passion in the Thomaskirche with the Thomanerchor and Concerto Köln at the Bachfest Leipzig in 2009, especially Erbarme dich. She has recorded the original version of St. Matthew Passion with the Thomanerchor but with the Leipzig Gewandhaus on modern instruments. I thought that she sounded much better live than on the recording. Listen here to another perfomance of Erbarme dich and hear what I mean: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yO11bKwThCA
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Schwarz-Britta.htm

2. Hilke Andersen in the B Minor Mass with Cantores Minores in Helsinki Cathedral during Helsinki Bach Week about ten days ago, especially Agnus Dei.
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Andersen-Hilke.htm

3. Monica Groop in the St. John Passion in Järvenpää church, Finland, some years ago, especially Es ist vollbracht!
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Groop-Monica.htm

4. Jenny Carlstedt. She is the only one of the four who has not (yet) recorded her interpretation of Bach's works. She is fantastic in the St. Matthew Passion especially. A performance in which she took part has been shown on Finnish TV. I hope that someone will persuade her to record it, especially Buss und Reu and Erbarme dich.
http://www.allegroartist.com/inhalt/artistroster/mezzos/j_carlstedt/index.html

The only counter-tenor who has really convinced me in works by Bach is Andreas Scholl in the B Minor Mass with Herreweghe. His interpretation of Agnus Dei is astoundingly beautiful.

It seems to me that very few teenage boys have the emotional, intellectual, spiritual and musical capacity to sing Bach's greatest arias convincingly, and that mezzo-sopranos can plumb the depths with much greater integrity. But how many women in Leipzig had trained voices that could manage to sing such works, even if they were allowed to sing in church? The choirboys of the Thomasschule were at least trained singers, even if Bach was often dissatisfied with their performance. Bach had to use the singers available to him.

Any comments?

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 8, 2010):
Boys & Mezzos

Michael Cox wrote:
< It seems to me that very few teenage boys have the emotional, intellectual, spiritual and musical capacity to sing Bach's greatest arias convincingly, and that mezzo-sopranos can plumb the depths with much greater integrity ... even if Bach was often dissatisfied with their performance. Bach had to use the singers available to him. >
This question raises itself periodically and remains primarily a matter of individual taste.

A couple of observations ...

For modern listeners, the female voice is the normative voice for Bach's vocal works and a boy treble or counter-tenor voice is an exotic and unsatisfactory experimental alternative. For Bach, the equation was reversed. The male alto voice was the norm and the female voice was the oddity: even in a domestic setting, Bach probably rarely heard his public sacred music sung by a woman.

There is no indication that Bach felt restricted by the use of all-male voices. It was the system in which he was raised and for which he wrote all of his sacred vocal music (perhaps even his secular music.) When he conceived his music, that was the sound which he heard. Lutherans did not even admit castrati as possible alternatives.

There is no evidence that Bach was dissatisfied on principle that male singers could not meet the technical, interpretative or aesthetic demands of his music. It would have been a massive exercise of sado-masochism to have spent an entire career writing exquisite music for performers who routinely butchered his works.

Bach complaints are fiscal ones: the system needs to be funded adequately in order to achieve its musical responsibilties. There is not even a suggestion that Bach wanted to reform the system to admit women. He may have been progressive enough to commission librettos from a woman, but the notion of girls and women in the choir was probably deemed improper.

In the final analysis, we hear Bach's music from our modern perspective. However, we need to be careful in assigning attitudes to Bach that were impossible for his historical situation.

Michael Cox wrote (November 8, 2010):
[To Douglas Cowling] I appreciate your comments.

You say, "There is no evidence that Bach was dissatisfied on principle that male singers could not meet the technical, interpretative or aesthetic demands of his music."

I did not by any means to imply what you say. I was speaking of his soloists. As regards his choir, Bach often (sometimes?) rebuked (beat?) his choirboys after poor performances. In his later cantatas he seems to have limited and simplified the role assigned to the choir. At least, so I have read.

But he must have had good male soloists to perform his music and a generally adequate choir (are we talking about one or two voices to a part or a larger number of singers, like the Thomanerchor today?). Anna Magdalena was a singer, but presumably only at home. Our problem as performers is that boys' voices break at an earlier age than in the 18th century (a result of better nourishment?), so as John Eliot Gardiner has said, the kind of voices Bach wrote for no longer exist.

And do we want female soloists to sound like boys? No, I don't think so. We cannot go back.

Nym Cooke wrote (November 8, 2010):
[To Douglas Cowling] ...and yet when a really talented, naturally expressive, and gifted boy singer appears on the scene nowadays (since my listening experience is restricted to the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series of recordings, I can only mention boys like Peter Jelosits and Panito Iconomou and Christian Immler as examples, but could easily add several other names to theirs), what more could one want? Given the church-music tradition that Bach was a part of, and his own remarkable musicianship, it is easy to imagine some stellar performances by boys in the Thomaskirche choir...

Michael Cox wrote (November 9, 2010):
P.S.

I think I may have expressed myself unclearly. When I said that "few teenage boys have the emotional, intellectual, spiritual and musical capacity to sing Bach's greatest arias convincingly", I was referring to young teenagers today, but of course there are many exceptions, but not often more than a very few in the same choir. Not to speak of geniuses.

Thinking of the English choral tradition with which I am familiar: An English choirboy, even if he attends a cathedral choir school, will not have taken hiO-levels until after his voice has broken. So a 16-year-old may have O-levels in music, Latin, German language, English language and literature, divinity etc. By the time he is 18 he may possibly have A-levels in German language and literature, Latin, divinity and music. We would not expect an average 13-year-old to be able to sing or understand Bach's solo soprano or alto cantatas. An 18-year-old might be able to do so if he was exceptionally musical and, crucially, his voice had not yet fully broken. In my own case I learnt German by listening to Bach's St. Matthew Passion from the age of 9 or 10 but did not begin German at school until I was twelve. I began to study Latin at grammar school at the age of twelve, but had already been singing Latin church music for several years without really understanding the words. Bach's music we always sang in English.

Assuming that Bach's soloists were gifted older teenage boys, they would have had many more years to hone their skills and increase their academic knowledge than younger boys. What I don't know is at what age the boys of the Thomasschule began their Latin studies, how soon they learned to read music, play an instrument etc. Can anyone enlighten me?

How much does one need to learn before a singer is able to sing Bach adequately?

Anne (Nessie) Russell wrote (November 9, 2010):
Boys in Bach's time may have matured later than boys today.

When my daughter was a toddler her paediatrician told me that girls matured earlier now than they used to. This is probably true with boys as well. If this is true Bach would have older teenagers with unchanged voices.

Anne (Nessie) Russell wrote (November 9, 2010):
Sorry Michael. I made the same point as you did. I found your other note in my spam folder.

Sys-Ex John wrote (November 9, 2010):
[To Douglas Cowling] This has been a very interesting discussion and has caused me to come out of lurking and learning mode.

My wife is an operatic mezzo-soprano and so I have heard her sing this, and other Bach arias, on many occasions at home, rehearsing, and in church. My own take on this is that maybe our modern female singers offer too much emotion on some occasions.

My own preference is toward a performance by e.g. Michael Chance, a modern counter tenor. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHbOOe8n2gY but it is that, just a personal preference.

Emotional? IMHO certainly, Beautifully sung? Again IMHO undoubtedly, and HIP? Once more IMHO probably.

Returning to lurking, learning and studying "The Art of Accompaniment From a Thorough-Bass" by F.T.Arnold.

Chris Stanley wrote (November 9, 2010):
On another messageboard a poster recently gave a link to this thesis which has probably more anatomical and other detail regarding boys voices than one would ever wish to know!!
http://www.stephengoss.net/Jenevora/documents/Jenevora%20Williams%20PhD.pdf

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 9, 2010):
Chris Stanley wrote:
< On another messageboard a poster recently gave a link to this thesis which has probably more anatomical and other detail regarding boys voices than one would ever wish to know!! >
Reminds me of the story which Sir David Wilcocks, the former choirmaster at King's College, Cambridge, told of his childhood as a choirboy at Westminster Abbey.

His family was too poor to visit or for him to come home on holidays, so he set up an arrangement with his mother. One day a week, the service of evensong was broadcast on the BBC. After the second reading, the cleric would say "Here endeth the second lesson", and the young David would cough so his mother would know he was alright.

Back to Bach's Boys ...

Do we have any contemporary accounts of observers' ranking of the prowess of German church choirs? How did Hamburg, Leipzig and Dresden stack up against each other?

Evan Cortens wrote (November 8, 2010):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Do we have any contemporary accounts of observers' ranking of the prowess of German church choirs? How did Hamburg, Leipzig and Dresden stack up against each other? >
Regrettably I don't have the time at this moment to track down the reference, but I know that on more than one occasion C.P.E. Bach (director of music in Hamburg, 1768-1788) complains not just about the quality of his choirboys, but about the fact that they're choirboys at all. Off the top of my head, he says something like he needs more of them to equal the sound of the adult men singing alto, tenor and bass.

When I get a chance, I'll track down the exact quote.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 9, 2010):
Women in 18th century choirs

Evan Cortens wrote:
< I know that on more than one occasion C.P.E. Bach (director of music in Hamburg, 1768-1788) complains not just about the quality of his choirboys, but about the fact that they're choirboys at all. >
Herl give a good summary of the evidence for women choir singers in the period in "Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism", p. 16 [from Google Books].

"With few exceptions, there is no indication that girls participated vocally in the services except as members of the congregation. Three exceptions are found in church orders for individual cities: Zwickau in 1529, Naumburg 1538, and Nördlingen 1555. The Zwickau order simply noted that the girls' choir was to be discontinued, as it was not necessary to saddle them with this task. The Naumburg order was for St. Wenzel's Church; it directed that the German singing be done in alternation between the choir and the rest of the congregation. If the organ played, then it served as a choir, and so there were three choirs alternating, And when the girls' choir also sang, there were four choirs. The Nördlingen order contained the same provisions for alternation as in Naumburg but called the girls' choir something "we would like to have eventually." Two more exceptions are Hof, where it is reported that a girls' school sang in German in alternation with the choir from the Latin school, Jochimsthal, where a sixteenth-century pastor mentions a girls' choir, although its exact function is not noted. A final exception is conveyed by Rautenstrauch, who reports that in one Saxon village in the late 17th century the cantor's daughters sang in the figural choir for a festival service.

No evidence has surfaced that adult women ever sang in choirs before the eighteenth century. The reason for this is not easily found in the sources, but the prevailing opinion that woman's place was in the home doubtless played a art, as did the fact that the soprano part was already sung by young boys. There was also the belief that a woman should not occupy a leadership role in the church. By the eighteenth century, though, the choir was beginning to be seen more as a performing group than as a leader of the liturgy; and so Gottfried Ephraim Scheibel, writing in 1721, was in favour of allowing women to sing, "although it would cause consternation at first." In 1739 Johann Mattheson wrote that it had been difficult for him to introduce women into the Hamburg cathedral choir: at first they had to be placed where they could not be seen, but eventually they could not be seen and heard enough! But in the city's parish choirs, he noted, women were still not allowed.

As far as can be determined, women neverserved as cantors, clerks, or organists."

That would suggest that C.P.E. Bach in 1768 had at least one choir with women in the Hamburg Cathedral. It would interesting to know if the innovation was in place in 1720 when Sebastian visited the city.

Given the Italian influence in Dresden where castrati were used in the Catholic court chapel, were there any girls' choirs on the model of Venice's "ospedali" which Bach could have heard?

I like the story of the village cantor's daughters singing with the choir on festival occasions. I can imagine Bach's daughters rounding on their father if they ever saw such a novelty at a rural family wedding!

Evan Cortens wrote (November 8, 2010):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< That would suggest that C.P.E. Bach in 1768 had at least one choir with women in the Hamburg Cathedral. It would interesting to know if the innovation was in place in 1720 when Sebastian visited the city. >
As far as I can tell from all the records of singers I've looked at in Hamburg, and I'd say I've looked at most of them, there were no women singing in the choir that performed C.P.E. Bach's music. The soprano part was sung by boys as old as 16, and the alto, tenor and bass parts were all sung by adult men. That being said, I can't categorically state that there weren't women singing in church! They just aren't listed in any of the invoices or reports.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 9, 2010):
Evan Cortens wrote:
< That being said, I can't categorically state that there weren't women singing in church! They just aren't listed in any of the invoices or reports. >
Black market mezzos!

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 9, 2010):
Evan Cortens wrote:
<< That being said, I can't categorically state that there weren't women singing in church! They just aren't listed in any of the invoices or reports. >>
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Black market mezzos! >
Alas, the impossibility of proving a negative! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 10, 2010):
Sys-Ex John wrote:
< This has been a very interesting discussion and has caused me to come out of lurking and learning mode. >
Thanks, please do so more often.

JG:
< My wife is an operatic mezzo-soprano and so I have heard her sing this, and other Bach arias, on many occasions at home, rehearsing, and in church. My own take on this is that maybe our modern female singers offer too much emotion on some occasions.
My own preference is toward a performance by e.g. Michael Chance, a modern counter tenor.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHbOOe8n2gY but it is that, just a personal preference. >
EM:
I trust (think, believe, have faith) you are confident that said spouse will not be reading your post?

An additional issue which comes to mind is the distinction between an operatic, emotional projection in live performance, intended to *reach the last row*, compared to a performance of Bach in an intimate venue or even recording studio, intended as much (or solely) for recording quality as for audience.

JG:
< Emotional? IMHO certainly, Beautifully sung? Again IMHO undoubtedly, and HIP? Once more IMHO probably. >
EM:
This seems like an opportune moment to review HIP: Historically Informed Performance. Not a synonym for authentic Bach. Not even an indication of striving for authentic Bach, that is, striving to exactly duplicate Bachs performing conditions. With those constraints, I agree that *probably HIP* is a fair description of all recent counter-tenor performances, but also a fair description of the female *alto* (as designated in CD data) performances in the Koopman and Kuijken series of recordings.

I inadvertently resurrected this topic (counters vs mezzos/altos) by referencing the description from BCW archives of a *wobbly* counter-tenor, which I at first thought was an unnecessarily harsh word. I subsequently noticed an independent(?) review from another source, using the same description (wobbly), comparing another recording (Purcell Quartet) with the first (American Bach Soloists), both with reference to BWV 106.

I made it a point to listen to a couple traditional performances (not HIP) as well, of classic altos in the same work. One of them was the most *wobbly* of all, not exactly satisfying, but also not exactly annoying in the same way as falsetto wobble. Perhaps someone can find a kinder, but still accurate, description and distinction. Specific recording references especially welcome.

Continue of this part of the discussion, see: HIP - Part 18 [General Topics]

Nym Cooke wrote (November 10, 2010):
[To Douglas Cowling] A charming story, Doug--thanks for passing it along.

Further thoughts on boys vs. women singing Bach's soprano and alto arias. I find that even if the boy's voice is somewhat uncertain, occasionally out-of-breath, expressively neutral (i.e., immature), or moving rather artlessly from one note to the next, I can derive a certain enjoyment from listening to him--not so much aesthetic enjoyment as, well, historical—or even spiritual. I feel I'm listening into Bach's church: this is how it was done, this is how it sounded (granted, perhaps often with older, more vocally and expressively mature boys). Also, there's something about children praising God in song that is moving to me. And another thought: there's a certain continuity between the sound of a smaller boy soprano's voice and a larger, older boy alto's voice and a young man's tenor voice and a young man's bass voice (thinking again of the choirs used by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt) that I find satisfying: they're like a family of instruments, just different-sized (like viols or saxophones).

Overall, my response to some of the rougher boy singers on disc is affected by a comment George Ives made to his son Charlie: "Don't pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music." I believe this was in response to the hideous caterwauling of old John Bell, the stonemason of Danbury Connecticut, singing "Nearer, My God, to Thee" at a religious revival meeting with all his heart and soul and no artistic subtlety whatever. But George Ives told his son to "Look into his [the stonemason's] face and hear the music of the ages," and then went on with the lines I quoted earlier. So I guess that's it for me, with some of these little chaps: I hear the "music of the ages" in their artless but eager voices. Make any sense to anyone?

Terence wrote (November 10, 2010):
Mezzos/Boys


This is a very interesting discussion. I fall into the Harnoncourt sound world, with which I grew up. It still remains the set I return to most often, though I have several complete sets. What I like in the sound of the boys/men seems to be precisely what others don't: I LIKE their unaffectedness, their purity of sound; their 'lack of involvement' in all but singing. When I go into another sound world, even Eliot Gardiner's or Herreweghe's, it seems to me contrived and professional, heartless and often unmusical. I like the human-ness of the boys. Years ago I went to a St Matt. Passion, and Janet Baker was the contralto. I almost had to leave, with all the self-indulgence; over-emoting; swells; far-away looks in the eye; I expected tea and crumpets to come out any minute, every sorrowful word swelled and caressed and underscored. It was a grotesquerie. You might like your Bach sung like Puccini; I happen not to. I often drop in to Evensong at college chapels. I often hear 5 year-olds singing Byrd. Are these boys aware of the context and meaning of the text, say, of Ave Verum Corpus? I very much doubt it; but one cannot dismiss the emotional experience of it, or its beauty.

My last point: Bach WROTE his music for the musicians he had; it doesn't take maturity to sing the cantatas. It needs voices. Leave the emotion to tmusic. That's what Bach had to do, and he wrote accordingly.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 10, 2010):
Nym Cooke wrote:
< Further thoughts on boys vs. women singing Bach's soprano and alto arias. I find that even if the boy's voice is somewhat uncertain occasionallyout-of-breath, expressively neutral (i.e., immature), or moving rather artlessly from one note to the next, I can derive a certain enjoyment from listening to him--not so much aesthetic enjoyment as, well, historical--or even spiritual. >
Much of the criticism of boys' voices is that they are not "mature" enough or lack "spiritual depth." To me that's code for "Romantic" interpretation. Here's a clip of a boy singing full-bore Romantic repertoire: Mendelssohn's
"Hear My Prayer"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtIu07neFbA&feature=related

I would say that he has a complete command of Romantic technique: rhythmic subtlety, expressive diminuendos and crescendos, a mix of head and chest voice, dramatic attacks and superb breath control.

You may not like the voice, but he turns in a better performance than I've heard by many a female soprano.

 

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Last update: ýNovember 29, 2010 ý19:44:15