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Boy Soloists in Bach's Vocal Works
Part 1

Boy Sopranos

David McKay wrote (July 17, 2001):
We are neophytes with Bach cantatas, having purchased the Teldec Bach 2000 complete set at an irresistable price.

Most of the set is terrific, we think, but my wife finds about 5 or 6 of the 60 CDs unbearable. Do the females do a better job?.

What performances do you recommend?

René de Cocq wrote (July 17, 2001):
[To David McKay] Irresistible price may be an irresistible argument in buying Bach Cantatas. In the case of Teldec (Harnoncourt, Leonhardt) there is also little doubt as to the performance quality, be it that later viewpoints and further research may have come up with more convincing interpretations. My personal choice (and we're not talking about purchasing price) would be Koopman (Netherlands), Herreweghe (Belgium) and Suzuki (Japan), not necessarily in that order. Certainly not Leusink and his horror trebles, however irresistible his price. Maybe you should try one or two of these, together with your wife.

Jane Newble wrote (July 17, 2001):
[To David McKay] This is personal, but I love the female soprano Leusink uses: Ruth Holton, and also the early Suzuki CD's with Midori Suzuki. They both have very innocent boyish sounding voices, rather than the mature sopranos Koopman and Herreweghe often use. This is my personal opinion. I would love to hear all the soprano arias sung by boy sopranos, but these two are a good substitute.

Jane Newble wrote (July 17, 2001):
[To René de Cocq] Sorry, did I misunderstand? I thought David meant solo sopranos. If you meant the choirs, yes, I toatally agree with René de Cocq. The Leusink sopranos in the choir are not edifying, and Koopman's is the most wonderful choir. As a Herreweghe fan, I have nearly all his CD's, but I do not like some of the solo sopranos he uses. Suzuki's choir is good too.

Boyd (Elendil son of Amandil) wrote (July 17, 2001):
[To Jane Newble] Emma Kirkby as well has a nice "boyish sounding" approach. Though after listening to her struggle through clusters of Bach's notes, she helped convince me that even the brightest and best adult sopranos are not always necessarily better than the brightest and best boys (especially those Gerhardt Schmidt-Gaden trained Tölzers). Though, in my opinion, Ms. Kirkby's talents are better suited to Gregorian chant, she does provide a boyish sound to cantatas, and may be a more palatable alternative for those allergic to boy voice. Massaki Zuzuki's Bach Collegium Japan, as mentioned, is my other favourite alternative performance.

Too often people compare the performances of boys to those of grown women. Tsk tsk tsk. The two are absolutely unique instruments. The colour, texture and peculiarities of the unchanged male voice provides unique qualities. The female soprano voice has its unique qualities. The fact that the two can be made to sing the same notes or made to sound similar is irrelevant; an oboe is not a violin and etc... Some people hate to hear Bach played on harpsichord, and prefer the modern piano. Some of the same people are convinced that Bach would have written for modern piano had he the chance, therefore piano is the preferred best approach. We have to be careful in my opinion to let Bach be Bach, and selecting certain preferred instrumentation on behalf of Bach carries responsibilities that extend to the next generation. Many people are trained to listen to music in a certain way, and their musical tastes are thus solidified. I recently listened to opera performances from 100 year old recordings. The sound quality was of course poor, but the style of singing would be either shocking or intolerable to modern ears! 100 year old opera performances are an aquired taste!

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (July 17, 2001):
< Elendil son of Amandil wrote: I recently listened to opera performances from 100 year old recordings. The sound quality was of course poor, but the style of singing would be either shocking or intolerable to modern ears! 100 year old opera performances are an aquired taste! >
It would depend what opera and what singer, Since Verdi died 100 years ago these might be singers whom Verdi heard, like Tamagno and others.

P.S.:I would appreciate knowing whom you heard on- or offlist.
P.S.2:I note that Helmut Wittek, the boy soprano in Bernstein's Vienna Mahler 4, is on many of the duet with Tom Hampson cantatas in the Harnoncourt-Leonhardt set which I have yet to listen to. I am not very fond of him from that Bernstein recording, but will judge here.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (July 17, 2001):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] Sorry about the eccentric name, I was replying while being signed in at the Tolkien Group :o)

I was speaking of the recordings now available on he Minerva CD "The Castrato Voice and the First Divas," (Minerva #73, Italy)The original is recorded in 1902-04 just around Verdi's death. The remaster is well done reducing a lot of static and pops.

Track examples are:
'Ave Maria' is sung by Alessandro Moreschi.
Adelina Patti singing duets with Landon Ronald and
Alfredo Barill of 'Il Bacio' and Faust.
Marcella Sembrich & Emma Eames sing from Le Nozze Di Figaro.
Nellie Melba sings Tosca's 'Vissi D' Arte' as well as from Verdi's La Traviata 'Ah! Fors' E Lui, Sempre Libera'

(Also, the CD: Divas 1906-35, Prima Voce Label on Nimbus (Nimbus #7802) This remaster not as nice as the above CD.)

Since Moreschi and these others were singing when Verdi was around doubtless Verdi heard these voices. (Does anyone know of Verdi's possible meeting these singers?) Moerschi may have been the 'last castrato' but it isn't possible he was the best, from what I heard. But, then again, this singing style is not familiar to me. For one example, the sort of sling-shot effect from chest register to head register is not, to me, an attractive feature of that style. But I am not much attracted to opera either. I do very much enjoy early recordings as an amusement. But all those I've heard from 1890-1930's have not impressed me. Perhaps they are the earliest, but not best performances to be captured in recordings. But I am beginning to come to the conclusion that today's musicians, and singers (including men, women and boys!) and some conductors are better on average than in the days of the great composers- (the caveat being we have don't have great composers). I do like the old Toscanini recordings- now they are captivating!

Robert Sherman wrote (July 17, 2001):
[To David McKay] This will not be the universal opinion on this list, but I have always found females to do a better job. I want my 2-year old sons to sing in boy choirs in a few years for the training, and I hope they do Bach. But notwithstanding that, I find boys to have cold hard sound and limited musicality, and regret that sexist prejudices of the time forced Bach to go that route.

Nicholas Baumgartner wrote (July 18, 2001):
I second Jane's comment about Ruth--she has a piercing, crystalline voice. For a good example try JE Gardiner's recording of BWV 140. Her renditions of the two arias are phenomenal. And to boot, she's absolutely charming in person.

Johan van Veen wrote (July 18, 2001):
[To Jane Newble] I have to disagree here, as far as Ruth Holton is concerned. I have reviewed Leusink's recordings in a Dutch newsgroup, mostly in a pretty negative way, and in my opinion Ruth Holton is one of the weakest links in the recordings. Her German pronunciation is simply wrong at several occasions and often she seems hardly to understand what she is singing. I have compared Leusink's performances with the Teldec recordings, and in my view most boys in that series are superior to Ruth Holton, often technically, but certainly in expression.

Partly to blame is the conductor, of course. I don't exclude the possibility that she would do better with another conductor, who has a better understanding of Bach's music and is more consistent in his interpretations.

Andrew Oliver wrote (July 18, 2001):
[To Johan van Veen] Sorry, Johan, but I have to disagree. Excellent value for money as they are, there are some aspects of Leusink's series of cantatas which I just do not li, but Ruth Holton is not one of them. Doubtless her German pronunciation is not as perfect as that of the German boys used in the Teldec series, and doubtless her expression is better in some cantatas than others, but the quality of her voice is, for me, one of the highlights of the series. It's just as well we don't all like exactly the same features in a recording.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (July 19, 2001):
[To Andrew Oliver] I have merely a side note... I find it interesting that native English speakers and others try to add a nasalation to their German text singing, while the Germans and Austrians attempt to eliminate nasalation as undesireable. Thus Americans and Brits attempt to be as "German" as possible.

 

Name of Soloists of WSK Harnoncourt 1965-1975 / Peter Jelosits

Ralph Gottier wrote ((July 19, 2001):
In the Sixties and again since about 1975 the names of the treble and alto soloists of the "Wiener Sängerknaben" were mentionend (LP's, CD's).

So maybe someone with good connections to the WSK could find out the names of the Soloists of the Productions before 1975 ? I'd be especially interested about the Productions of Harnoncourt (Teldec) concerning Bach cantatas (produced 1970-1975) and the two Passions (produced 1965/1971 ?).

Johan van Veen wrote (July 20, 2001):
Someone asked for the names of the soloists of the Wiener Sängerknaben in the time before about 1975. I have asked on one of the mailing lists I'm subscribed to, and this is the answer (see below). We have to live with it, I'm afraid.

Douglas Neslund wrote (July 20, 2001)
[to Johan van Veen, in Voice of Angels Mailing List] Sorry, it seems that lips all over Wien are sealed. This question has been asked several times before on Voices of Angels, but no one seems to be able to discover the names.

The official policy regarding the naming of soloists changed following the lawsuit by Peter Jelosit's parents. Peter actually left the choir while the courts decided that he had a right to be named as soloist, as he had planned a career in singing, and indeed, he sings opera today (Monostatos in "Magic Flute" at Volksoper, for example).

His performances in the Bach Cantata series as soloist took place after he left the Wiener Sängerknaben, so he was technically not a member at the time the recordings were made. (His voice didn't change until he was 15.)

Matthew Westphal wrote (July 21, 2001):
< Douglas Neslund (forwarded by Johan) wrote: The official policy regarding the naming of soloists changed following the lawsuit by Peter Jelosits' parents. Peter actually left the choir while the courts decided that he had a right to be named as soloist, as he had planned a career in singing, and indeed, he sings opera today (Monostatos in "Magic Flute" at Volksoper, for example).
His performances in the Bach Cantata series as soloist took place after he left the Wiener Sängerknaben, so he was technically not a member at the time the recordings
were made. (His voice didn't change until he was 15.) >
Well, that would explain why I always liked him better than any of the other boy soloists in that series*. He was older than just about all the others.

As we've discussed here, choirboys' voices tended to change later in previous centuries than they do now. Especially with music like Bach's, those extra few years can make a big difference.

* Actually, I liked Jelosits better than any other boy I've heard sing Bach anywhere, except for Panito Iconomou (who sang the alto solos in Parrott's B Minor Mass (BWV 232)).

Douglas Neslund wrote (August 24, 2001):
< Matthew Westphal wrote, on July 21, 2001 that "As we've discussed here, choirboys' voices tended to change later in previous centuries than they do now. Especially with music like Bach's, those extra few years can make a big difference." >
I spoke just last May with Holger Eichhorn in Leipzig, following a fantastic weekend of Bach music-making by Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden's incredibly well-trained and talented Tölzer Knabenchor, on the issue of "later voice change must have meant a larger sound heard." Holger's point was that 18th century boys were likely not larger, their voice change being delayed because of poor nutrition or even a lack of adequate food. Therefore, the average 16 year old in 1785 was likely no larger than today's average 12 year old.

BTW, Matthew, you have excellent taste in soloists!

Finally, I note a number of familiar and friendly names on this list, so at the risk of loading my inbox even more than it already is, as moderator of four other lists and member of at least ten, I am happy to be here. Long live BACH !

Johan van Veen wrote (August 24, 2001):
[To Douglas Neslund] Nice to see you here! I'm looking forward to your contributions.

It's an ongoing story, about the age the boy's voice change. If I understand it correctly, Holger Eichhorn sees a direct link between the physical height and the age in which the voice changes. I know nothing about biology, but I wonder whether that is correct. At least there is no relationship as far as adults are concerned. But I tend to agree that poor nutrition - and maybe poor sanitary circumstances as well - results in a slower physical development. But there are still some intriguing questions: how about the situation in some poor countries today, like North Korea and many others, where children don't get the food they need - do boys keep their voices longer than boys in the West? And then: even from the 17th and 18th centuries there are exceptions to what seems to have been the rule: it is generally known that Purcell's voice changed when he was 14! Was he living in better circumstances? Or is this just a rare case? I find that very intriguing.

I still wonder whether boys in Bach's time were using some kind of technique to sing as soprano longer than today, even after their voice changed. Just guessing.

 

Boy sopranos: message from July!

Elsa Scammell wrote (September 6, 2001):
"Since Moreschi and these others were singing when Verdi was around doubtless Verdi heard these voices. (Does anyone know of Verdi's possible meeting these singers?) Moreschi may have been the 'last castrato' but it isn't possible he was the best, from what I heard".

This was quoted on the web site under the subject heading: Verdi certainly did hear Domenico Mustafa, the director of the Cappella Sistina before Mgr. Perosi, and before Alessandro Moreschi. He must have heard Moreschi, in his younger days. There is a photograph of Verdi and Mustafa, sitting chatting together in a friendly manner; and this is to be found in Alberto de Angelis' biography of Domenico Mustafa (1923 et seq.)

I expect this has long been answered; forgive me if that is so, but I have only just discovered this group; I would welcome contacts.

 

Herreweghe on Boy Voice

Boyd Pehrson wrote (October 7, 2001):
Phillipe Herreweghe on Boy Voice

Finally! a highly regarded conductor gets the normal age of voice change in Bach's time correct! (I knew time was on my side...)

Therefore I wanted to share Phillipe Herreweghe's comments on boy voice with you, since the interview has to do with Bach, and his St Matthew's Passion. Phillipe Herreweghe is a great friend of authentic performance reconstructions, and directed many of the Knabenchor Hannover for Leonhardt's Teldec recordings. He loves boy voice, though he shys away from using boy soprano soloists in his recordings, he says he believes it has become "impossible" to find boy sopranos skilled enough for his recordings.

Here is Phillipe Herreweghe's comments on children's voices in Bach's St Matthew's Passion (BWV 244):

"It seems that children's voices [changed] at a later age than they do today: a boy could keep his soprano voice until the age of 14, 15 or even 16 at the time. I think they were much more mature on every level, humanly and especially musically. They had a very thorough training and were, in my opinion, true performers capable of overcoming very important difficulties. On the one hand, they had more experience of life as human beings, and on the o, they had a thorough musical training. Therefore the [boy] soprano who sang "Aus Liebe" must have been a marvellous performer because this aria is extremely difficult especially technically. False ideas shouldn't be cultivated regarding those children based on Bach's supposed recriminations on the quality of his ensembles. For a long time these texts supplied some reactionary people with arguments about how it was retrogressive to return to a situation of "authenticity" when musical interpretations and instruments have progressed. Certainly Bach complained, but on the basis of what? Bach is reported as having said, "Carl Philipp Emanuel is the least gifted of my children," and yet he was rather gifted, after all. It all depends on one's standards."

Here is another quote from Herreweghe on his use of boys in the opening chorus ripieno of his recordings of Bach's St Matthew's Passion:

"Given the fact that I still find something magical about boys' voices and considering that the technical difficulties in this section don't prevent [boys] from singing it well, we've chosen a boys' choir for the ripieno and have done so for years."

All quotes taken from the interactive CD ROM by Harmonia Mundi: "The St Matthew's Passion, an Interactive Journey." For more information: http://www.harmoniamundi.com/hmUS/prod_main.asp?numb=951676.78

 

Nikolaus Harnoncourt on boy sopranos

Boyd Pehrson wrote (January 2, 2002):
In 1977 Nikolaus Harnoncourt was interviewed by Bernard Jacobson for Jacobson's book "Conductors on Conducting." Harnoncourt was, at the time, in the middle of a vast project to record all of Bach's cantatas with period instruments, and Bernard Jacobson wanted to know Nikolaus Harnoncourt's musical perceptions regarding performing and conducting J.S. Bach's works. In the forward of his chapter on Harnoncourt's thoughts about performing Bach's music, Jacobson notes that in his interview with Harnoncourt: "dogmatism, however, was refreshingly absent. For Harnoncourt, unlike some of his more academic colleagues, musical perception and poetic imagination are more important than intellect, and all truly musical solutions to a stylistic problem have value in his eyes."

One of those musical solutions to a stylistic problem was Harnoncourt's use of boy soloists in performing arias of Bach's sacred works, to which the conversation turned. It is very interesting to note that while Harnoncourt repeats the wrong idea of Bach having access to large amounts of boy sopranos of late teenage years (later I shall post my article on boy voice change in the 18th century showing why the idea is wrong), the argument that boy sopranos in their late teens were available in great numbers to Bach did not hinder Harnoncourt at all from using well trained twelve and thirteen year old boy sopranos. In fact, Harnoncourt shatters the myth that boy sopranos are somehow incapable of bringing deep musical understanding to the performance of Bach's works. For Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the question was not one of quality, but one of quantity of boys.

Jacobson: "Coming back to Bach, may I ask you whether, in building up the complex of the whole performance, going from single brick to whole work, and including old instruments- whether there is anything you regret the loss of? I'm thinking, for example, of the sort of musical penetration and understanding that, in performances of the cantatas, a really superb, mature woman singer, with years and years of music, can bring to the solo parts that the very best boy soloist perhaps cannot, though obviously in the context of the original instrumental sound boys' voices blend very much better."

Harnoncourt: "No, I would not agree about that. I would say that the very best boy is musically at least as good as the very best woman. Reflect that Menuhin, when he was twelve, did his best performance of Beethoven's violin concerto, and Furtwängler said that he could not imagine a better performance of the work. He was twelve years old. He was exceptional. But all the really good violinists of our day who are now sixty or seventy years old were already at their summit at ten, twelve, thirteen. I don't believe music is an art where the performer's understanding (not the composer's) can only come when he is too old to perform."

Jacobson: "Provided there is a conductor who has the knowledge?"

Harnoncourt: "Who explains. But I am speaking of the natural musical feeling of a very gifted boy- I stress "very gifted"- when his vocal technique is as good as the vocal technique of the best female soprano. I must say that there are not many sopranos with a really very good technique- there are not hundreds of sopranos who can sing difficult Mozart really well, and I have never heard the Cantata BWV 51 of Bach sung well by a female or boy soprano. I know of some boys of thirteen years- few, but some- who are as musical as the best sopranos. They really have musical insight- it is not just that they imitate something, but they understand, and they understand directly, much more directly than an adult. You can communicate about music with such a boy. He understands the solution, and the importance of tension and relaxation in harmony, much faster than any adult. My experience is that there is no problem beyond the lack of quantity of such musicians. But you must remember that, in Bach's time, boys sang until they were eighteen years old, so there were many more boy singers. Every second boy learned singing, so they had a reservoir of thousands of boys."

Jacobson: "Then you have the same kind of interpretative teamwork when you're conducting an aria with a boy soloist as you would have with any other soloist? Why did you decide to use women soloists for your recording of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232)?"

Harnoncourt: "I decided that at the time because of the very Catholic aura of this work, but I would not say that it was a final decision. In another performance I would do it with boys, as I do performances with women of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions every year somewhere. It is not a dogma for me to use no women for Bach anywhere, or for this special work or that. There's a great dispute about whether Bach ever used women even in his secular cantatas. But for me this is a secondary question. In a documentation series like our recordings of the Bach cantatas, I think it is much more interesting to hear the soprano parts sung by boys, and this is the reason we do it so. I could agree in the same way with a very good woman singing the soprano parts, but I think it would not fit as well in the concept of the series."

Jacobson: "Is there any other loss you feel one just has to accept? You've obviously gained so much by going back to the original sound as far as you can establish it- do you think there is anything that you also lose?"

Harnoncourt: "The best possible quality is not enough. But this is a loss I have in any kind of interpretation of any kind of music- it's the loss between my imagination of the performance and the reality. There are cases when one can say, in a particular month, if we don't have a good boy to sing the soprano solo, this is a loss- I'm sorry that we don't have the best possible singer, or the same with any instrument. But this is not a question of principle, because if you work with an orchestra, and the orchestra has a poor first trumpet player, you have the same problem."

Source:
Bernard Jacobson, "Conductors on Conducting"
(1979, Frenchtown, N.J., Columbia Publishing, ISBN 0-914366-09-2) pages 65-67.

 

Boy Voice Change in the 18th Century

Boyd Pehrson wrote (January 2, 2002):
Below is my reply to Charles in "BachCantatas" group, regarding his comments about boy voice change in Bach's time. Charles' comments are below, as is my original post.

The thrust of my argument here is that boys today are not that different from boys of Bach's time! And women are not better approximations than today's boys would be. In fact, all things being equal, the best approximation inour times that we can have of a 15 year old soprano boy of Bach's time ... in size, weight and emotional understanding of the world around him, is a twelve (12) year old modern boy. It certainly would not be a modern adult female.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (July 15, 2001):
Not to be dismissive, but when I read Mr. Rifkin's written comments published in New Grove that the famous painting of Schütz demonstrates the force of Schütz's personality, (!?) I winced, thinking it overreactive and subjective. Though, I have not spoken to him, Mr. Rifkin has spoken to me through his written comments, such as those about Schütz's portrait.

While, I agree generally with an historic approach, Mr. Rifkin's CD of Bach Cantatas with "authentic instruments" that I considered purchasing just last night, did not extend itself to include Knabenstimme.

Charles Francis wrote:
[To Boyd Pehrson] Apparently in the eighteenth century, boy's maintained their treble voices well into late teens, so unfortunately there's no modern counterpart to Bach's Knabenstimme". Consequently, the modern "HIP" approach is to use female voices which, it is argued, better approximate the capabilities of Bach's singers. Having said that, I suspect the failure of the Harnoncourt-Leonhard approach, had little to do with age, but rather reflected the absence of top-notchboys-choirs in Germany. To date, I've only discovered one German boy's choir that can compete with the best English choirs: http://www.bistum-augsburg.de/domsingknaben/english/index.html

I'd love to hear some of these kids do a OVPP recording!

Boyd Pehrson wrote:
[To Charles Francis] Apparently, as far back as the 1500's boys voices were more commonly changing at 15 years according to translated records from Old Seville, (see "Spanish Cathedrals in the 1500's"). Choristers in Old Seville were given full scholarships after their voice changed provided at least three years service was given in the choir. The age limit for admission was 8-12 years old. So, the expectation must have been change of voice around 15 years old. Most of the choristers cashed in for their scholarships at 15yrs old. Also, according to Geoffrey Webber's work "North German Church Music in the Age of Buxtehude" (1996, Clarendon Press) Friderici's 1618 treatise on boys' voices warns that vocal ornaments are too difficult for boys' voices, and are the provence of only the best singers. Praetorius, Bernard and Crüger likewise gave similar advice, as well as describing easier forms of accentus and passaggi as appropriate for boys. These would have been the very works Bach would have had contemporarily concerning ornamentation in the new Italian style (if he consulted any). Also, the lament that a good boy singer was one in a thousand is recorded in Webber's work. Bach would not be unfamiliar with these issues and limitations. Criag Wright's work "Music and Ceremony at Notre Dame of Paris" (1989, Cambridge University Press) mentions in Parisian records that boys were advancing to lay clerks at 15 years of age. Lay clerk duty was reserved for those boys with changed voices. Ian Payne, in his work "The Provision and Practice of Sacred Music at Cambridge Colleges and Selected Cathedrals C.1547-C.1646, A Comparative Study of the Archival Evidence" (1993 Garland Publishing), provides the following note on page 14:

"I am grateful to Dr. leHuray for kindly placing at my disposal his unpublished paper entitled "The Cathedral Music at Chichester during the 16th and 17th Centuries," which contains the following statement: "nowadays most boys will spend six or possibly...seven years in a cathedral choir, having been admitted at the age of eight or nine. At Chichester from 1545 to 1603, the boys seemed to have spent an average of 6 years in the choir, and in the the latter period [1603-42] 4 1/2 years." It follows from this that an average voice broke between the ages of thirteen-and-a-half and fifteen at the latest, if one assumes that the ages of admission were the same then as they are today. (Old Foundation statutes often do not refer to age at all; and even those of New Foundations only specify "boys of tender years" (pueri tenerae aetatis).) Roger Bowers, "The Vocal Scoring, Choral Balance and Performing Pitch of Latin Church Polyphony in England, c.1500-58," Journal of the Royal Musical Association (JRMA), 112 (1987),pp.38-76, (p.48 note 23),offers conclusive evidence (from, inter ailia, chantry certificates of the 1540's) that boys' voices broke at about fourteen or fifteen." This is supported by the known ages of admission of eight out of a total number of seventy Lincoln choristers admitted between 1576 and 1639: they range from eight to fourteen years (see LAO D&Ca/3/7, fol. 118r; A/3/9, fols 11v, 78v, 86v, 1414r, 142v,159r)."

Mr. Payne, is not able to reconcile such records of the Cathedrals to views such as David Wulstan's view that boys' voices did not change until 18 years of age. But even Wulstan admits that some boys' voices broke at fifteen and sixteen in the 1550's and 1560's (Wulstan, Tudor Music, 1985,p.241). J.S. Bach's own voice changed when he was 15 years old. Bach's records upon entering Cantorship at the Thomasschule show that the majority of the boys were fourteen and under. After some years the amount of choristers 14, 15, 16 years old increased, but those ages are the upper limits. So, really I do not see a vast difference between Bach's time and now. Possibly on average, and generally speaking, between two to three years at most. We have seen the records indicate 15 years old as an average age of voice change in sixteenth-seventeenth centuries. Also the expectation of a boy's performance ability and the demand on coloratura singing was to be limited for boys according to those contemporary sources.

The arguments put forward by people who believe no boys can be found to match the boys of Bach's time say that boys' voices "broke" several years later, and therefore must have had more time to develop their voices, become more mature musically and/or had time to grow larger because they kept their voices into late teen years.

To answer those arguments I would remind them that nowadays boys are larger (in fact the "Average 6 foot Man" is a foot taller and probably 100 lbs. heavier than his ancestor of 500 years ago. This would include women who are also quite larger that their ancestors.) Also, boys today have the advantage of accumulated knowledge of voice training techniques, a greater repertoire to learn new skills from, and technology such as recording devices, music can be printed and handed out, so that each boy can take a musical score to his room to study it at leisure, unlike 16-17th centuries when music had to be memorized to save on vastly expensive paper. Boys these days have the luxury of having private voice coaches, above and beyond their normal Director. Devices that electronically measure tone and pitch, as well as computers that can analyse voice patterns, etc...are able to be utilized as well. So, boys today have, in my opinion, vast advantages in their world compared to what their ancestors had when learning their music.

All this to say I heartily disagree with those who would say that Women better approximate the capabilities of Bach's singers, than do boys, say at the Thomasschule in Leipzig do today. Bach wrote all of his regular church music as Cantor of St Thomas School, with his boys' voices in mind. I agree with the current directors of German Boys' Choirs today who say that the abilities of boys today are not too vastly different than boys in Bach's time, and that boys today do make an instrument much closer to the one Bach used than today's modern adult women.

 

Robert King on Boy Voice

Boyd Pehrson wrote (February 25, 2002):
Robert King is a truly brilliant young conductor. He has fast earned respect and high regard for his historically informed performances of Renaissance and Baroque composers. He was the first modern conto record Bach's B minor Mass with boy soprano and alto soloists in 1996. His idea of using boy soloists today rejects the notion that boys' voices didn't change until late teens in Bach's day, and he also rejects the idea that good boy soloists can't be found today.

In his sleeve notes to his Mass in B minor recording Robert King writes:
"A much more important consideration [in recording Bach] is to use voices which produce a `continental', strongly chest-voiced style of delivery, far removed from the `white' head voice that is sometimes produced by English choristers, and to use not only boy sopranos but also the unique sound of boy altos. The argument that Bach's boys possessed an enhanced musical maturity through their greater years has been advanced as a reason for not using boys' voices at all: the substitution of women's voices seems to be a radical one, creating a sound which Bach could not have expected to hear. Whilst it is far harder work performing Bach's Mass using children on choruses and solos than it is calling on experienced and technically more assured female adults, the sound of unbroken soprano voices and the astonishing timbre of boy altos is inimitable and, in the end, seems so utterly right for Bach's music. It is the choral sound which he heard almost every day of his working life. So, whilst we would be foolish to suggest that with this recording we have got any nearer to Bach's actual performing intentions than anyone else, we have tried to lay in every possible store to do so."

Excerpt from Robert King's sleeve notes to his 1997 release of Bach's Mass in B minor on Hyperion records CDA67201/2

Boyd Pehrson wrote (February 27, 2002):
My post on Robert King's views of boy voice is missing the first part! This is the most important part as well! Here is the excerpt, and I'll just call it "Robert King on Boy Voice Part II", even though it is really "Part I".

From the sleeve notes of the 1997 release of Bach's B minor Mass by Robert King on Hyperion records, Mr King writes:

"We know that Bach did not use women's voices in any of his sacred compositions: his choir at St. Thomas's Leipzig used boys' voices on soprano and alto lines for both choruses and solos. So as much as using 'baroque' violins or 'natural' trumpets, any performance that tries to follow historical precedents must use boys' voices in both the soprano and alto lines of the choir and in the upper-voice solos if it is to have much validity. It is true that voices broke [changed] later in the eighteenth century than they do in the twentieth (due largely to our greatly improved medical and sanitary conditions which give young bodies fewer diseases to fight, and thus allow them to grow and mature sooner), but it is fair to presume that those eighteenth-century voices also 'strengthened' later as well: comparison of the relative sizes of eighteenth-century children with their twentieth-century counterparts shows them to be consistently smaller and less developed physically. Bach's best boys were probably fourteen to sixteen years old: similar twentieth-century ones tend to be twelve to fourteen. It is not unreasonable to imagine that the sound produced by both groups is fairly similar. Musicianship is not automatically better in an older child than in a younger one, for one is often astonished by the innate musicianship of a younger child over that of an older one, and (as any experienced cathedral organist will tell you) a choir and its voices can change radically over the course of just a few months- it is hard to imagine Bach having any easier a task with the cultivation of his choristers than does a
twentieth-century cathedral organist!"

Long time no see!

Craig Schweickert wrote (May 4, 2002):
Just back from a screening of the 1987 Vienna State Opera production of Berg's Wozzeck conducted by Claudio Abbado. The cast included Franz Grundheber (Wozzeck), Hildegard Behrens (Marie), Aage Haugland (the doctor) and, in the small role of the fool (der Narr), a tenor named Peter Jelosits. Am I right in thinking this is the same Peter Jelosits who, 25 or 30 years ago, was one of the soprano soloists in the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Bach cantata series? I've sometimes wondered what became of those boys. Glad to learn that Jelosits didn't end up a banker...

BTW the production was excellent: well sung, acted, staged, filmed and recorded. Behrens was born to play Marie. Abbado, conducting from memory (!), was everything one could ask for: reasoned yet passionate, attentive to the needs of the singers and the drama, totally at home in Berg's sound world. The comparison with the evening's "filler"--a pokerfaced Boulez conducting (from a score) the Chicago Symphony in a technically flawless Lulu Suite--was most revealing.

 

Help!

Prascovia 2000 wrote (July 11, 2002):
I joined this group recently and it's amazing. I have a question about the cantatas, are there some recordings (of Rilling or Harnouncourt probably) of the soprano cantatas like BWV 52 or BWV 84, where the soprano/alt part is performed by a boy? Is he Paul Esbot? (or whatever you spell his name ).

I'm asking because I listen most of the cantatas on the radio and I always miss when they say the name of the performers.

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 11, 2002):
[To Prascovia 2000] Both Cantatas have already been discussed in the BCML. Each Cantata, which has already been discussed, has a page in the Bach Cantatas Website with a list of the recordings including details of the performers.

BWV 52: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV52.htm
BWV 84: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV84.htm

You can see that:
BWV 52 was recorded by Leonhardt with the Boy Soprano Seppi Kronwitter.
BWV 84 was recorded by Harnoncourt with the Boy Soprano Wilhelm Wiedl.

Ludwig wrote (July 12, 2002):
[To Prascovia 2000] In the case of the Harnoncourt and the Concertus der Wien and the Leonhart Consort series---the soprano is Paul Esswood. AlLow me to explain to those of you who may not know or understand.

In Bach's day; Women were generally (of course there were exceptions) not allowed to participate in Church Services even as singers and we have indications that at least in one Church that Bach served that he got hauled over the coals for allowing Barbara(his wife) to sing--if I am correct this happened at Erfurt(anglicised spelling).

Moral sensibilities of the day considered it very immoral for a woman to appear in any public theatrical performance or sing at Church. Women also did not wear makeup or smoke/use tobacco unless she was a low life Jezebel charecter. This was the price women had to pay for being kept on the pedestal of chivalry. For such sensibilities to have occured so long ago; the sentiments lasted well into the days Queen Victoria and somewhat beyond.

It was only during the Jazz age that things began to rapdily change. The place of a respectable woman was in the Home where she tended servants and other domestic affairs. She was not suppose to work outside the home and anything that she did outside the home was in the name of charity and helping the poor.

The art of "drag" in those days was a very respectable art(and had been since Roman times) form as it still is in the Japanese and Chinese theatre. Men played all the female roles called for and in the case of singers female parts were usually given to Castrati---males who had been deliberately castrated before adolescence appeared to preserve their glorious voices. One of the most famous of these was Farinelli. He often sang for Händel and Händel wrote parts especially for him. It is probable that Bach may have heard Farinlli. If the writings of the time are to be believed Farinelli had supreame almost divine control over his breath and could hold notes for very long periods and his technique was otherwise flawless and perfect. The other qualities of Farinelli's voice such to make the greatest divas of the 20th century appear talentless screamers. The talent however proved to be a curse for Farinelli as it made him feel less than a man and he made several attempts at suicide. He was called to the Court of Spain where he lived until his death in a life of ease provided by the King of Spain.

Off topic but for many years; I was led to believe that Händel was much older than Bach as in old man when Bach was almost entrapped into marrying Buxtehude's daughter. Bach and Händel were almost the same age but Händel outlived Bach. It is probable that Bach died from complications of the eye surgery he had as medical people then knew little about sterile fields,microbes and their tools for doing eye surgery (exceptionally dangerous then) were very primitive.

Next question please!

Philippe Bareille (July 12, 2002):
[To Prascovia 2000] Paul Esswood is a counter-tenor not a soprano. For the names of the 2 boys singing BWV 52/BWV 84 see Aryeh Oron email (or the cantata site)

Robert Sherman wrote (July 12, 2002):
< Ludwig wrote: If the writings of the time are to be believed Farinelli had supreame almost divine control over his breath and could hold notes for very long periods and his technique was otherwise flawless and perfect. The other qualities of Farinelli's voice were such to make the greatest divas of the 20th century appear talentless screamers. >
None of the writings of the time were done by anybody who had heard one note from 20c female singers. So they could not have described the latter as "talentless screamers" or anything else. Since there is nobody who has heard both modern females and castrati, we have no valid basis for comparison.

The nearest approach we have is to compare modern male sopranos and altos with modern females. IMO any such comparison overwhelmingly favors the females. Some of the males have impressive techniques and fine musicianship but to my ear their sound (Mera excepted) is cold, hard, hooty, and musically ungratifying.

Consider the following examples:

Heather Harper (with Jackson) singing "I know that my Redeemer liveth" from Messiah

Maria Stader (with Richter) singing the b minor or the Mozart Coronation Mass

Arleen Augér (with Schwartz) singing "Come Unto Him" from Messiah

Charlotte Hellekant (with Minkowski) singing "He Was Despised" from Messiah

Hertha Töpper (with Richter) singing "Es ist Vollbracht" from SJP (BWV 245).

If there is any high-voice male in this league, I've yet to hear him.

Gerald Gray wrote (July 12, 2002):
[To Robert Sherman] Women did indeed sing professionally during the time of the Castratti (Farinelli included).

Robert Sherman wrote (July 12, 2002):
[To Gerald Gray] The "talentless screamer" epithet was asserted by Ludwig to have been applied to 20c women by writings of the 18c.

Paul Farseth wrote (July 13, 2002):
Is it not true that Händel wrote for (and used) women, boys, countertenors, and castrati depending on which talent was available for any given opening or performance? Somewhere there is a story that the "He was despised" from MESSIAH was written by Händel specifically for a female opera singer who had been subjected to much cruel public abuse when she had recently divorced her unfaithful husband.

In any case, I put my vote for a strong adult woman's voice for the Bach parts rather than for a mere boy's voice. The countertenors, however, have their talents, so they have to be judged case by case, tenor by tenor, performance by performance.

Gerald Gray wrote (July 13, 2002):
[To Paul Farseth] Actually, the practice of women singing on stage during the first half of the 17th century was common. What was NOT common was for women or females to sing in churches. Bach simply did not have women nor girls singing in his cantatas. It is known and documented. The world of Händel and Bach were completely different goegraphically culturally and pollitically.

That being said, I am not at all opposed to sopranos singing Bach. The RIGHT sopranos that is.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 13, 2002):
[To Paul Farseth] This is absolutely correct. Händel adjusted his writing to suit the best talent available for each performance. Modern conductors and producers should do Händel the courtesy of doing the same: use the best performers you can get for each section, rather than following antiquarian hang-ups of trying to reproduce what Händel did on a particular occasion.

"He Was Despised" was written for Mrs. Susannah Cibber, who previously had a marital saga that would be considered lurid even by today's standards and probably is best not discussed in a list that may be seen by children. Her husband was a lout, but there is a lot more to the story than that. In any case, she was not reported to have had a great voice, but her performance at the first Messiah was a great success because of its sincerity and emotion.

 

Boys in modern-day Bach

Matthew Westphal wrote (April 17, 2003):
Steven Guy says: >>> I have never heard a OVPP recording of a cantata, mass or passion with a boy soprano and until some conductor does this, all OVPP recordings and performances will be just as 'HIP-compromised' as recordings, like Harnoncourt's or Leonhardt's, which use boys' voices but with more than one voice per part. <<<
In that sense, I'm afraid we're forever doomed to be 'HIP-compromised'. We just don't have 15- and 16-year-old boy trebles in our day and age. And (I know there are those who strongly disagree with me on this, but so be it) 10- and 11-year-old boy sopranos just don't, to my ears, have the strength and technique to be satisfying in Bach's difficult vocal music.

I did like the boy altos Parrott used in his B minor Mass (BWV 232) recording (especially Panito Iconomou, who is now a bass), but I don't think I've heard a boy soprano I liked in Bach since Peter Jelosits on the early Harnoncourt cantata recordings.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (April 17, 2003):
[To Matthew Westphal] There's a new SJP (BWV 245) on Naxos, by Edward Higginbottom, with a 14-year old boy soprano. He doesn't cut muster...

 

Bach Sopranos and proteins (was: BWV 83 performance query)

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

Eric Bergerud wrote (March 1, 2006):
[To John Pike] I am not at all convinced by the argument that Bach's boys were physically different beasties. It's true that both boys and girls reach adolescence sooner today than they did at the beginning of the 20th century much less the 18th. (A very sharp reviewer in New York Review noted this recently when doing on essay on "Little Women" - a 13 year old in Alcott's day probably would have acted more like a girl than a teen. This explains why the characters act, in our terms, "childlike." So the author was presently a realistic picture of life rather than being hamstrung by Victorian ideals.) No demographer agrees exactly how great the relative change is because our figures from earlier epochs grow less perfect the farther back in time one goes. However, everyone agrees that this change was not due in any way to genetics because it took place, biologically speaking, so quickly. Instead, kids today receive a far better diet, getting much more protein when very young than earlier generations. (Japanese adults today are 2" taller than typical in 1930's - that's a lot, quick.) They are also in much better health. They are ill much less often and parasites are very rare in the developed world. (One wonders how many of Bach's boys were "eating for two" in the 18th century: it would have been a lot. And they wouldn't have been eating Big Macs.) Just to prove the point, this process pretty much ended in the developed world in the 1960s-70s. In the past most people didn't eat as well as contempourban pets. Now health pros worry huge portions of the population in the developed world being overweight. As my father would have said, "You can't win for losing." Original sin maybe.

Put simply, children begin to enter adolescence when their bodies get bigger and stronger. Today's 12 year olds are bigger and stronger than those in Bach's era. Musically speaking this would have left a level playing field from what I understand. There would have been one difference: the extra two years or so of childhood enjoyed by Bach's boys would have added to their time in musical training. How today's specialized music schools, especially in Europe, measure up against the talent pool and training techniques that would have shaped Bach's choir is impossible to answer I suppose. The question of logistics is another question altogether. Leusink commented in an interview that the draconian schedule required for his project ruled out boy soloists whether he wanted to use them or not.

As I've noted here before I'm very glad that Bach is approached so many different ways. The female soprano, to my ears, makes the most lovely sound in creation. I do think it's a pity, though, that we seem to have seen the complete and probably permanent end of boy soloists in cantata recording. But I wouldn't dodge the issue by arguing that 18th century boys created a sound unreacheable today. Oh well, let 99 flowers grow. And so much for HIP.

Raymond Joly wrote (March 1, 2006):
[To Eric Bergerud] Eric Bergerud is right in pointing how difficult it is to assess the laryngal condition of boys three centuries ago. To make matters still more complicated, though, I would like to point out that a boy is not just an organism reacting to food and hygiene or absence of. As a human being, his foremost business is dealing with what others expect from him. And that includes how soon he is supposed to conform with the current pattern of how a grown man feels and behaves. The soul does act on the body. And, by the way, who was exceptional back then? How are we to know whether the boys who did NOT sing in Bach's choir were ruled out because of insufficient talent, or just because they had started croaking at the then normal age?

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 1, 2006):
Raymond Joly wrote:
< And, by the way, who was exceptional back then? How are we to know whether the boys who did NOT sing in Bach's choir were ruled out because of insufficient talent, or just because they had started croaking at the then normal age? >
I agree. Never understimate the intellectual or artistic maturity of children. I remember attending an Evensong in Westminster Abbey sung by the boy choristers alone. The only adult was the organist at the console fifty feet away on the choir screen. The two head boys were the conductors using only a single finger tapping the tempo on the choir stall desk. They sang Anglican chant, full canticles and an a capella Renaissance motet. The discipline would have put any adult choir to shame and their performance was superlative. Of course that degree of muscianship is only possible with a residential school with execellent instructors and daily performances. I have no doubt that Bach's boys could meet and probably surpass today's choristers. In fact, a visit to an English cathedral or collegiate church is probably the closest we can come to the atmosphere of the St. Thomas School.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 1, 2006):
Raymond Joly wrote:
< And, by the way, who was exceptional back then? How are we to know whether the boys who did NOT sing in Bach's choir were ruled out because of insufficient talent, or just because they had started croaking at the then normal age? >
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< I agree. Never understimate the intellectual or artistic maturity of children. >
What happened to BWV 83?

With regard to Bach's preferences, see Christoph Woolf. Bach: The Learned Musician
(1) At Weimar, Bach was reprimanded for having a female in the choir loft, (presumably) to sing.
(2) Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena, was recruited to Cöthen for her soprano skills, and was soon second highest on the payroll. Did she sing cantatas? Either yes or no is problematic.

Then off to Leipzig, and perhaps the most creative two year period in history for any artist in any format (Trinity 1723 to Trinity 1725, including, more or less smack dab in the middle, BWV 83).

Chris Stanley wrote (March 1, 2006):
[To Douglas Cowling] I agree with a lot that has been written by the cognoscenti here. A couple of points concerning voice breaking from my own experience. There isn't necessarily any particular point at which voice break occurs, still less can it always be linked to a particular stage in puberty. When I was finally "chucked out" the day after the enthronement of a new bishop, I was nearly 16, and ito reach that age wasn't uncommon in the Southwell choir at that time. (and yes I did reach top B flat in Parry's "I was glad" on that occasion) Were we all so undernourished then compared to todays kids? I don't think so. It may well have been in the voice training however, a point Doug Cowling alludes to.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 2, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Of course that degree of muscianship is only possible with a residential school with execellent instructors and daily performances. >
I realize that exceptional circumstances only prove the general reality.

I do not sing in church choirs and never have:-).

I listen to recordings.

It is fascinating to me (thinking of the soloists rather than the choirs for the moment) that Gillesberger's Johannes-Passion (BWV 245) (the alleged Harnoncourt1, replaced in the sets with the real Harnoncourt) has boy soli for both the alto and the soprano. The boy alto does with the instrumental accompaniment the most sublime "Es ist vollbracht" I have ever heard and I've heard a number on recording. I don't particularly recall the soprano except that the whole recording has always been sublime to me.

In his first Matthäus-Passion (BWV 244) Harnoncourt uses three counter-tenors and two boy sopranos and the whole is just unpleasant to me. Not a one of the boy soprano soli is really acceptable.

And, as justly said here, counter-tenors are not any more authentic than females although perhaps more theologically acceptable to the constraints under which Bach worked.

As to modern performances, as noted, neither females nor falsettists make up for the real thing but only a very special performance such as Gillesberger gave us can achieve such boy soli who totally convince.

Blessings of Ahura Mazda,

Tom Hens wrote (March 4, 2006):
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote:
< As to modern performances, as noted, neither females nor falsettists make up for the real thing >
Once again: we know with absolute certainty that at least in Weimar for Bach falsettists were the real thing, for both soprano and alto parts.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 4, 2006):
[To Tom Hens] Could you please expatiate on this for those of us like me who are not as learned as you. I do not know of Bach using falsettists or counter-tenors or whatever we are calling them. I know (and I freely admit to being a music lover and not a scholar in music in any way whatsoever) only of Bach's using young males whose voices had not yet changed for the soprano and the alto parts, both in choir and as soli.

I also know that the situation with Händel is much more complex as he actually now uses females and now assigns roles to falsettists and of course in his operas often the main male roles are given to castrati. Some actual male roles in Händel were however given to counter-tenors and all of this is very odd indeed and not something I even wish to be very knowledgeable in except in a very tertiary way (accepting the statements of those I have learned to trust).

The castrati problem and how to substitute today happily does not exist fBach to my knowledge. The boy problem and whether the boys were physiologically so different from today's boys is the Bach problem to my limited knowledge.

Therefore forget "Once again" and assumptions that all are as erudite as you. Please do explicate if you wish.

Eric Bergerud wrote (March 5, 2006):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] I never argued that eating Big Macs helped or hurt the development of sopranos. <G> Rather that more protein in youth and better general health has accelerated adolescence by around (nobody knows for sure) two years since industrialization. Although famine was very rare in fertile Europe and was usually politically induced, the average individual, especially children, had a diet very long on starches and supplemented mostly by cheese and eggs. No wonder the "feast" was such a big deal in the past. The rich had no such problems, but even here parasites, bad water, bad hygiene and frequent illness would have caused serious problems for the young. It's also true that in the past that children (I know this sounds ugly, but it was true) were considered "expendable" and would get the short end of whatever resources were available. No doubt much has been lost from the human experience in the last two centuries, but above all the past was a rough and very poor place for most. It always amazes me how many of today's historians forget something that elemental. (PS: a couple of comments have been made to the effect that organized religion and science have been a bad fit. In the past generation, historians of science have utterly demolished that idea. Anti-clerical science, it appears, is a very recent development. Even the infamous Scopes trial has been reexamined: it turns out that William Jennings Bryan objected not so much to Darwin as to the very ugly off-shoots of "natural selection" that were lapped up by everyone from Nietzsche to Himmler, and were used to justify poverty in industrial America - survival of the fittest don't you know. This is not an advertisement for today's creationists.)

Oh yes, Bach. Wolff talks about university students helping out as instrumentalists at Leipzig. Could they have played a role in the choir also?

And Händel: as I understand it, he also used boys in oratorios. Using boys had deep religious symbolism - it wasn't all about patriarchy or finding free singers. Does anyone know if castrati were employed by any of the Protestant sects in church music? Can't imagine Luther approving that.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 5, 2006):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< And Händel: as I understand it, he also used boys in oratorios. Using boys had deep religious symbolism - it wasn't all about patriarchy or finding free singers. Does anyone know if castrati were employed by any of the Protestant sects in church music? Can't imagine Luther approving that. >
Händel used boy trebles and occasionally had problems with the church authorities about oratorios with sacred texts being performed in theatres. Dean Jonathan Swift (of Guliver's Travels fame) forbade the boys of his cathedral to sing in the first peformance of Messiah. Luckily, there are two Anglican cathedrals in Dublin. Händel's soloists also sang with the choir so there was the rather interesting combination of boys and women. I've never seen a modern period performance try this, although the four soloists everywhere maintain the Victorian tradition of rising and singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Interestingly, early English performances of the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) tried replicate the Messiah tradton by trying to get audience to stand for the Sanctus! It didn't work.

Luther was long in his grave when castrati began to sneak into late 16th century choirs. He certainly would have known falsettists in polyphonic music. Castrati were pretty much an Italian invention. They certainly sang in Germanand Austrina catholic choirs (Dresden for example). But Lutheran? Unlikely I would think.

Tom Hens wrote (March 9, 2006):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< Rather that more protein in youth and better general health has accelerated adolescence by around (nobody knows for sure) two years since industrialization. >
But what was happening before industrialization, in other words, at the time Bach lived? From what I can recall reading on this topic (which admittedly isn't much), the industrial revolution brought about a low point in nutrition and general health for the newly created urban masses, which lasted until the beginning of the twentieth century. The authorities at the beginning of WW1, the first time mass conscription was used in Europe, were stunned by the level of physical development in young recruits from the "lower" classes. It was observed before: Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, wanted to promote sports to remedy what he thought was the lack of physical development in French youth (he thought the German victory in the 1870 war had been due to their practice of gymnastics in school.) I've been told that anthropologists who are called upon to identify skeletal remains of WW 1 soldiers, which are still found regularly in France and Belgium, will often misidentify such remains as female if the identification is done blind, because of their very slight build due to malnutrition. It's something they have to be warned about. You can't generalize findings about nutrition and health dating from the era of industrialization to earlier times.

< PS: a couple of comments have been made to the effect that organized religion and science have been a bad fit. >
The only one I've seen that might possibly fit this bill is my own remark: "After all, churches and historical scholarschip have always had a somewhat troublesome relationship." I wasn't thinking about science at all, but about things like textual scholarship and historiography. For instance, with just a few mouseclicks one can find lots of (largely American) protestant churches online that reject out of hand all advances that have been in made in textual scholarship relating to the bible since the 16th century.

<snip>
< Even the infamous Scopes trial has been reexamined: it turns out that William Jennings Bryan objected not so much to Darwin as to the very ugly off-shoots of "natural selection" that were lapped up by everyone from Nietzsche to Himmler, and were used to justify poverty in industrial America - survival of the fittest don't you know. This is not an advertisement for today's creationists.) >
I don't know what this has to do with anything, but maybe you should read what Bryan actually said during that court case, not "reexaminations" of it, let alone silly anachronistic attempts to drag references to Nazism into the
matter. That he lacked any understanding of evolutionary biology, the subject he was trying to get banned, is pretty obvious.

<snip>
< Oh yes, Bach. Wolff talks about university students helping out as instrumentalists at Leipzig. Could they have played a role in the choir also? >
I'm glad you bring this up. One can't prove anything, of course, but this has always seemed highly likely to me. We know Bach in Leipzig had difficulties in organizing enough capable musicians to provide music for the four city churches, and used "outside" instrumentalists. Why would he have turned down talented singers from the university (or from elsewhere) if they were willing to help out?

< Does anyone know if castrati were employed by any of the Protestant sects in church music? >
It seems highly unlikely, since the Catholic church also formally condemned castration, and had done so for many centuries. The castrato phenomenon is a huge monument to blatant hypocrisy on the part of the church. Castrating young boys, on the off chance that they might turn out to be good singers when grown-up, was highly sinful and illegal -- but the princes of the church liked the sound, so they couldn't be bothered to look into where and how the castrati they for their chapels were made.

Tom Hens wrote (March 9, 2006):
Tom Hens wrote:
<< Once again: we know with absolute certainty that at least in Weimar for Bach falsettists were the real thing, for both soprano and alto parts. >>
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote:
< Could you please expatiate on this for those of us like me who are not as learned as you. I do not know of Bach using falsettists or counter-tenors or whatever we are calling them. >
I was just referring to something I already posted three days before the message you were replying to. To repeat: when Bach arrived in Weimar, the court chapel employed just 6 singers, all male, and all adults. There was one bass, two tenors (both of whom were also "secretaries"), one "falsettist", Mr. Weldig (who was also master of the court pages, Bach's landlord, and later C.P.E.'s godfather), and two sopranos ("discantists"). Since there isn't really a current term for falsettists singing soprano parts, one can say that half of the singers in the Weimar chapel were what we would now loosely call countertenors.

< I know (and I freely admit to being a music lover and not a scholar in music in any way whatsoever) only of Bach's using young males whose voices had not yet changed for the soprano and the alto parts, both in choir and as soli. >
That is often assumed for the Leipzig works. But according to Wolff, the pupils of the Thomasschule could be up to 23 years old. On the one documented occasion when Bach auditioned new recruits for the school in 1729, they ranged in age from 13 to 19. If only prepubescent boys had been around, where would Bach have gotten tenors and basses from? If the "grown-up" pupils of the Thomasschule could provide tenors and basses, they could also have provided countertenors/discantists. The assumption that only boy sopranos and altos sung in Bach's Leipzig works just doesn't seem substantiated to me.

Eric Bergerud wrote (March 9, 2006):
[To Tom Hens] I'll work a little on my writing because it seems as though I might not be putting things clearly.

1. I said that adolescence has begun about two years (not exact: experts argue about this: might be time and place) since industrialization. I didn't at all say that the character in Dickens benefited from the long term process I speak of. Indeed, the people you mention (the very poor, urban and rural) were the last to benefit. That said any demographer knows that people have grown considerably bigger and stronger in the last two hundred years. Unless the smokestacks or Bic pens have caused some genetic change, the obvious conclusion is that children get much more protein when young and throughout youth and consequently enter adolescence faster than earlier. (One must also include basic public health: parasites were rampant before this century.) This could only happen in a society that was transcending scarcity. Industrialization fits the bill. The world is not only richer now than since 1776 (the year Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations), it's so much richer than we can't measure the increase. Any economist that studies the behavior of people leaving subsistence economy will tell you that the first thing they spend extra money on is food. It's ugly irony that our world may be harmed by Big Macs, but believe me, regular portions of meat/protein three times a day (more likely one time a day if a family was doing ok) was something only reserved for the small wealthy elites until industrialization caused the middle class to explode. Now if you can find one single credible source that disputes World Demographic 101 please alert me.

2. American universities and seminaries are leaders in the study of early Christianity. They are at the top of one of the hottest fields in the humanities. If you want to Google the 700 Club, be my guest. You might try English paganism while you're at it.

Chris Rowson wrote (March 9, 2006):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< any demographer knows that people have grown considerably bigger and stronger in the last two hundred years.. . >
Are you sure of this? If you can point me to any evidence for this I would be very grateful.

I am currently observing a discussion on a group concerned with 18th C clothing which is engaged with this topic, and thus far the conclusions seem to be rather surprising. In general, their evidence seems to suggest that the average height varies from time to time and from place to place, but does not always increase.

Tom Hens wrote (March 13, 2006):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
<snip>
< That said any demographer knows that people have grown considerably bigger and stronger in the last two hundred years. >

Assuming that's true, that gets us back to around 1806, not 1706. And no systematic records of such things were kept before well into the nineteenth century, as far as I know.

< Unless the smokestacks or Bic pens have caused some genetic change, the obvious conclusion is that children get much more protein when young >
Much more compared to when and where? Do you have any information about the protein intake of Saxon children from the social strata from which Bach's singers were drawn, during the late seventeenth, early eighteenth century?

<snip>
< Any economist that studies the behavior of people leaving subsistence economy >

I'm not quite clear what you mean. Are you claiming that Saxony during Bach's lifetime was in the process of emerging from a subsistence economy, or that it was a subsistence economy until after his death? Neither seem to fit with what I've read about the area and the period.

<snip>
< Now if you can find one single credible source that disputes World Demographic 101 please alert me. >

You haven't given one single source that says anything at all about the food intake in early-eighteenth century Europe or Saxony in particular. Or about the impact that this would have had on the age at which boys reached puberty. Or about what impact this in turn would have on their singing -- as has already been said several times before, some boys manage to keep on singing throughout the process. Or about whether any of this means that Bach only used boy sopranos and altos, not adult falsettists. J.F. Agricola was there at the time, both before and after his own voice broke. His mention of 14 years as the average age for this to happen seems like a pretty incontrovertible source to me. And the one surviving record of Bach auditioning potential new pupils for the school gives their ages as ranging between 13 and 19 -- IOW, many if not most of them would already have gone through their voice change before they even set foot in the school.

< 2. American universities and seminaries are leaders in the study of early Christianity. They are at the top of one of the hottest fields in the humanities. >
Your definition of hot must be an entirely different one from mine. And I'll stick with Karlheinz Deschner for the history of early Christianity, if you don't mind.

< If you want to Google the 700 Club, be my guest. >
Oh dear.

 

Continue on Part 2

Boy Soloists in Bach's Vocal Works: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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Last update: March 27, 2008 11:14:45