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Counter-tenors in Bach’s Vocal Works

Part 2

 

 

Continue from Part 1

Do you prefer counter-tenors in Bach?

Juozas Rimas wrote (May 24, 2002):
I'm now listening to Herreweghe's "Magnificat", the tenor and alto duo.

The counter-tenor (Lesne) seems to be even better than the tenor but I just can't get rid of the stupid associations aroused by the high male voice. I know this is nonsense and that it is more correct from the historical point of view but it is possibly beyond me to listen to counter-tenors without the sense of biological unnaturalness of the voice.

Are you completely comfortable with counter-tenors in Bach? Don't you occasionally feel an unconscious inclination to female altos, even if they are less expressive?

Olle Hedström wrote (May 24, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] Yes, I agree, and I do not find female altos less expressive than counter-tenors. I think that Bach would have loved hearing our interpretations of his music today, had he been able to, with the females as part of the performances. I think our peformances with both men and women are superior to the ones without women involved.

Charles Francis wrote (May 24, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] With regards to HIP, Rifkin has noted Bach did not use any counter-tenors in his Leipzig works.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 24, 2002):
Juozas Rimas Jr commented and asked:
< I'm now listening to Herreweghe's "Magnificat", the tenor and alto duo.

The counter-tenor (Lesne) seems to be even better than the tenor but I just can't get rid of the stupid associations aroused by the high male voice. I know this is nonsense and that it is more correct from the historical point of view but it is possibly beyond me to listen to counter-tenors without the sense of biological unnaturalness of the voice.

Are you completely comfortable with counter-tenors in Bach? Don't you occasionally feel an unconscious inclination to female altos, even if they are less expressive? >

and

Olle Hedström replied:
< Yes, I agree, and I do not find female altos less expressive than counter-tenors. I think that Bach would have loved hearing our interpretations of his music today, had he been able to, with the females as part of the performances. I think our performances with both men and women are superior to the ones without women involved. >
There may be a built-in prejudice toward counter-tenors for various reasons, one of which may be sexist predilections. A friend related to me the following from a German TV interview that Andreas Scholl gave (I realize that this is hearsay because I did not see this interview myself, but the incident that he related seems to bear out this notion of sexist thinking): At the very first notes of a recital that Scholl gave, a woman in the first row began laughing noticeably (rather unnerving for a performer of generally serious music.) He found out later that this woman thought that his voice sounded 'funny' because she was expecting something else. This is perhaps the 'sense of biological unnaturalness of the voice,' that Juozas refers to. I personally find that some counter-tenors singing Bach sound 'funny,' or at least make me very uncomfortable, because they either lack control of the voice (it sounds as if it would break at any moment) or because they have developed idiosyncratic techniques that seem unsuited to singing Bach's sacred music. Scholl, however, is one of the few existing counter-tenors that are exceptions to these observations. If this woman in the front row had had sufficient exposure to all the counter-tenors singing Bach today, she would have noticed that Scholl's voice is different, just because it is under very good control and is generally devoid of some of the unpleasant characteristics of most other counter-tenors. In American culture, several decades ago, a TV program, "Laugh-In" had a recurring stock figure that represented the worst aspects of our cultural antipathy for counter-tenors. This tall man appeared on stage with a ukulele (perhaps the smallest instrument that one could consider to accompany oneself) and then proceeded to sing in the counter-tenor (or even soprano range.) This act never failed to produce laughter, and unfortunately, I am constantly reminded of this image whenever I hear less than excellent male voices attempting to perform Bach in this high range.

Comparing good counter-tenors with the female alto voice is a bit like comparing apples with oranges. Listen to a Bach aria sung by Julia Hamari and you will soon become aware of the warm, rich, velvety tone that a counter-tenor lacks. Sometimes the 'heaviness' of the female alto voice expresses extremely well the human emotions such as grief and sadness that Bach loves to assign to the alto voice. These voices, with great depth and volume possible in the low part of the range, seem to expand to fill out the space into which they are singing. They also tend to want to sing at slower tempi than those which the conductor might want. On a personal note, I grew up dreading to hear female altos singing Bach. Despite the fact that Bach has preponderance of good alto arias in his vocal output, I could hardly stand the sound made by local talents or the few recorded altos that I had been able to listen to. Little did I realize that there were such voices as Kathleen Ferrier's that could sing these alto arias properly and move me deeply.

A counter-tenor such as Scholl is a completely different experience when listening to a Bach aria. As far as I know, there are no, or very few, recordings of counter-tenors with a non-HIP orchestral accompaniment. So it appears the non-HIP vs. HIP plays a strong role in the choice of the type of voice. If a female alto voice such as those mentioned sings Bach, there is a deep emotional response on my part to the feelings and thoughts expressed, but with a counter-tenor such as Scholl, I sense more of an ethereal beauty that moves me from a very different direction. Yes, the expression of the words vocally is very different, but it moves the heart nonetheless. Resorting to exaggeration to make this distinction clear, I would say that the female alto achieves with brute emotional force, what the counter-tenor achieves through subtle nuances and easy manipulation in the high range of the voice. There are obvious differences in timbre between these voices, but also in the volume level. What the female alto can project to an audience in the low range is much greater than that which a counter-tenor can muster, who makes up for that lack in the higher range where it begins to sound more trumpet-like and achieves greater brightness of color in that range.

So, generally speaking, I think there is the distinction between the 'earthy' (more inclined to produce a gut reaction in the emotional state of the listener) and the 'ethereal' (I hesitate to say 'intellectual' reaction because that would imply devoid of emotion which it is not) qualities that I associate with these two distinct categories of voices. Excellent recordings that demonstrate these categories can be found and as different as they may sound, they add new, viable dimensions to our understanding and enjoyment of Bach's vocal works. These are the ones that I return to again and again to remind myself that both can exist side by side and both have something special to offer the listener.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 24, 2002):
< Charles stated: With regards to HIP, Rifkin has noted Bach did not use any counter-tenors in his Leipzig works. >
Just what kind of evidence does Rifkin provide to back this up?

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 24, 2002):
In response to Charles statement:

Arnold Schering, in his "Johann Sebastian Bachs Leipziger Kirchenmusik" (1936) [a frequently cited work in musicology, it seems] on p. 40, after stating that females were never used in Leipzig in Bach's times, stated:

“Es liegen zwingende Gründe zu der Annahme vor, daß an Stelle der solistischen Knabensoprane und Knabenalte häufig, ja bei einzelnen Kompositionsgruppen ausschließlich, Männerfalsette eingestellt worden sind." [There apersuasive reasons to assume that male falsettists were frequently used in place of the usual solo boy sopranos and altos, and, in the case of certain types of compositions, they (the falsettists) were used exclusively.] Schering then proceeds to elaborate on these reasons.

Charles Francis wrote (May 24, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Actually, I made a mistake and confused the Rifkin CD notes to his OVPP Bach B minor Mass with those by Mark Audus for the OVPP Parrott version. So, I must correct myself - Rifkin has indicated that Bach may have used young falsettos at Leizpzig, but Audus writes "Another important feature [of Parrott's performance] is the use of boy altos, rather than counter-tenors (which Bach never employed at Leipzig)" - no evidence given for this statement unfortunately. Maybe Parrott's 'Essential Bach Choir' has more info?

Joost wrote (May 24, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] Did you have the same problem listening to the Bee Gees, the Beatles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and the numerous contemporary male pop vocalists who are also singing with (sometimes extremely) high voices, but who are not presented as high singing soloists, but just as the singer(s) of the band?

Juozas Rimas wrote (May 24, 2002):
[To Joost] No problems, mostly because the voices are not "classical" but rather usual, with no classical training; the classical, especially operatic, voices are trained for increased volume and control; in my language a voice trained this way is called "built up" - what is it called in English?

So male voices in pop are not "classical" and they can be quite high without creating the associations. However, there is one notable exception that probably in a way spoils my enjoyment of Bach counter-tenors: it's Jimmy Somerville. I actually like one of his tracks ("To Love Somebody" - originally by Bee Gees?) but it is well-known what culture he represents...

Robert Sherman wrote (May 24, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] I agree completely. Counter-tenors strike me as biologically unnatural and for that reason make it hard for me to relate to them. Ditto for altos singing bass roles, as in Händel's Julius Caesar.

Counterternors, with the exception of Mera, also sound just plain unpleasant to me: Cold, hard, and hooty.

IMO music is a living thing, not history. Outhouses are historically correct, as is the "surgery" that blinded both Bach and Händel. So is the denial of voting rights and denial of performance rights to women. We have better options now and we should use them.

Robert Sherman wrote (May 24, 2002):
[To Joost] You might also have asked about superb classical groups -- King's Singers, Chanticleer -- that use male altos. My answer is yes, I have the same problem there. These groups are incredibly good but I always find myself thinking how much better they would be with both males and females.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 24, 2002):
< Charles commented and asked:
Actually, I made a mistake and confused the Rifkin CD notes to his OVPP Bach B minor Mass with those by Mark Audus for the OVPP Parrott version. So, I must correct myself - Rifkin has indicated that Bach may have used young falsettos at Leipzig, but Audus writes "Another important feature [of Parrott's performance] is the use of boy altos, rather than counter-tenors (which Bach never employed at Leipzig)" - no evidence given for this statement unfortunately. Maybe Parrott's 'Essential Bach Choir' has more info? >
Yes, he does! Essentially he rehashes Schering's comments and amplifies them with additional source materials. The key element here is Bach's use of the 'studiosi' [these are Leipzig University students, some of which took private music instruction from Bach and played with/under him in the Collegium Musicum] in his church music. A list of some of the paid performers (all male, of course) included instrumentalists and basses (vocal). Parrott quotes the famous 'Entwurff' where Bach states:

"Indeed, it is acknowledged that even my predecessors Messrs. Schele and Kuhnau had to avail themselves of assistance from the 'studiosi' if they wanted to produce a full and well-sounding musical ensemble - which they could actually do then, insofar as several vocalists (viz. a bass and tenor, and EVEN AN ALTO [my emphasis]) as well as instrumentalists (particularly two violinists) were separately favoured with stipends by a Most Nobel and Most Wise Council and were thereby moved to strengthen the church ensembles."

Wolff (1999), Koopman (1998) and Smithers (1997) have all pointed out that Bach probably was afraid that by asking for more money to pay all the additional soloists that he needed, he would have defeated his main purpose in the 'Entwurff' which was to get some money from the council without asking for the 'pie in the sky.' Bach probably knew [and very likely the City Council knew this as well) that he could rely on his personal music students (remember that 'students' = 'studiosi' means only from the university, not from the 'Thomaner Schule') and perhaps some of the 'studiosi' that performed with him in the Collegium Musicum to perform his church music without remuneration, although he probably did everything he could to arrange a payment if it was possible. Kuhnau also paid such performers out of his own pocket. This may have forced Bach to do likewise, and for these individuals there would be no record of payment. Both Kuhnau and Bach were very concerned about losing good singers (and there may well have been some counter-tenors among them) to the Dresden Opera where they would be paid handsomely for their efforts. The only way to hold onto such singers is to pay them enough for their efforts, something that the city council tried to avoid because they knew that Kuhnau, for instance, had taken care of such students on his own. The same pressure (a precedent had been set) would have been applied to Bach to make him pay for these soloists himself. That is why Bach avoided overstating his needs ('overstating' as seen by the City Council) regarding these additional soloists that could not come from the Thomaner Chor. Bach was trying to be ever so reasonable, while, in his heart, he knew that he could use more vocalists and instrumentalists than are listed as a minimum requirement in the 'Entwurff.' It was a matter of politics, not a statement of what Bach really believed was the ideal number of vocalists and instrumentalists.

Now we are getting close to the subject of OVPP which I wanted to avoid, since the question really was about Bach's use of counter-tenors. So far I have not seen any evidence that would seem to preclude Bach's use of 'falsettist' counter-tenors. Also, it does not appear that any females were used in Bach's sacred music which he performed in the Leipzig churches.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 24, 2002):
< Robert Sherman wrote: I agree completely. Counter-tenors strike me as biologically unnatural and for that reason make it hard for me to relate to them. >
What is "biologically unnatural" about a counter-tenor? Every human voice, male or female, has a "head" register and a "chest" register. People tend to speak in the chest register most of the time, and the head register has got tagged with the derogatory word "falsetto" as if there's something false about it, but it's natural. Singers work at developing the strength of both voices, along with a blended sound that brings in some characteristics of each. Counter-tenors and sopranos work in the head voice almost all the time, and singers of the lower voice parts work in the chest voice most of the time. There's nothing "biologically unnatural" about this. I hope you wouldn't say that a left-handed person is unnatural....

Juozas Rimas wrote (May 25, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] If you meet a women speaking in an unusually low voice, doesn't a thought about unnaturalness cross your mind?

Frankly, I wonder why there are no (are there?) woman baritones while we have male altos.

Pete Blue wrote (May 25, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] I think Brad makes a convincing case for the "naturalness" of the counter-tenor voice. It was a popular voice type in 17th Century England -- Henry Purcell, one of favorite composers, was reknowned for the sweetness of his voice in that range.

Someone alluded earlier to Tiny Tim as an example of the unnaturalness of falsettists. But there are comparable weirdos among coloratura sopranos (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Irish tenors (Jerry Colonna). What's more natural about THEM?

Speaking of tenors, no voice is less "natural" than that of the operatic tenor, especially great ones with squillo, like Franco Corelli and Mario Lanza and Pavarotti. It is a cliche in operatic circles, meant only half jokingly, that the reason such tenors are so
stupid is that singing up there fries the brain.

Listen to Paul Esswood's "He Was Despised." I feel sorry for those who can't get past the voice type to the great artistry there. Ditto for Frankie Valli.

Sorry, the Esswood aria I intended to cite was "But Who May Abide", not "He Was Despised". The latter was sung unforgettably (except by me of dim memory) by Janet Baker in the Mackerras "Messiah".

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 25, 2002):
< Juozas Rimas Jr asked: Frankly, I wonder why there are no (are there?) woman baritones while we have male altos. >
As a young teenager living in a small town, I was asked to provide a piano accompaniment and to help 'hammer out' the parts when necessary for a local 'secular' chorus that had taken upon itself to perform the Brahms Requiem using local talent that was available. Being unable eventually to assemble the necessary orchestra, it was decided that an organ would provide the accompaniment in the public performance. The baritone part (later I was to hear Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing this on recordings) was taken by a female. At the time, however, I never seriously questioned the use of a female in this part since this was my first exposure to this marvelous music (becoming acquainted with it from the inside out and starting from scratch with singers who obviously had never sung these choral sections before.) Everything seemed to follow the motto: make do with what you've got. Well, what we had was a special female friend of the female conductor, a friend that could easily sing the part better than any local talent because she obviously had a well-trained voice and managed the part quite well technically. She simply sounded like a super contralto with a smoothly extended range downwards. The biblical texts that Brahms chose for this part do not imply a sexual role as would certain Lieder cycles by Schubert and Schumann. As a result there was no objection that I can remember to a female singing a non-sexual role in a range normally reserved for male singers. Also, there was, if my memory of this voice does not fail me as I look back with rose-colored glasses at this earlier period of my life, no perceptible shift from 'chest' to 'head' voice as Brad Lehman explained these terms. A well-trained voice, as I understand it, wishes to create the illusion that there is no break from one to the other as one sings an ascending scale. This is what I think I remember hearing back then. Since that one-time event long ago, I have never heard again a classical music composition written for baritone sung by a female voice.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 25, 2002):
< Juozas Rimas wrote: If you meet a women speaking in an unusually low voice, doesn't a thought about unnaturalness cross your mind? >
No; in fact, my wife has an unusually low voice, and typically sings tenor or low alto.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 25, 2002):
< Pete Blue wrote: I think Brad makes a convincing case for the "naturalness" of the counter-tenor voice. It was a popular voice type in 17th Century England -- Henry Purcell, one of my favorite composers, was reknowned for the sweetness of his voice in that range. >
Indeed, and agreed.

Here's one more fun angle. Purcell's opera "Dido and Aeneas" was written for a girls' orphanage. I've been wondering for years: when is somebody going to record it with females singing all the solo roles? Aeneas' part goes only down to D below middle C, within reach of an alto; all the other parts are higher. But no, it's modern taste that "there has to be a man in there singing Aeneas"...!

Tom Hens wrote (May 26, 2002):
< Juozas Rimas wrote: Frankly, I wonder why there are no (are there?) woman baritones while we have male altos. >
Basic physics and anatomy.

The human vocal cords operate pretty much like the strings on a musical instrument. You can't make a string resonate below its basic frequency. However, you can make it produce higher frequencies, either by shortening the string's effective length (which a violinist or guitarist for instance does with the fingers of his left hand), or by increasing the tension on the string (which with violins and guitars is done when tuning the instrument). Both these things can be done with the vocal cords, to a certain anatomically limited extent, but you cannot ever go lower than the lowest possible frequency.

This lowest frequency tends to be much lower in men than in women, because the human laryinx, which has the vocal cords in it, is a secondary sexual characteristic, and in males undergoes a growth spurt at puberty (or, more colloquially, their "voice breaks", and they get an Adam's apple). Adult males therefore have longer vocal cords, on average, and a lower basic frequency to their voice than women. That was the whole idea behind castrati: by castrating a boy very early, he missed out on normal puberty, his larynx only expanded proportionally with the rest of his body (as it does with women), and he ended up with his voice in a soprano or alto range.

This doesn't mean that there aren't women with naturally very low voices, or men with naturally very high voices, just as the fact that men are on average taller than women doesn't mean that there aren't any women that are taller than most men, or men that are shorter than most women. What we do have is a culturally determined problem where a low voice is associated with "masculinity", which makes many men nervous about singing in a high register (to a large extent because "not masculine" is in turn culturally associated with "homosexual"), and makes many women nervous about singing in a low register for the same reasons.

I might also add that sopranos use exactly the same vocal techniques to achieve their high notes that male falsettists use to achieve theirs (men and women do not have differently constructed larynxes, it's just the average size that differs). It's a matter of cultural prejudice that many people have grown used to hearing only women sing this way, not men (at least in classical music -- in pop music, as has been pointed out, the falsetto voice has always been a very "natural" presence). This prejudice definitely didn't exist in Bach's time.

Tom Hens wrote (May 26, 2002):
I think I'm finally beginning to see what Juozas's problem is, based on the combination of these two statements:

< So male voices in pop are not "classical" and they can be quite high without creating the associations. However, there is one notable exception that probably in a way spoils my enjoyment of Bach counter-tenors: it's Jimmy Somerville. I actually like one of his tracks ("To Love Somebody" - originally by Bee Gees?) but it is well-known what culture he represents... >

and:

< If you meet a women speaking in an unusually low voice, doesn't a thought about unnaturalness cross your mind? >

My guess is that by his repeated use of the vague term "the associations" he means that he associates high male voices with effeminacy, and in turn associates effeminacy with homosexuality, and homosexuality makes him uncomfortable. He seems to be using "unnatural" as the old-fashioned euphemism for "gay", which wasn't an unusual usage of the word many, many decades ago (it's OK to say the word out loud these days, Jozuas). It says a lot about his cultural assumptions and stereotypes, and nothing at all about singing.

It's something counter-tenors have had to put up with since the voice type reemerged as a solo singing voice in the 1950s (it had never died out in the English choral tradition, of course). Even today every counter-tenor who's interviewed caexpect strange questions about his sexual identity and orientation -- questions that nobody would ever dream of asking of a bass or tenor, or female soprano or alto, despite the fact that those people's voices are just as "natural" or "unnatural" as his.

I'm reminded of an anecdote about Alfred Deller, from the days when he was almost single-handedly bringing the counter-tenor voice back to life. After a concert in Germany, with an audience most of whom didn't really know what a counter-tenor was and who probably had never had an opportunity to hear one before, a well-meaning lady from the audience eager to learn more came up to him. She'd probably read something about castrati, but didn't know the proper English word. So she asked Deller, in heavily accented English:

"Excuse me, sir, are you eunuch?"

Deller politely replied:

"No, madam, I am unique."

Robert Sherman wrote (May 26, 2002):
< Tom Hens wrote: It's a matter of cultural prejudice that many people have grown used to hearing only women sing this way, not men (at least in classical music -- in pop music, as has been pointed out, the falsetto voice has always been a very "natural" presence). This prejudice definitely didn't exist in Bach's time. >
No, there was an inexcusable cultural prejudice against women in public performances.

Tom Hens wrote (May 26, 2002):
< Robert Sherman wrote: I agree completely. Counter-tenors strike me as biologically unnatural and for that reason make it hard for me to relate to them. Ditto for altos singing bass roles, as in Händel's Julius Caesar. >
What performance of Händel's Giulio Cesare are you thinking about? I am aware that Karl Richter made a horrendous recording of it once upon a time where he used basses for all the male alto parts. Substituting basses for male altos and tenors for male sopranos used to be common practice in performing baroque opera a long time ago, but I've never heard of an alto singing a role originally written for bass in a Händel opera.

Tom Hens wrote (May 26, 2002):
< Robert Sherman wrote: No, there was an inexcusable cultural prejudice against women in public performances. >
A vast overgeneralisation. In Bach's time, there was a theologically inspired prejudice against women singing in church, or outside church but in religiously inspired music, in some Christian denominations.

Juozas Rimas wrote (May 26, 2002):
< My guess is that by his repeated use of the vague term "the associations" he means that he associates high male voices with effeminacy, and in turn associates effeminacy with homosexuality, and homosexuality makes him uncomfortable. He seems to be using "unnatural" as the old-fashioned euphemism for "gay", which wasn't an unusual usage of the word many, many decades ago (it's OK to say the word out loud these days, Jozuas). It says a lot about his cultural assumptions and stereotypes, and nothing at all about singing. >
Absolutely, I told at the beginning that that was my prejudice I couldn't overcome and wanted to find out if there were others with the same unconscious feeling that prevented them from enjoying counter-tenors. Most use the politically-correct approach, though, and the HIP argument is not forgotten as well.

Incidentally, do you think counter-tenors would be used extensively in Bach now if there were no proof that counter-tenors were common practice in Bach's time? Would it be argumented that despite historical evidence we should make use of the different qualities of male altos?

I somehow feel this is one of the examples of rigid adherence to HIP standarts. Had it been known for sure that Bach used female altos exclusively, only few experimenters would have been thinking of counter-tenors in Bach now. But history is on their side.

Robert Sherman wrote (May 26, 2002):
< Tom Hens wrote: It's a matter of cultural prejudice that many people have grown used to hearing only women sing this way, not men (at least in classical music -- in pop music, as has been pointed out, the falsetto voice has always been a very "natural" presence). This prejudice definitely didn't exist in Bach's time. >
The cultural prejudice in Bach's time was against women doing public performances. This was unconscionable and performances at that time were severely handicapped by it. I see no reason why we should stick ourselves with it now.

Robert Sherman wrote (May 26, 2002):
[To Tom Hens] I don't think Juozas has a problem here. For my part, I don't question a counter-tenors' sexuality -- I have no interest in it. I just don't like listening to them if a good female alto is available instead.

Robert Sherman wrote (May 26, 2002):
< Tom Hens wrote: A vast overgeneralisation. In Bach's time, there was a theologically inspired prejudice against women singing in church, or outside church but in religiously inspired music, in some Christian denominations. >
In other respects too, but for purposes of this discussion Tom's point doesn't contradict mine. Bach was constrained to use male altos because of factors that had nothing to do with his musical judgment.

Uri Golomb [Cambridge University] wrote (May 26, 2002):
I've been following the discussions on counter-tenors and contraltos with great interest, but some of it seems to be affected by a mis-placed dogmatism. I object to the re-imposition of the "male-only" demand -- though in a way I'm glad we've been given the chance to hear an approximation of what that sounded like (with the proviso that Bach's boys were older than the boys used in modern recordings). If that were the only reason for using counter-tenors, I would wholeheartedly advocate abandoning them. But I just don't think this is the case. Counter-tenors might have been introduced into Bach's music because of (possibly erroneous) historical considerations; but they stayed there because some of them are fantastic singers, capable of doing full justice to the music.

This is not an either/or situation, in any case. Many leading historical performers (such as Gardiner, Koopman and Herreweghe) use male and female altos alternately (indeed, Gardiner divided the alto arias of the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) between Michael Chance and Anne Sofie von Otter; and I would count both of them among the strengths of his recording); they also use male and female altos side-by-side in their choirs. This pragmatic attitude -- using the best singers available regardless of their vocal type -- seems to me very appropriate. A one-sided dismissal either voice-type, if taken seriously, will rob us of some wonderful Bach performers.

This is not to deny that others do have strong preferences, and really cannot abide by the counter-tenor voice; I just don't want to see their views acquire a general following among listeners or performers (though, thankfully, I see little danger of this). There are some individual singers whose voices I cannot stand, but I know that other listeners have no problem with them.

Robert Sherman wrote (May 26, 2002):
< Tom Hens wrote: What performance of Händel's Giulio Cesare are you thinking about? I am aware that Karl Richter made a horrendous recording of it once upon a time where he used basses for all the male alto parts. Substituting basses for male altos and tenors for male sopranos used to be common practice in performing baroque opera a long time ago, but I've never heard of an alto singing a role originally written for bass in a Händel opera. >
Norman Triegle sang it magnificently in the 1950s; Tefel or Ramey could do so today if given the opportunity. But my point was that I find it hard to relate to a character coming onstage to portray the military conquerer of half the known world and singing in a voice that could never have commanded armies of his time.

I also have a heck of a hard time relating to the seduction scene in which Ptolemy (sopranist) is trying to put the moves on Julia (contralto) and his voice is higher than hers.

Robert Sherman wrote (May 26, 2002):
[To Pete Blue] Odd coincidence that you should cite this one. The Esswood performance is on the Mackerras recording, which also uses Raimund Herincx, IMO the best Messiah bass recorded anywhere. I've spent more than decades resenting Mackerras' choice of Esswood for this section, thereby denying me what surely would have been a staggering performance by Herincx.

Esswood certainly has good technique but doesn't do a thing for me emotionally. I would cite Scholl (with Christie) as a better counter-tenor example here, although either of Terfel's recordings has more force and majesty than either of the counter-tenors.

I agree with you that Baker's "Despised" is unforgettable. But I think you'll like von Otter with Marriner better. Listen to that and tell me what you think.

Pete Blue wrote (May 27, 2002):
[To Robert Sherman] Bob: I was not citing Esswood in a competitive context, though I believe he can hold his own. I was only expressing my affection for his performance, which was one of the first from a counter-tenor I recall being moved by. Like you, I like a bass voice in "But Who May Abide". My favorite is Georgio Tozzi (for Beecham), who I have never heard surpassed for beauty and feeling and which possesses a certain burly warmth I find incomparable.

As for Baker vs. von Otter, I had a different reaction from yours to the latter; as good as von Otter is, I was underwhelmed by her "He Was Despised". I think she was done in by her conductor. I have never cottoned to Marriner. He has an unerring sense of style in eighteenth-century music, and he always seems to attract the best vocal soloists and orchestra players, who produce beautiful sounds with great precision. But to me it all results in a "play for pay" effect that reminds me of what I can hear any evening at Lincoln Center. The performers unpack their instruments, display their their note-perfect training, weave around a little to make the audience think they're feeling something, then pack up and collect their check. Marriner impresses me, but has never moved me. Mackerras, on the other hand, seems to conduct everything I've heard him do with every fiber of his being (the results are not always successful, of course).

I think it is likely our differences are incapable of objective resolution, a replay of Dombrecht vs. Richter in the SJP, a case of two irreconcilable pairs of ears. That would not be an anomaly on this List.

Tom Hens wrote (May 28, 2002):
< Juozas Rimas wrote: Absolutely, I told at the beginning that that was my prejudice I couldn't overcome and wanted to find out if there were others with the same unconscious feeling that prevented them from enjoying counter-tenors. >
No, at the beginning you only spoke about "the stupid associations aroused by the high male voice", without saying what those were, and said something about "biological unnaturalness". It wasn't until you brought up Jimmy Sommerville later on that you made clear the "assocations" were with homosexuality, and that by "unnatural" you apparently mean "gay". I know English isn't your first language, but all gay people would find that last bit very offensive if it came from a native speaker (I certainly would). Of course, that may not matter to you, and anyway it's a subject outside the scope of this mailing list.

< Most use the politically-correct approach, though, >
I take it that by "politically-correct" you mean they don't share your inexplicable association between the male alto voice and a sexual orientation, an assocation that's made even more inexplicable because you apparently only have it with clasically trained singing voices, not with pop music singers.

< and the HIP argument is not forgotten as well. Incidentally, do you think counter-tenors would be used extensively in Bach now if there were no proof that counter-tenors were common practice in Bach's time? >
No, of course not. The reemergence of the counter-tenor voice, thanks to people like Alfred Deller, was a conscious attempt to revive a voice type that was quite common in Bach's time and before.

Tom Hens wrote (May 28, 2002):
< Robert Sherman wrote re. Händel's Giulio Cesare:
Norman Triegle sang it magnificently in the 1950s; Tefel or Ramey could do so today if given the opportunity. >
I think two quite different things are being conflated here. Whether you pick a counter-tenor or a female alto, or a boy treble or a female soprano, to sing in a Bach cantata, they're singing the same notes. When you start substituting baritones for what were originally alto parts, you're fundamentally changing the music by bringing the vocal part down an octave while leaving the accompaniment unchanged. None of the people you mention would sing the music as Händel wrote it.

< But my point was that I find it hard to relate to a character coming onstage to portray the military conquerer of half the known world and singing in a voice that could never have commanded armies of his time. >
Yes, because we all know that a Real Man must have a really low voice... The fact that "the military conquerer of half the known world" speaks in recitativo secco and regularly bursts out in virtuoso da capo arias doesn't stretch your credulity, as long as he does it in a bass voice? I find that you draw a rather strange line to determine where your suspension of disbelief in an opera ends. Not to mention that the fairy-tale stories of all these opera seria involving historical characters bear little or no relation to historical truth (or we'd have Händel operas about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great that included their male love interests, and without any imaginary princesses), or even any relation to reality in general.

Händel wasn't handicapped by any societal prejudice against female singers. Along with the castrati they were the big stars of the time. Some of his alto parts for male characters were written from the start with female singers in mind (the title part in Solomon, for instance.) And when in later performances for some reason no castrato was available for a particular part, they were normally replaced by a woman (there's no record, as far as I'm aware, of substituting a counter-tenor). There were female opera singers who made a career out of specialising in male roles. The convention of the time was that the male heroic leads had voices in the soprano or alto range, sung either by castrati or women, and that was the convention Händel wrote to. The convention later shifted to this kind of part invariably being assigned to a tenor. That some people nowadays, for entirely non-musical reasons, have a problem with accepting the early eighteenth-century convention that determined how Händel wrote his music isn't any reason to start mutilating his works any more than we have to.

Robert Sherman wrote (May 28, 2002):
< Tom Hens wrote: No, of course not. The reemergence of the counter-tenor voice, thanks to people like Alfred Deller, was a conscious attempt to revive a voice type that was quite common in Bach's time and before. >
Tom makes my point exactly. If we make musical decisions on the basis of intrinsic merit, we will come out differently than if we make them on the basis of historical practices...just as is the case with surgery, sanitation, etc. and etc.

Robert Sherman wrote (May 28, 2002):
< Tom Hens wrote: Yes, because we all know that a Real Man must have a really low voice... The fact that "the military conquerer of half the known world" speaks in recitativo secco and regularly bursts out in virtuoso da capo arias doesn't stretch your credulity, as long as he does it in a bass voice? I find that you draw a rather strange line to determine where your suspension of disbelief in an opera ends. >
OK, if you would have no problem with a romantic opera in which the female lead is sung by a bass and the male lead is sung by a soprano so long as that's what the composer wrote, to each his/her/its own. I'll stick with my pattern of suspension of disbelief, and am not interested in responding to personal attacks on it or anything else.

Juozas Rimas wrote (May 28, 2002):
< Tom Hens wrote: I take it that by "politically-correct" you mean they don't share your inexplicable association between the male alto voice and a sexual >
I emphasize again that it's all at the unconscious level - I know perfectly that perhaps no counter-tenors are gay and I do not caabout that. All I know for sure is that I can't force myself to like them because the voice seems alienating to me. If you really (not because you don't want to offend anyone) enjoy counter-tenors in Bach as much as female altos, I frankly envy you for the greater scope of Bach recordings you enjoy!

<< Incidentally, do you think counter-tenors would be used extensively in Bach now if there were no proof that counter-tenors were common practice in Bach's time? >>
< No, of course not. The reemergence of the counter-tenor voice, thanks to people like Alfred Deller, was a conscious attempt to revive a voice type that was quite common in Bach's time and before. >
One more point I'm convinced in is that counter-tenors were created originally only due to the discrimination of women. It's also a bit like trying to construct a TV set yourself when you can go to a shop and buy it: instead of picking from thousands of female altos and training them, the society burdened itself with picking from several occasions of the rare male alto voice to sing parts that obviously fit women. And all that only because of custom...


Genesis of a countertenor (was: basses list)

Continue of discussion from: Basses in Bach’s Vocal Works [General Topics]

Juozas Rimas
wrote (June 21, 2004):
Gabriel Jackson wrote: < shouldn't be suprised that male altos have a normal male speaking voice! (They also all have some sort of baritonal, non-falsetto, singing voice.) >
Can it be possible that all countertenors are in fact tenors who have "migrated" to the category of rarer, more hunted for and therefore better paid singers? From countertenors singing Bach, I've read that at least Mera, discussed lately, has migrated this way (leaving aside the payment aspect which is only my assumption).

Did any of the countertenors (singing Bach) start their carrers as countertenoris as soon as this was possible (after mutation?)? Or did they all sang as tenors, became disappointed for various reasons, then found they can "climb higher" and trained accordingly?

Uri Golomb wrote (June 21, 2004):
Juozas Rimas wrote: < Did any of the countertenors (singing Bach) start their carrers as countertenoris as soon as this was possible (after mutation?)? Or did they all sang as tenors, became disappointed for various reasons, then found they can "climb higher" and trained accordingly? >
Alfred Deller sang alto throughout his singing career. So did James Bowman. I'm sure they're not the only ones; I haven't investigated this, but my hunch would be that most counter-tenors have been counter-tenors throughout their singing career. I know that some of them think of their alto range as their natural singing voice, even though their speaking voice is much lower.

As a student at King's College Cambridge I had the chance to hear several young counter-tenors (in their late teens and early twenties); the college's chapel choir has such counter-tenors in its alto section. These singers definitely started out their adult singing career as altos -- they never had time to be anything else (except for boy sopranos and altos).

Johan van Veen wrote (June 21, 2004):
[To Juozas Rimas] Most countertenors seem to be 'natural' baritones rather than tenors. And as far as I know most of them started as countertenors. Often they discovered their voice when they sang in a choir. Most British countertenors have started singing in one of the college or cathedral choirs which have a tradition of male alto singing. Therefore they had less prejudices to overcome like some of the older male altos (before it became a 'normal' phenomenon), in particular outside Britain.

The best example of a singer who started singing professionally in another register is René Jacobs. He is a 'natural' tenor, which is evident from his speaking voice.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (June 21, 2004):
[To Juozas Rimas] Actually, I think what often happens is that the man is in an uncomfortable spot between tenor and bass, neither is comfortable, so he simply opts for... neither. There was a guy who had that problem in the choir at my university (which sang a lot of Bach), and at a certain point he made the change to singing alto, and it turned out quite well for him, actually...

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 21, 2004):
Johan van Veen wrote: < Most countertenors seem to be 'natural' baritones rather than tenors. And as far as I know most of them started as countertenors. Often they discovered their voice when they sang in a choir. Most British countertenors have started singing in one of the college or cathedral choirs which have a tradition of male alto singing. Therefore they had less prejudices to overcome like some of the older male altos (before it became a 'normal' phenomenon), in particular outside Britain. >
I sing countertenor myself (in church congregational singing, and occasionally in small vocal ensembles) if that's a part that needs a singer; but more often I sing tenor. I also sing the soprano line sometimes (up to F or G at the top of the treble staff) if I'm in the mood, to exercise my voice if I'm warmed up. But back in high school choir I was a 2nd (low) bass. Through further training (private voice lessons to blend the registers) and experience my most normal tessitura now is 2nd tenor or high baritone. Through all this I've lost some of my lowest bass notes, but gained another octave and a half above middle C, a worthwhile exchange in my opinion. Basically, where vocal ensembles are concerned, I sing "utility infielder." :)

I've accompanied some countertenors who are equally comfortable singing either tenor or countertenor; and some who really are more comfortable with the high (i.e. "alto", etymologically) part. The core repertoire here is
of course by Henry Purcell, with his solos and duets. Antonio Lotti (Bach's contemporary whom he admired) was also a countertenor.

My wife sings tenor. She has an uncommonly low speaking voice, too. I can sing higher than she can, and more comfortably. When we sing rounds in the car to amuse our child, she's the one who complains whenever she's started a piece too high for herself.

Monte Garrett wrote (June 21, 2004):
I seem to recall reading an interview of David Daniels who switched from singing Baritone to Countertenor as a student at University of Cincinnati-Conservatory of Music.

Robert Sherman wrote (June 24, 2004):
Mera is the only countertenor I know of who got there by being a tenor first; the others were all baritones. This may be what accounts for Mera's unique, and to my ear superior, sound. He had to create a whole new sound from scratch, rather than just being a baritone who hoots above the break.

Aryeh Oron wrote (June 25, 2004):
[To Robert Sherman] RAFAIK, Mera is neither the ONLY, nor even the FIRST tenor who has made the move from tenor to counter-tenor. Helmut Krebs, the wonderful tenor, who made many Bach recordings during the 1950's and 1960's, shifted from tenor to counter-tenor in the later part of his career. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Krebs-Helmut.htm
However, I am not aware of any recording of Bach vocal work with him as counter-tenor.

Why does it matter if the original voice of a counter-tenor is baritone or tenor? To master the counter-tenor voice and technique is hard in any case. To be able to sound natural and effortless in the counter-tenor range is even harder.



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