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Counter-tenors in Bach’s Vocal Works

Part 3

 

 

Continue from Part 2

Countertenors and lady alto creatures

David Justin Lynch [Alto & Esquire] wrote (March 27, 2005):
I am an employment lawyer who sings countertenor. The alto section should be open to all altos without regard to gender. Esthetic preferences of audiences and/or directors are irrelevant.Gender discrimination is simply wrong, for the same reasons discrimination based on race is wrong. I would think we could get past stereotypes and appreciate singers based on their abilities. What matters is the ability sing the right notes and sing them musically. Men and women can and do that equally well on the alto line.

Robert Sherman wrote (March 27, 2005):
[To David Justin Lynch] If a man could sing like Janet Baker, Yvonne Minton, or Anne-Sophie von Otter, I suppose I'd have to agree with you. But to my taste, men do not sing the alto line as musically as women. I prefer the dark warm sound of a female alto to the cold hooty sound of a male alto. Hertha Toepper's "Es ist Vollbracht" on Richter's SJP never fails to move me deeply. Countertenors doing the same aria never fail to leave me cold and frustrated.

Others will no doubt disagree, which is what makes life interesting.

That said, and just to prove that inconsistency knows no gender, I admit to greatly enjoying the singing of Mr. Mera. To me he sounds neither like a female alto nor like other male altos. He has an entirely different sound, as if a new instrument were invented, and it's a sound I like.

Doug Cowling wrote (March 27, 2005):
[To David Justin Lynch] I would however say that there are distinctive colours in what is the lowest female voice and the highest male voice. I don't think a female alto can really sing Gibbons' "This is the Record of John". Neither do I want to hear countertenors sing "Selig sind die Toten" at the end of the Brahms "German Requiem". There is a pervasive body of opinion that the modern mixed choir or choral society can sing any music. I firmly believe that we have to consider carefully what voices sing which music and in what numbers. I don't want to hear a 200 voice choral society sing anything from the Renaissance; neither do I want to hear The Sixteen sing "Messiah". The choral scale is all wrong. The resistance to OVPP reflects the choral society "one size fits none".

Thomas Manhart wrote (March 27, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] I am a countertenor myself, but I wouldnt bring the discussion as far as to say, "Esthetic preferences of audiences and/or directors are irrelevant.Gender discrimination is simply wrong" (David's email). The preference of the director is in my opinion very relevant. She/he might have a certain sound expectation for the concert, he/she organizes. If he knows a female alto who fullfills that expectations, i wouldnt see it as discrimination if he does not consider any countertenor to sing. The questions should not be, whether to take a man or a woman for the alto part, but simply the choice of sound and tone colour, thus more a choice of the individual singer, no matter be it man or woman. I, as countertenor, would never blame any director, who tends to rather engage women for his sound preferences, as long as he doesn't verbally condems with it the entire countertenor existance. It is for me the same question as whether a director tends to rather engage a light and bright tenor or a darker heavier tenor voice.

I don't think that an employment lawyer could make a case out of this. Maybe to reach that countertenors and female altos are equally accepted for the audition, but then again, the director will be free to choose again a female alto in the audition - noone can complain about that, right?

David Justin Lynch wrote (March 27, 2005):
[To Thomas Manhart] When the Episcopal Church debated the ordination of women, one of the arguments in opposition was that a woman "didn't look right" in the role of Mass celebrant. Employers often defend discrimination cases by contending their clients won't "accept" women in certain roles (a defense the legislature has now outlawed). Music has always been a reflection of the values of the society in which it exists. It is 2005 in America, and we should be past the idea of using one's personal tastes to deny opportunities to either men or women who sing alto.

Gabriel Jackson wrote (March 27, 2005):
[To David Justin Lynch] In that case, why leave it at people who can sing? Why not let anyone who wants to do so, whether or not they can? What about women who want to be tenors? Is that OK?

If personal taste and judgement doesn't come into music-making, what is the point? Do you really want a judge to decide who can or can't sing in a particular choir, or which soloists should be chosen for a concert? Perhaps a judge could also decide on the tempti and, why not, every other performance parameter?

(I'm not anti-male alto at all, myself, but no-one should be forced to use male (or indeed female) altos if they don't want to.)

Tom Dent wrote (March 27, 2005):
[To David Justin Lynch] This would be a good argument if men and women altos produced the same sound. Clearly they don't except in very special cases (... for example Helen Watts singing for Harnoncourt sounds almost like a countertenor). You might as well say the alto section should be open to all regardless of sound quality.

Blind auditions would be the ideal, even then I would put money on any competent music director being able to 'sex the cherry' with more than 95% accuracy.

More pressingly - why has everyone ignored the Gillesberger-Harnoncourt option of using boy altos? This is very satisfying to my ears when the boys are as good as the Wiener Sängerknaben. In choruses I find that it is quite easy to hear the alto line with boys, when it is often submerged with women and even with countertenors. Test case is the 'Et Incarnatus' from the B Minor mass (BWV 232) in the first Harnoncourt recording. Bach's alto lines often lie low where both women and countertenors have a dark and subdued sound, but boys cut through without difficulty and balance and blend with the other parts.

Dale Gedcke wrote (March 27, 2005):
RE: The appended comments from David Lynch, which are part of a series of postings on equal opportunities for male and female singers in the alto range:

If we pursue this perspective to its obvious conclusion, I will be looking forward to en singing the lead role of Maria in The Sound of Music, and men taking the role of the lead ballerina in Swan Lake.

Mind you, I am a strong proponent of equal opportunity in employment, given essentially equal skills.

But there is a place for "discrimination" and "differentiation" in auditions. Clearly, one needs to differentiate between better and worse performers. Otherwise, we would have to suffer a lot of "worse" performances. Similarly, we need to discriminate between better and worse singers for specific roles. Who would be happy with Michael Bolton singing in a Verdi opera? (Have you heard him trying to sing opera arias?) In every field of music, singers succeed because they produce a desirable and marketable sound.

The choice of boy sopranos versus adult women sopranos comes down to a similar issue. Each tends to sound quite different. In Bach's era he didn't have much choice. But today, one chooses between boys and women in the soprano role based on the type of sound that is intended for the performance.

Should we have lawsuits by young boys claiming illegal sexual discrimination because conductors favor women for soprano parts?

David Justin Lynch wrote: < When the Episcopal Church debated the ordination of women, one of the arguments in opposition was that a woman "didn't look right" in the role of Mass celebrant. Employers often defend discrimination cases by contending their clients won't "accept" women in certain roles (a defense the legislature has now outlawed). Music has always been a reflection of the values of the society in which it exists. It is 2005 in America, and wshould be past the idea of using one's personal tastes to deny opportunities to either men or women who sing alto. >

David Justin Lynch wrote (March 28, 2005):
[To Dale Gedcke] The one exception that would allow gender discimination is BFOQ, or "Bone Fide Occupational Qualification." This would permit a director to hire a woman to portray a woman in an opera oratorio. However, choral parts are a different matter. Not all countertenors sound alike. Not all of us are cold and hooty. Consider David Daniels, Paul Esswood, Brian Asawa, and others who have a mezzo-like sound. Esswood and Janet Baker sang a duet in a Messiah recording I have, and their voices match beautifully. I think it boils down the the abilities of the individual singer, and to voice teachers to train us to do business in a mixed alto section. My teacher works with me as if I'm a mezzo, and that works for me.

Adam Strange wrote (March 28, 2005):
[To Dale Gedcke] Matthew Bourne had a very succesfull run and tour of his all male Swan Lake with british ballet star Adam Cooper as the lead swan.

It's been on DVD for years, and I saw it myself in Tokyo.

I am a countertenor, and I have no problems with erasing the gender line. As a matter of fact, I was given the lead role in a production of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood". It was written for, and has always been performed by women. Betty Buckley is Drood on the Original Broadway Cast album. I got great reviews, and no one had issues with the giving this role to a man who could sing the written line as well as any woman.

Henri Sanguinetti wrote (March 28, 2005):
Thomas Manhart wrote: < Maybe to reach that countertenors and female altos are equally accepted for the audition, but then again, the director will be free to choose again a female alto in the audition - noone can complain about that, right? >
I totally agree. I must say the "listener" is also free to choose. Depending on my mood I much prefer to listen someday to a countertenor, and another day to a female alto or soprano.

I invite any of you to try this experience with for example the classical "umbra ma fiu". You'll see that even the top female singer may seem flat sometimes...

For me it's like wanting some day an aria on harpsichord, an other day needing the piano.

Philip Peters wrote (March 28, 2005):
David Justin Lynch wrote: < Esswood and Janet Baker sang a duet in a Messiah recording I have, and their voices match beautifully. >
[To Dale Gedcke] This is a recording I don't know which sounds interesting. Is it available somewhere?

Philip (whose favourite countertenor is Gérard Lesne)

Doug Cowling wrote (March 28, 2005):
Henri Sanguinetti wrote: < I totally agree. I must say the "listener" is also free to choose. Depending on my mood I much prefer to listen someday to a countertenor, and another day to a female alto or soprano. I invite any of you to try this experience with for example the classical "umbra ma fiu". You'll see that even the top female singer may seem flat sometimes... For me it's like wanting some day an aria on harpsichord, an other day needing the piano. >
So much depends on the historical context and the particular composer. For instance, Händel never used a castrato alto in his oratorios or church music although they appear frequently in the operas: Ptolomeo in "Giulio Cesare" is a good example.

In the oratorios. Händel used counter-tenors and female altos without restriction: the long performance history of "Messiah" in particular has examples of both types of singers. The female alto of "He Was Despised" caused a sensation at the London performance, whereas Händel even rewrote "But Who Shall Abide" for a counter-tenor when he had a particularly fine singer.

In the church music, such as the Coronation Anthems, where the presence of women was forbidden, counter-tenors were the norm. So strong was the prohibition against women singing in church that he wrote the Chandos Anthems for STB choir because the aristocratic chapel had no altos. When the anthems were later sung in the Chapel Royal, he added an alto line.

Thus, for the works of Händel we have three types of alto singers, one of which is impossible to recruit in 2005!

Peter Hoogenboom wrote (March 29, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] In any discussion of this topic, especially when Händel is invoked, it bears mentioning that the first singer in the title role of "Solomon" was a woman.

Peter Hoogenboom wrote (March 29, 2005):
David Justin Lynch wrote: < When the Episcopal Church debated the ordination of women, one of the arguments in opposition was that a woman "didn't look right" in the role of Mass celebrant. Employers often defend discrimination cases by contending their clients won't "accept" women in certain roles (a defense the legislature has now outlawed). Music has always been a reflection of the values of the society in which it exists. It is 2005 in America, and we should be past the idea of using one's personal tastes to deny opportunities to either men or women who sing alto. >
But art is intrinsically about personal taste! Admitting a singer to a group, or engaging one for a part in an opera or concert, is inherently an exercise in personal taste on the part of the person or committee responsible for deciding who gets in. Appealing to this personal taste is, as I see it, a crucial occupational qualification for any artist.

Having said that, if a director hid behind this fact to discriminate against singers of a particular gender, I would be offended. I think that it would be a very difficult case to build, and I think a pattern of hiring altos of a certain gender would be insufficient by itself.

And, on to personal taste, I have to say that the vast majority of countertenors I've heard have sounded uncomfortable in the extremes of their range -- more uncomfortable than most altos. I don't like it at all. Of course, there are many exceptions to that, including most of the countertenors who are internationally famous.

Doug Cowling wrote (March 29, 2005):
Peter Hoogenboom wrote: < And, on to personal taste, I have to say that the vast majority of countertenors I've heard have sounded uncomfortable in the extremes of their range -- more uncomfortable than most altos. I don't like it at all. Of course, there are many exceptions to that, including most of the countertenors who are internationally famous. >
I adore the countertenor voice in Renaissance and Early Baroque music. I've never been satisfied with any of the superlative singers who attempt the castrato repertoire, especially Händel operas. The feeling of strain contradicts contemporary accounts of the otherworldly ease with which Senesino and his colleagues tossed off this repertoire.

By the way, is there any evidence that castrati were ever employed anywhere in Lutheran church music? I remember someone arguing someplace that "Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen" was written for a Dresden castrato.

Doug Cowling wrote (March 29, 2005):
Peter Hoogenboom wrote: < In any discussion of this topic, especially when Händel is invoked, it bears mentioning that the first singer in the title role of "Solomon" was a woman. >
We forget that cross-gender casting in both opera and the stage was an intrinsic part of the Baroque aesthetic. We are so used to seeing women play Shakespeare that we forget that cross-dressing was the norm: in Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice we have a male actor playing a woman who is playing a man. In the opera the role-playing is even more "baroque" when you have women singing male parts and castrati singing both genders.

Although Bach didn't write operas per se (there are the dramas per musica), the use of boys in music with frankly erotic texts takes many of the cantatas into this cross-gender aesthetic. The duets of "Wachet Auf" (BWV 140) of course are allegories drawn from the Song of Songs, but the music has real erotic passion. In modern performances, soloists even camp it up, making goo-goo eyes at each other in opera style. I think the sight of a man and a pubescent boy singing the music would make many modern audiences .

Boyd Pehrson wrote (March 29, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote: < Although Bach didn't write operas per se (there are the dramas per musica), the use of boys in music with frankly erotic texts takes many of the cantatas into this cross-gender aesthetic. >
Doug, I doubt that very many people share your view that Bach used "frankly erotic texts."

< I think the sight of a man and a pubescent boy singing the music would make many modern audiences uncomfortable. >
While you have your thought about this, and I recall you mentioning your idea about it in here before, I doubt that more than very few people will have trouble with this. 99 percent of audiences will probably not even think in those terms.

< By the way, is there any evidence that castrati were ever employed anywhere in Lutheran church music? I remember someone arguing someplace that "Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen" was written for a Dresden castrato. >
I don't know of any use of castrati in Lutheran worship practices, rather, I believe the castrati were used in Italian operas. J.S. Bach did mention one Christian Friedrich Schemelli as a soprano used by him while Schemeilli was in his late teens and
early twenties. This indicates the use of falsetto singers from time to time by Bach, although Schemelli is the only name mentioned (source New Bach Reader). Regarding Dresden and any certain singer for which Bach wrote BWV 51, normal scholarship indicates the Cantata was written for one of Bach's soprano boys in Leipzig. It seems Schemelli was around about the time the BWV 51 was written, but none can say it was written for Schemelli. The Cantata's soprano aria is not exceedingly difficult. Any well trained boy can sing the soprano aria just fine, even today. There is a boy recording this cantata currently in Oakland California.

Robert Sherman wrote (March 29, 2005):
[To Boyd Pehrson] BWV 51 isn't exceedingly difficult? Boyd must know better singers than I do. The recorded literature is full of world-class sopranos who are obviously struggling with one or another aspect of this cantata. I've performed the trumpet part enough to have great respect for any soprano who can do even a half-decent job of it.

Robert Sherman wrote (March 29, 2005):
[To Boyd Pehrson] Count me among the 1%, if that's what it is. The duet in Wachet Auf is intensely, almost comically, erotic. I wouldn't want my son to do it and I would refuse to attend a performance using a boy in that role.

Stephen Benson wrote (March 29, 2005):
[To Robert Sherman] Yeah. This off-hand dismissal of the challenges for the soprano inherent in BWV 51 just about jumped off the screen at me. I had to go back and reread that statement several times. Are we talking about the same cantata here? The cantata doesn't "have" a soprano aria. It "is" an exceptionally demanding extended aria from start to finish!

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (March 29, 2005):
[To Stephen Benson] Well, but particularly the 1st and 5th movements are soprano arias. They are quite humanly possible. But it's true, especially in the case of the Alleluia at the end, you have to analyze the musical text pretty carefully to make sense of those endless runs. Not to mention you have to be in pretty good shape physically if you want to take this material at a fast tempo...

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (March 29, 2005):
[To Robert Sherman] Well, yeah, if it were two mere human beings singing that sort of thing to each other, it would be pretty erotic. And yes, even amusingly so. However, it is clear from the text that we are talking about a spiritual rather than a physical relationship. The singers are actors here, and their gender is probably immaterial.

Obviously, in such circumstances, the citations from the Song of Songs which someone else has drawn attention to in this thread have a different meaning. So I think maybe that business of making goo-goo eyes at each other in modern performances that someone else referred to here might be going a bit overboard.

That having been said, for a person whose relationship with God bears some resemblance to what is written in Wachet auf, who for example wakes up spontaneously in the middle of the night to pray, and feels like they are waking up next to the spouse they love, this kind of language isn't going to be a problem. For someone else, it might be, I suppose...

Charles Francis wrote (March 29, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote << Although Bach didn't write operas per se (there are the dramas per musica), the use of boys in music with frankly erotic texts takes many of the cantatas into this cross-gender aesthetic. >>
Boyd Pehrson wrote: < Doug, I doubt that very many people share your view that Bach used "frankly erotic texts." >
How about Picander's text in BWV 201:

"Mit Verlangen
Drück ich deine zarten Wangen,
Holder, schöner Hyazinth.
Und dein' Augen küss ich gerne,
Weil sie meine Morgensterne
Und der Seele Sonne sind
."

"Filled with longing,
Would I press thy cheeks so tender,
Charming, handsome Hyacinth.
And thine eyes to kiss I'm yearning,
For they are my stars of morning
And my spirit's very sun."

Not only erotic, but homoerotic: http://www.androphile.org/preview/Library/History/jsbach/bach.htm

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (March 29, 2005):
[To Charles Francis] But also not exactly Bible-based church music :)

Robert Sherman wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] As we know, some components of the Church have a bit of a problem with this sort of thing.

I certainly don't question the purity of Cara's motives, but since there is no shortage of fine female singers, IMO it's best to use them and not raise unnecessary complications. Despite what Tom DeLay would have us believe, most of us fall into the category Cara labels "someone else."

Boyd Pehrson wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To Robert Sherman] Let's not forget that Doug wrote:
< texts takes many of the cantatas into this cross-gender aesthetic. >
To which I replied as I did.

Regarding the difficulty of BWV 51, yes, difficult it is, very difficult? yes, but it is not exceedingly so. The group webage has an MP3 of a boy soprano handling the aria quite well.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (March 30, 2005):
[To Charles Francis] How about Picander's text? Well, perhaps we can also understand it in terms of beauty and innocence. We need not limit our understanding of this to terms of flesh. Have we lost all that is golden from the medieval spring from whence this text is drawn?

 

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Last update: ýMarch 30, 2005 ý09:48:49