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Baroque Voice Types

Continue of discussion from: Members 2005 [General Topics]

Ludwig wrote (January 22, 2005):
[To Gabriel Jackson] Adult men for tenors or boys who voices have changed. In the Baroque age; the voices of Boys were highly valued and this went to the extreams of making the beter singers into Castrati.

The lower parts were done by adult men or adolescents whose voices has changed. More often than not a boys voice which had changed was regarded as a persona non grata by those who formerly gave the boy the time of day and anything else he wanted---figuratively speaking. If he were lucky as a young adult he could remain in the chorus as a tenor or bass.

Counter tenor parts were often performed either by Castrati or Boys although I guess that in a pinch a regulart tenor could do the part. I do not recall that any of Bach's Scores call for a Counter Tenor.

Yes there is a difference in the sounds of Boys voices and that of women. One only has to listen to the Kings Chapel Choirs, Cambridge Univeristy, to hear this and copare the same work as sung by a mixed chorus of adult men and women.

In Bachs time; the place of a woman was in the home to raise children and be a good wife to her husband, caring for the children and him when he came home from whatever job he was doing to support them etc. When we read about Maria Barbara (or what it the other wife?) and the scandal that ensued when Bach allowed her to sing in his Chorus (He nearly lost the job over this and did not stay too long afterwards--I think this occured in Mühlhausen but am not sure so anyone should feel free to correct this) we can see the prejustice and discrimination against Women of the time.

So in general; if we are looking for the sounds that were heard in Bach's time we need to use an all male chorus with some license for women as soloists.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (January 22, 2005):
Ludwig wrote: < In Bachs time; the place of a woman was in the home to raise children and be a good wife to her husband, caring for the children and him when he came home from whatever job he was doing to support them etc. When we read about Maria Barbara (or what it the other wife?) and the scandal that ensued when Bach allowed her to sing in his Chorus (He nearly lost the job over this and did not stay too long afterwards--I think this occured in Mulhausen but am not sure so anyone should feel free to correct this) we can see the prejustice and discrimination against Women of the time.
So in general; if we are looking for the sounds that were heard in Bach's time we need to use an all male chorus with some license for women as soloists. >
From what 'ludwig' writes, it seems that the use of all-male choirs in Bach's time had absolutely nothing to do with the sound, and everything to do with views concerning women. Why would we want to perpetuate such views (and practices thereof) today? Quite frankly, that sounds like something I (and I hope no one else on this list either) would not want to have any part of!

Doug Cowling wrote (January 22, 2005):
Ludwig wrote: < Adult men for tenors or boys who voices have changed. In the Baroque age; the voices of Boys were highly valued and this went to the extreams of making the beter singers into Castrati.
The lower parts were done by adult men or adolescents whose voices has changed. More often than not a boys voice which had changed was regarded as a persona non grata by those who formerly gave the boy the time of day and anything else he wanted---figuratively speaking. If he were lucky as a young adult he could remain in the chorus as a tenor or bass.
Counter tenor parts were often performed either by Castrati or Boys although I guess that in a pinch a regulart tenor could do the part. I do not recall that any of Bach's Scores call for a Counter Tenor. >
Although we seem to have accepted that adult women singing with "white" head tone is somehow "authentic" for performances of Bach, we need to remember that the Baroque period had a wide variety of voice types for different genres and in different places.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the "soprano" line in music was taken by a variety of voice types.

The Spanish and Venetians preferred adult sopranists, men who had been trained to keep the technique of their unchanged voices. This was a heavier sound than we associate with modern boys' choirs. Boys' voices sometimes didn't change until the age of 18 (e.g. Haydn) Thus we really can't hear the music of Morales and the Gabrielis anymore as the voice type died out in the mid-17th century.

The sopranist tradition survived latest at the Sistine Chapel where there were never boys -- the boys choir school was only founded in 1903! -- and the music was always sung OVPP. The sopranists were gradually replaced by castrati, whose unchanged voices had been preserved by a minor surgical operation to cut the vas deferens and upset the hormones of adolescnece (the boys were not fully castrated and many of them continued to develop some adult male physical characteristics and were heterosexually active). Castrati only sang in choirs in Italy: Germany, France and England only permitted them in opera. The last castrato died in the early 20th century and there is a wax recording of him singing late in life.

At the beginning of the Barqoue period, boys with unchanged voices generally sang in sections of 3-4 voices. Victoria's abbey was notable for its statutory prescriptions mandating that 8 boys sing together with three adults on the alto, tenor and bass lines. The "choral" sound was generally normative in English and German choirs, although as the "secunda pratica" of elaborate concerted music grew, OVPP became the norm in German choirs. In England, the choral sound remained through the time of Purcell and on to Händel.

Women were prohibited by statute from any musical role in Catholic, Anglican and Protestant churches, unless they were nuns and sang the Gregorian chant (the polyphony and concerted music was sung by hired male professionals) or if they wer students in girls' academies such as Vivaldi's Pieta where the evidence suggests that the girls themselves sang the tenor and bass parts!

The notion of a mixed ensemble of men and women singing together would have been scandalous in the 18th century. Thus the shock of Bach showing Maria Barbara around the choir gallery -- she certainly never sang in the choir. Even congregations divided themselves by gender, sitting on either side of the church nave. In domestic situations, women sang sacred devotional music and participated in ensemble performance, but always with a strict eye to social propriety.

Händel's oratorios were not church music and thus not subject to the ecclesiastical prohibitions. Thus, we find female opera stars singing in the same performances as boys. It was normative for the soprano to sing with the boys in the choruses, although I think it will be a LONG time before modern period performance ask their soloists to do the same. In Italy, the prohibitions in oratorio were stronger. In the first performance of "La Resurexione" a woman sang the part of Mary Magdalene. The news upset Rome and a message came that the soloist would be flogged publically if she sang the part again. A castrato quickly replaced her. Curious moral vision!

Stephen Benson wrote (January 22, 2005):
Doug Cowling wrote : < At the beginning of the Barqoue period, boys with unchanged voices generally sang in sections of 3-4 voices. Victoria's abbey was notable for its statutory prescriptions mandating that 8 boys sing together with three adults on the alto, tenor and bass lines. The "choral" sound was generally normative in English and German choirs, although as the "secunda pratica" of elaborate concerted music grew, OVPP became the norm in German choirs. In England, the choral sound remained through the time of Purcell and on to Händel. >
A provocative quote from a 1992 review by David Mason Greene in the American Record Guide:
"Boy sopranos seem to be admfor different qualities in different cultures. Italian trebles tend to sound like an elementary-school playground at noon recess. French trebles sound like killing-time in a poultry abattoir. British trebles have a pure, innocent, angelic quality, for which Americans seem also to strive—thereby suckering a large part of the gullible public as to the true nature of children."

Stephen Benson wrote (January 22, 2005):
Doug Coeling wrote: < The sopranists were gradually replaced by castrati, whose unchanged voices had been preserved by a minor surgical operation to cut the vas deferens and upset the hormones of adolescnece (the boys were not fully castrated and many of them continued to develop some adult male physical characteristics and were heterosexually active). >
Compare this to Charles Burney’s comments in his journals from his continental trip in 1770: “[I]t is my opinion that this cruel operation is but too frequently performed without trial or at least without sufficient proofs of a dawning and improvable voice – otherwise there could never be found such numbers of them in every great town
throughout Italy without any voice at all – or at least without one sufficient to compensate for the loss.”

A footnote (presumably interpolated by H. Edmund Poole, the editor of this 1969 Folio Society edition of Burney’s journals) adds: “According to Samber ‘when they used to cut children in their most tender Infancy, there were 200 Eunuchs made, which proved to be good for nothing’: the children were thus made doubly miserable, they were maimed in body and their voice was good for nothing ‘and it is certain, nothing in Italy is so contemptible as a Eunuch that cannot sing’.”

The reference to Samber is to Robert Samber’s 1718 English translation – “Eunuchism Display’d” -- of Charles Ancillon’s 1707 “Traité des Eunuchs”.

An earlier footnote taken from the same source reads: “Three methods of performing the operation were traditionally available. In the first the child was bathed in warm water and decoctions of plants and the testicles were pressed and bruised with the fingers so as to break them down and so prevent their further growth. No cutting of the skin was necessary. A second made the testicles ‘so frigid as at last quite to disappear and vanish, this is done by cutting the Vein that conveyed their proper Aliment and Support, which makes them grow lank and flabby, till at last they actually dry up and come to nothing. Another Method was, to take the Testicles quite away at once, and this operation was commonly effected, by putting the Patient into a Bath of warm Water . . . some small time after they pressed the Jugular Veins, which made the Party so stupid and insensible, that he fell into a kind of Apoplexy, and then the Action could be performed with scarce any Pain at all to the Patient.’”

All this contrasts sharply with the rather benign characterization drawn from the original post.

Eric Bergerud wrote (January 22, 2005):
Doung Cowling wrote: < < The sopranist tradition survived latest at the Sistine Chapel where there were never boys -- the boys choir school was only founded in 1903! -- and the music was always sung OVPP. The sopranists were gradually replaced by castrati, whose unchanged voices had been preserved by a minor surgical operation to cut the vas deferens and upset the hormones of adolescnece (the boys were not fully castrated and many of them continued to develop some adult male physical characteristics and were heterosexually active). Castrati only sang in choirs in Italy: Germany, France and England only permitted them in opera. The last castrato died in the early 20th century and there is a wax recording of him singing late in life. >
A couple of comments:

1. Castrati were banned by the armies of Napoleon - and it was considered a genuine reform. I can't imagine any surgery of that type being anything other than ghastly (and dangerous) when considering the medical technology available. It is a testimony to the terrible poverty found in early modern Italy and Southern Europe that victims were found at all. You can bet the youth of the upper merchant class or nobility were not seeking out the career path. It's also a testimony to the extraordinary power held by parents over their children in that culture.

2. For the curious, excerpts from Moreschi - The Last Castrato are available on Amazon. It's an odd sound no doubt, even though the recording was made around 1900 and the subject was about 60. To my ears the sound is more boy like than female soprano - but not really either.

3. If I'm putting ideas into Doug's very interesting post that don't belong there I apologize in advance. However it does sound as though he is suggesting that boys of the baroque era were physically different than boys of today because of a later onset of adolescence. I don't want to be the list carp on the subject, but I'd sure like to see some support for this view from the field of genetics or medical history as opposed to scholars like Andrew Parrott (who mentioned it in passing.) Unless the research I employed a few years back on a related subject is completely wrong, there isn't any genetic difference between homo sapiens of today than those of 300 years ago. For evolution to function on a long-lived species like humans would take thousands of years unless the evolutionary trigger is something completely unknown to modern science. Instead modern boys in rich nations reach adolescence faster because they are bigger and healthier than boys of the past (much more protein, far fewer parasites stand out especially). This change is completely environmental (not evolutionary), very recent and has taken place in every society that has entered the modern industrial world. (It also is, we think, over in the developed world. In the US and Europe the faster sexual development pretty much stopped around 1970, although the field is still monitored.) In any case, today's 13 year old is a lot bigger and a lot stronger than Bach's 13 year old. (If this were not the case, he would not enter early adolescence.) Modern adults are likewise much bigger, stronger and healthier than were 18th Century adults: the two subjects are obviously linked. So unless there is something unique concerning the development of the voice, I can think of no reason to think that boys of today have weaker voices. I grant that 18th Century boys would have had a longer time to be trained.

Doug Cowling wrote (January 23, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote: < However it does sound as though he is suggesting that boys of the baroque era were physically different than boys of today because of a later onset of adolescence. >
I think most historians of medicine have attributed the early onset to improved nutrition. Talk to many choirmasters who work with boys choirs and they will tell you that anecdotally boys voices are changing as early 12 or 13. If in the 18th century, a boy's voice might stay changed until his late teens, the gain in artistic sophistication would be enormous. A Bach aria sung by a 17 yr-old would be a very different experience from that sung by a 11 yr-old.

Eric Bergerud wrote (January 23, 2005):
The vast increase of protein consumed in childhood is probably why people grow faster and bigger now. (This may actually be a reversion to the original evolutionary model - no real way to tell of course.) General health would be a factor here too. In my research into soldiers, there were references to great difference made by the near elimination of parasites. I know a surgeon who spent four years in Vietnam. He told me that he never operated on a Vietnamese without finding stomach or intestinal parasites - this is why Vietnamese looked so scrawny to Americans. Vietnamese kids in the US, like Japanese kids post-1945, are much taller and much stronger than their parents. I've seen this myself. If we had a time machine, I think people from our world would be appalled by the physical condition of people living in the 18th Century.

I don't know how exact the data concerning adolescence is from the 18th Century. The big question is what was the norm? As always I will standcorrection, but I bet a 17 year old treble would have been pretty rare. (Didn't Bach's voice break at 15?) In any case, the point I'm making is that today's boys would have equaled the physical strength of Bach's boys almost by definition despite the quicker onset of sexual maturity. As previously noted, the relative eras would have allowed Bach's boys to have two, three or maybe four more years of training. I don't discount the importance of this. And their "prime" would also no doubt have been longer than today, also important.

Yet Bach wrote for boys. Physically we should be dealing with very similar "instruments." And a modern ensemble, if well funded, could chose from a pool of boys unimaginable to Bach in terms of numbers. (How many at Thomass' - 55?) Surely that would be meaningful also. Harnoncourt and Leonhardt didn't always strike gold with their boys, but some beautiful music came out their cycle also. So it can be done. And don't you think the top boy soprano in Europe today would sound more like one of Bach's soloists than a female soprano? And shouldn't just one OVPP group try using maybe two boys? Just one? If it can't be done, what does that say about the whole approach?

So if we going to exclude boys from Bach at the highest level let's come clean - people would rather listen to adult female sopranos than to 13 year old boys. So would I in general. I'm sure not asking anyone to deprive Emma Kirkby or Ruth Holton of their means of employment. But if HIP means "informed" instead of "improved" there should be a place somewhere for boys in the big leagues. As it stands today, there is not.

Rant over.

Ludwig wrote (January 24, 2005):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] Now give me a fair hearing. I do not discriminate against women --some of my best friends are. However, there is a sound that can not be duplicated (I have tried) by girls and women in lieu of Boy's voices or castrati(another odious practice of times past).

I would agree that we should not continue the odious discriminatory practices of the past. However, when one is seeking a particular sound---have you considered that is not discrimination but an effort to meet the job requirements?

If I can be as good a secretary as any woman why should I not be given the job if I am more qualified?

Why should a male actor dress up in women's clothes, makeup and wig for an acting job pretending to be a woman when the job calls for a real woman to take the part and a woman can do a better job---and does not have to worry about covering up 5 o'clock shadow or putting on a falsetto voice?

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 24, 2005):
< I would agree that we should not continue the odious discriminatory practices of the past. However, when one is seeking a particular sound---have you considered that is not discrimination but an effort to meet the job requirements?
(...)
Why should a male actor dress up in women's clothes, makeup and wig for an acting job pretending to be a woman when the job calls for a real woman to take the part and a woman can do a better job---and does not have to worry about covering up 5 o'clock shadow or putting on a falsetto voice? >
Why, when it's a man singing, does a part of the voice get dismissed as "falsetto" (as if there's something false or deceptive about it), while if a woman does it it's simply called "head voice" as a normal part of the technique of singing? Women sing in "head voice" a larger percentage of the time than typically men sing in "falsetto" but it's the same thing physiologically. (Plus of course the blending across the break, both for women and men, in vocal training....) Point is, it's only on the men's side that the use of the "head voice" is thought of popularly as somehow less than fully acceptable singing. (Notwithstanding the rise of countertenor acceptance over the past 60 years or so.)

What did Frankie Valli's chest voice sound like??

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (January 24, 2005):
[To Ludwig] This is an answer to a different question. My question is WHY the sound in the Baroque was what it was. Was it a) because boys are better musicians than adult women? b) because boys produce an aesthetically better sound? or c) because, according to the social standards of the time, using women was simply not possible? And the answers:

a) An adult woman will normally be a much better musician than a young boy.
b) The question of aesthetics is one of taste - we can't speak of absolutes here.
c) It was indeed impossible to use women because of the social standards of the time.

Again, the use of boys back in Baroque times was based more or less exclusively on reasons that had NOTHING to do with music. Since those reasons no longer obtain - in most circles where Baroque music is sung, there is no chance that it will appear immoral to anyone present to have men and women singing together - the thing to do would be to use the singer who will produce the better musical results. Our own tastes in tone quality cannot be the deciding factor.

Continue of this part of the discussion, see: Women in Bach' Vocal Works - Part 4 [General Topics]

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

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

Continue of this part of the discussion, see: Altos in Bach's Vocal Works [General Topics]

Gabriel Jackson wrote (January 25, 2005):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] Cara, I have to take issue with you slightly here - whilst noting that you did say "normally" I still think it not entirely fair to say that an adult woman will normally be a better musician than a young boy. A more experienced musician, certainly, but why better?

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (January 25, 2005):
[To Gabriel Jackson] Sure, there are Wunderkinder out there who are better musicians than most any adult, although normally they just do everything on instinct and this can pose problems as they move into adulthood. But surely you would agree that if said Wunderkind manages to make that transition safely, s/he will be a better musician as an adult than as a child, by virtue of acquiring the knowledge needed to shape a musicologically appropriate interpretation, as well as that conscious adult manner of working on one's voice and interpretation which makes it possible to apply that knowledge in practice.

Gabriel Jackson wrote (January 25, 2005):
Cara Emily Thornton writes: "But surely you would agree that if said Wunderkind manages to make that transition safely, s/he will be a better musician as an adult than as a child, by virtue of acquiring the knowledge needed to shape a musicologically appropriate interpretation, as well as that conscious adult manner of working on one's voice and interpretation which makes it possible to apply that knowledge in practice."
A more complete musician no doubt, because of those factors you describe - which are surely the result of greater experience and training - but natural musical intelligence is surely there from the start, if it is there at all?

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (January 25, 2005):
[To Gabriel Jackson] No doubt. However, mere musical intuition (I think that in the case of most children, one would have to call it that) will not suffice, particularly as one reaches adulthood. This is why many prodigies cease to be so... prodigious as they grow older.

Gabriel Jackson wrote (January 25, 2005):
Cara Emily Thornton wrote: "However, mere musical intuition (I think that in the case of most children, one would have to call it that) will not suffice, particularly as one reaches adulthood."
Many adult musicians lack even that!

But the idea that children cannot be good musicand cannot give performances of sublety, intelligence, technical precision and emotional sophistication is contradicted the world over, by choirs with boy (and, increasingly, girl) trebles who do just that.

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Last update: ýFebruary 11, 2005 ý13:48:39