Women in Bach’s Vocal Works
Young vs Female voicesSebastiano Cossia Castiglioni wrote (December 9, 1997):
Let me briefly introduce myself. My name is Sebastiano, I'm Italian. I am a designer (from publication design to furniture, from typography to software; as Walter Gropius put it: <<From the tea spoon to the city!>>) who 'commutes' between Milano and New York. I have been listening to Bach since I was a kid, and his music is a very important, indispensable part of my life.
I would like to hear some opinions from people on this list about one of the issues of contemporary performance of Bach's music. Should the vocal roles that used to be kids' voices at his time still be performed by kids, as in the Kantaten as interpreted by Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, or should they be performed by women singers? The result is undeniably different.
Take, for instance, BWV 106 in Leonhardt's performance or in Koopman's. Personally, sometimes I favour the 'historically correct approach', as in this case, but some other times I have to admit that, because of the experience that naturally develops with time, women singers can perform with much more accuracy, and maybe contributing what Harnoncourt himself defined as the 'sensuality' of Bach's music.
What are your feelings about this issue?
I would like to suggest (Jan?) that a new section is opened in the wonderful JSBach.org site: a place where we could post all of the public performances we have information about. For instance, I spoke with some members of The English Concert, and I heard that they are going to perform the complete Brandenburg Concerts, and the complete Ouvertures, during a four or five day Bach festival in the Canary Islands next January. Doesn't it sound great? It means Pinnock is going to be performing more Bach in the next future.
But I find it so hard to collect information about good performances! Why don't we join efforts, and try to provide each other with as much info as we can about concerts around the world? Some day, one of us may be travelling to somebody else's country, and find it useful to have Bach concerts information ready to go.
Women vs. Boys in Bach vocal music
F.T.H. den Hartog (Frank) wrote (December 12, 1997):
Let me first introduce myself. My name is Frank den Hartog and I am a PhD student in physics in Leiden, the Netherlands. I am an amateur singer and organist and I have performed some vocal work of Bach with the Chamber Choir of Leiden, including St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and St. John Passion (BWV 245).
Women vs. boys in baroque music and in particular the music of Bach has been a matter of discussion already for a long time. During that time I noticed that many participants deal with music as if it were science. In science questions have only one right answer. Also in music some people tend to look for the only right and most perfect performance of a certain piece, i.e. the one which meets the intentions of the composer the most. They do not seem to be able to enjoy any performance, as long as those intentions are not clear. However, usually the composer has died already long time ago and one cannot ask him anymore. Furthermore, and this is to my opinion the most important issue, if the composer had serious demands on the instruments, voices, dynamics, speed, concert room acoustics, etc., he would have written them down. I realize that this statement is somewhat too bold and needs some refinement, but I will come back to that later. Bottom line is, that a piece of music is always a summing up of what is written, the interpretation of the conductor, the quality and timbre of choir and orchestra, and last but not least, the quality of the used recording techniques. Therefore a piece of Bach will never sound 'pure Bach'. It simply does not exist. Even Bach himself was not able. He had to work with the instrumentalists and choir of and in the Thomaskirche, and it is well known that he did not like the Thomanerchor much. It is therefore hard to believe that he wrote such a magnificent piece as the St. Matthew Passion only for the Thomanerchor, and being performed by anybody else would be less. There is even no sign that the Passion is written only for boys choir in general. So on choosing a recording you should not follow the rule of 'authenticity' but just your own taste. Many times this will be in favour of women just because they are more experienced than boys, and therefore are much better singers. (Does somebody know if there are still castrates existing? :-) ) However, in the St. Matthew Passion the cantus firmus of the chorals could be sung very well by boys, which gives a beautiful total sound, and clearly separates the cantus firmus from the underlying choruses.}
So why all this debate about authenticity, one could ask. That brings me back to the matter of the composer's intentions. Especially in Early Music composers did not write down every little detail on how the piece had to be performed. Partially because they deliberately left it 'in the air', as I mentioned above, but also because many rules were just a matter of common practice, and therefore were not necessary to be written down. Every musician of that time knew that rules. Rules on speed, ornamentations, how to recite, dynamics, duration of fermates, etc. ,but also on which instruments had to be used. A violin in that time (the baroque violin) was much different from the modern violin. In fact most of the instruments were different. And by using the 'wrong' instruments, speed, ornamentations, etc., a lot of composer's intentions could be lost. Therefore the late more or less authentic performances by a bunch of famous conductors have uncovered many beautiful details which were never heard before, because the older performances were so much less transparent. However, changing women voices to boys voices did not always turn out to be that valuable. And then
your own taste will be the final verdict!
Tomasz Wygnañski wrote (January 6, 1998):
We must realize that at the Bach 's time, break in boy's voice appeared much later than today, at about 16-17 years of age. We know that Bach singers were about 16, 17 or even 18 years old. Today we have boys singers much younger, at about 14, because children grow faster and break comes earlier. So we can suspect, that Bach singers were more skilled, because of older age. Today conductors have probably more "problems" with such a young singers: less than perfect intonation, very "tiny" voice etc. But often boys sound great, especially in choirs. Harnoncourt/Bach cycle of cantatas is great. I would also recommend wonderful recording of Bach's Motets with Kanbenchor Hanover, The Hilliard Ensemble and London Baroque (EMI Reflexe CDC 7 49204 2), but unfortunately it was deleted from present EMI catalogue. I hope this recording will be soon reissued under Virgin Veritas Edition label, as most
of older performances form EMI Reflexe series. I think that character of boys' s voices suits perfectly to Bach's church music. So woman voice used today should be similar in character to boy's voice. I like very much early recording of Emma Kirkby, she sounds really like "perfect boy's voice" - same color, but better intonation and interpretation. But many well-established women singers sound uncomfortable in soprano parts when performing sacred music. For example: I find many recording of Barbara Schlick a little disappointing.
About Women in Bach vocal Works
Mario Gatti wrote (January 7, 1998):
I have followed the recent discussion about the employment of blank voices rather than castrates or women in reproducing alto and soprano parts in Bach Cantatas.
I own two recordings that, perhaps, can add a little contribution to the discussion: both them concerning with the same work: Cantata BWV 78, “Jesu, der du meine Seele” and in particular to the second number of Cantata, i.e. the Aria (duetto) for Soprano and Alto “Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten” that, in my opinion (but I think not only) is a favourite of Bach lovers, for the beauty of sound and its voice imitations.
The first (in order of time) recording is that of Karl Richter with Münchener Bach Chor and Orchester, with the solo voices committed to female singers (Ursula Buckel and Hertha Töpper); the second is performed by the Concentus Musicus Wien, over the musical direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with the solo voices committed to solisten of the Tölzer Knabenchors (blank voices).
Well, with all the respect that I have for Harnoncourt and his ability to reproduce in an accurated and philologically unexceptionable manner Bach Cantatas (I own a lot of his recordings, and I like them very much), I must say that, in this case, the “match” with Karl Richter is clearly in favour of the prematurely disappeared Conductor.
The female voices yield the listening more, but more pleasant and I am sure that (in agreement with others that wrote about this question) if Bach had had the opportunity to perform his works with women voices he would have preferred them. Moreover (but this only a personal note on the performance) the Richter realization of the continuo is preferable to the Harnoncourt one, with the use of a quasi-concertato organ that, together with the cello part, produce that image of “schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten” of the text. But this is not concerning with the kind of voice employed.
However it yields the entire piece resolutely beautiful.
If someone is in possess of the same recordings, I would be very happy to know his opinion about that I wrote here.
Favourite Soprano SingersAryeh Oron wrote (January 26, 2001):
< Santu De Silva wrote P.S. What nationality is Magdalena Kozena? I'm guessing Czech or Hungarian. >
Magdalena Kozena was born in 1973 in the Moravian capital Brno, which belongs to the Czech Republic.
< P.P.S. Another favorite singer of mine is Mária Zádori. Has she made any Bach recordings? >
AFAIK, Mária Zádori made only one Bach recording. It is a CD from Hungaroton, which includes Cantatas BWV 57, BWV 58, BWV 59 and BWV 15 (a Non-Bach Cantata ), with Savaria Vocal Ensemble & Capella Savaria under the conducting of Pál Németh. Her partner in these duet cantatas is the Hungarian Bass singer László Polgár. I have tried to get this CD from various sources, but so far with no success. I remember that the late Wim Huisjes, member of our group, spoke favourably about this recording when we discussed Cantata BWV 57 at the very early stage of the BCML.
Johan van Veen wrote (January 27, 2001):
[To Aryeh Oron] No, there is another CD with three secular cantatas. Here are the details:
Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202)
Non sa che sia dolore (BWV 209)
O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit (BWV 210)
Mária Zádori, soprano; Capella Savaria/Pál Németh
rec: 1990 (Harmonia mundi - QUI 903010)
Women and Church choirsBoyd Pehrson wrote (December 22, 2001):
Well, I feel like I am opening Pandora's box by addressing this issue here in Bach_Cantatas, but I suppose it is very relevant to why boys are even singing Bach, ...even today! Regarding your question about using women and girls in church music, I think the reformation churches of Germany's use of girls and women in certain parts of the service such as the Antiphons (sung prayers) and the congregational singing of hymns is consistent with their position on not using women to teach, but "keep silence." Women could not very well keep completely silent during services for they would need to say confession and creed and any hymns to be sung by the congregation during the regular Deutsche Messe. Paul's words about letting women keep silence in the churches was written to Corinthinan Churches who were used to the worship forms of the Delphic priestesses, a non-christian worship practice of Greek mythological gods. Delphi priestesses used to babble incoherently in an apparent trance, and this was a worship form apparently adopted in Corinth. So, Paul was addressing that situation in I Corinthians chapter 14, and the key verse to what Paul is writing is verse 33, where Paul writes that "God is not the author of confusion." In such a situation as Delphi and Corinth, it was indeed shameful for women to speak in the churches there as this immediately recalled Delphic Priestess roles in the minds of the congregation. Paul's only other mention of a woman keeping silent in the churches is in I Timothy chapter 2, but notice it says a woman and not women (plural). Paul is discussing the hierarchy of the family with man as household head, and this translates into the church with pastoral roles for purposes of orderliness. The role of childbearing is naturally reserved to women of course, and this is recalled in the next verses, seemingly to say that a woman will be busy with other important affairs than preaching...such as the raising of all the human beings on earth! Some women did indeed teach some disciples of Paul's time such as Priscilla, wife of Aquila (Acts 18:26) who helped teach Apollos, and Paul records these activities. Also Paul records the activities of a variety of women, such as Lydia who helped him along his way, and contrary to new popular idea that Paul was some misogynist, one should note that Paul names the wives of the rulers he was brought to! He names Felix's wife Drusilla, and King Agrippa's wife Bernice!
As far as Paul's words, some Anabaptist sects of Christianity such as Quakers have completely reconciled Paul's words so that there is no distinction of the sexes in their services. Personally I see the traditional and scriptural instances where Apostle Paul directs men to the roles of leadership and teaching in the church as symbolic in meaning, and vitally important to the church's understanding of scriptures, as are all of her symbols. If some women think this is bad news for them, then they might consider that the representation of women in the church is more than balanced by the place of Mary in the Christian church! While the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity place probably the highest possible value on the virgin Mary, her place in the rest of christendom is certainly central to the incarnation of God, and rightly viewed as such. Luther's own views on Mary were not really different from the Church of Rome. While Lutherans will not submit prayers to Mary, she is a highly valued symbol of the Church in the world, in that like Mary, Christ comes through the church and flows out to the rest of the world. Without support by churches the Gospel doesn't get very far. And, Mary is also increasingly seen in Evangelical circles as a vitally important symbol of God's truth in his Word, and her presence and testimony support the facts of the virgin birth. So, with such a high value placed on Mary, women need not fear for representation any where in the church. Mary's Magnificat is even a part of the regular liturgical church services! I won't give you the histories of other great women of the Bible, but women are there in vitally important roles.
All of this to say that women are not at all "looked down on" in ANY real christian context. In fact, Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28 that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither servant nor freeman, there is neither male noe female: for you are all one in Jesus Christ." Womens' roles in Church services have changed radically since Luther and Bach's time, and in the context of history, I merely speak about these roles of women with regard to church musicological aesthetics and with regard to historical facts concerning Bach's situation in Leipzig, and in historical Lutheran church practice.
Douglas Neslund wrote (December 22, 2001):
[To Boyd Pehrson] That is also my understanding of the scriptures and the context of Paul's proscription.
Takashi Trushima wrote (December 23, 2001):
[To Boyd Pehrson] It's 11:45 p.m. Sunday here in Japan.
Thanks for your response. Sorry I asyou a difficult question, but your response was really helpful for me. I think I have to read the Scripture and Luther's writings again.
Today was rather a busy day. We had a communion service with baptism. As I wrote before, I was going to two boys choirs concerts in Tokyo. So I had to rush out of the church. In the second concert, the choir, Les Petits Chanteurs a La Croix De Bois, sang Bach's Herzlich Lieb (the last chorale of St. John's Passion) in French! But it was beautiful.
Boyd Pehrson wrote (December 23, 2001):
[To Takashi Trushima] Great to hear about your concerts! I would have loved to hear Les petits chanteurs à la croix de bois, singing from Bach's St. John's Passion (BWV 245), in French at a hall in Japan! It would be of cross-cultural ecstasy for this American! For those interested, this can be heard on a CD; the final chorus of St John's Passion recorded in 1966 by Les petits chanteurs à la croix de bois, in French, on a re-release by Disky of the Netherlands, CD number: FDC 883612. This CD has but one chorus by Bach, and the rest is a mix of 9 other tracks of gregorian, Palestrina, and French scared composers, all recorded in 1966.
Thanks for your remarks about my reply! You are most welcome to ask any bachian questions, no matter how difficult! The Hobbits here in Bach_Cantatas may not be able to answer it directly, but they may at least direct you to appropriate scholarly resources if any question is of great difficulty!
Women in music
Uri Golomb wrote (July 21, 2002):
A few points in response to Bob's and Ludwig's:
First of all, there WERE women musicians in Bach's lifetime -- the most notable example being women soloists in opera! (There was an ambivalent attitude towards the women who did this, of course, but they were there). There was no opera house in Leipzig during Bach's time, but he probably did get to hear opera in Dresden, and perhaps other places as well. And, as Ludwig pointed out, women were involved in
domestic music making.
About boys choirs: the difference is due to age, not just gender. We don't often get to compare boys with girls, it's usually boys and women. However, Gardiner did use, on a couple of occasions, the London ORatory Junior Choir (for the soprano-in-ripieno in the St. Matthew Passion, and for selected passages in the Monteverdi Vespro). The
London Oratory Junior Choir is a children's choir -- boys and (mostly) girls; but I'm not at all sure you can tell that just by listening to them. (You can SEE that very clearly when they appear in the video of Gardiner's Monteverdi Vespers in San Marco in Venice). If there is a difference between their sound than that of a British boys' choir, it's much smaller than the difference between a British boys' choir and a German boys' choir (which is why Robert King insisted on using the Toelz boys choir for his Mass, rather than one of the British choirs he employs in his Handel and Purcell recordings); and this latter difference is probably more due to how the boys are trained than to any genetic factors.
In fact, if we want to approximate what Bach's boys sounded like, girls might be our best bet! We don't have what Bach had -- boys in their mid- to late teens with unbroken voices. (Apparently, this phenomenon is quite recent. I recently read that Karl Straube, Thomaskantor between 1918 and 1940, still had older boys singing upper register in the Thomanerchor; but his successor, Günther Ramin, no longer had that option). Some people say that modern, younger boys are the closest thing we have to what Bach used; but is it? I am amazed that no-one (AFAIK) has yet tried to test what this music sounds like sung by GIRLS of the same as Bach's boys; and I, for one, would be interested to hear what that would be like. In musical terms, perhpas age matters more than gender (just think of instrumentalists, for a moment: what matters more, if a Bach keyboard/cello/violin suite is played by a boy or a girl, or if the player is 10 years old or 17 years old? I think the latter; and I think the same applies in a Bach soprano/alto aria).
This experiment will, in my view, be far more interesting than setting up a true all-male instrumental ensemble, along the lines suggested by Bob (perhasp tongue-in-cheeck). This latter experiment, will, in my view, only prove that it makes no significant difference. In fact, we don't have to set up such an ensmeble. If we go outside the realm of Bach and Early Music specialists, at least, we'll find that they already exist -- and I don't just mean the Wiener Philharmoniker. Take, for instance, string quartets. Many -- perhaps most -- string quartets operating today are all-male. Some are mixed, in varying proportions (the Quator Mosaiques and Belcea Quartet, for example, are equally divided; in the former, the first violinist is a man; in the latter, it is a woman). And then there are a few that are all-female -- one of which makes this fact clear from their name, the Sorrell Quartet.
So perhaps someone could set up a listening experiment, using existing recordings, with the same music being played by differently constituted groups, and with a wide range of listeners -- male and female, musicians and non-musicians (the sample should probably include listeners who have had some experience of quartet playing themsleves), some who believe that it will make a difference and some (like me) who believe that it won't. Let's see if anyone -- particularly those who think it does make a difference -- will be able to tell us correctly which groups are single-gender, and which are mixed (and, among the mixed, which ones are led by a woman, which by a man). Those say that there will be a difference shoudl give, before the experiment, a list of what sort of differences they will be looking for. My hypothesis: the rate of success will be indisitnguishable from that which could be achieved by random guessing. (They'll have to make room for calculating someone like me, who will consistently mark the "I don't know" option).
Philippe Bareille wrote (July 21, 2002):
[To Uri Golomb] I am not sure that older boys (16-17 years) in the 18th century sounded much different from the younger choristers of today. Their puberty was delayed by several years partly because of poor nutrition and poor life conditions. Voice breaks in mid puberty and as 17th century people were at least 10 centimetres shorter one can presume that young boys in mid-puberty had actually a smaller thorax than 20th/21st century boys. However, they had more time to train and hone their musical skills. Yet talent in children can be detected very early, and no matter how long you may train a child if he is not endowed with musical gift in the long run it will make no difference at all. I cannot believe that trebles in Bach time produced a different sound from let's say Peter Jelosit or Sebastian Hennig (from Harnoncourt/ Leonhardt complete cantatas). We should not confuse them with castrati. I don't think that young girls are a cogent alternative either. But in the end its all down to personal taste.
To my knowledge Harnoncourt unlike Leonhardt has never used countertenors in his choirs (just as soloists). In his first B Minor mass he used boys alto in the choruses but the soloist is a woman.
Boyd Pehrson wrote (July 22, 2002):
[To Uri Golomb] I like both Uri and Bob's suggestions that a true musical approach to the qualities of various voices be entertained by the listener. Too often, the idea of "equality of the sexes" was used to change the vocal composition of performance forces, without regard to a musical basis of some kind. In the 1980's and 1990's the United Kingdom undertook a vast social and musical experiment with their choirs. Girls were introduced into nearly all of the remaining all male choir organizations. The result was to create separate choirs for boys and girls, with complementary repertoires, and ultimately not to mix them. The musical reasons for this are detailed in the lively exchanges amongst music directors, organists, singers and equality activists, all recorded in the newspapers and periodicals of the time.
Girls had been allowed in cachoirs prior to this time, and girls had sung in parish choirs for 10 centuries before. Women were very much allowed to sing in 16th century churches, as Luther (re) introduced congregational singing in the reformation churches. Historical accounts of German church services include references to the girls' choirs that were present. Even the writings of the 16th century protestant church services prescribe an alternate setting of the antiphons for an optional girls' choir. The Enlightenment brought severe criticism of boys' choirs, which were deemed by critics as "tools of the papacy." During Bach's time the vast boy choir tradition was being eliminated across Europe. By the time of Mendelssohn, boys' choirs were in the minority, and women were the preferred vocal instrument for the high notes in churches. The Oxford and Cecilian movements did "revive" the boys' choir tradition in the late 19th and early 20th century, but this seems to have merely stemmed the tide of extinction. No parallel revival of boys' choirs took place in the generally Roman Catholic countries of Spain, France and Italy. In the 20th century nearly all the remaining French boys' choirs have been eliminated. The Vienna Boys Choir had an increasing number of women singers (Not unlike the Thomanerchor today with women soloists) until just after WWI, the choir eliminated boys all together. The Recktor Schnitt was able to reintroduce all boys some years later. The modern Vienna Boys' Choir is a reinvention of an old idea.
I don't think any boys' choirs remain in the churches of Scotland, if there is one I would be happily surprised. Of the vast boy choir tradition of the 10th- 15th centuries, only about 70 traditional choirs of men and boys remain alive in England, and most of those are now sharing their limited resources with separate girls' choirs, out of 'fairness.' In Germany, there are a handful, in cathedral rich France, Italy and Spain boy choirs are so scarce as to be virtually non existent. I am told about 30 church boys' choirs are operating in the United States. Meanwhile girls and women sing freely and unrestricted in a hundred thousand churches across the globe. Most churches are struggling to figure out how to encourage men to participate more in church singing. The vast majority of recordings of Bach's sacred music are performed with women, and have been since recording was invented. Is this a fair practice? Is it musically competent? Those questions are usually answered first in terms of economics, then in terms of musical taste.
As far as the difference in boys' and girls' voices, the differences are real and unique. In the same vast social experiment of the remaining U.K. boys' choirs, much was published regarding the difference of the boys' and girls' voices. Certainly the more the chest register is used, such as in German boys' choirs, the differences are even more greatly highlighted. There are differences in tone and in performance technique that are peculiar. For instance, girls naturally tend to drift flat and boys tend to drift sharp. The boys naturally tend to finish strongly on sung notes, and the girls tend to finish softly. The tone palette of girls might be considered pastel, while the boys' seem to be bright. Texts sung by girls tend to sound blended, while from boys texts tend to sound distinct. Girls' naturally seem to have a softer, string-like quality when singing and boys tend to have a wood-wind, and bell-like or brass tone. If the differences were chocolate- I'd say the girls are white chocolate and the boys are dark chocolate. Boys have larger voice boxes, and they go through a longer period of voice change. Thus there are training issues that are broadly different in 12-13 year old boys over 12-13 year old girls. Girls at 16-18 do have a richer sound than younger girls, but the differences with boys are still distinct. Girls can be trained to sing like boys, with strong ending notes, darkening of tone etc, but the effect is difficult to sustain over the course of a performance, and it is a vocal trick that is difficult on the girls. The Winchester Cathedral Choir has a CD out currently, their latest, that has both the boys' and the girls' choir performing on it. This is the best trained girls' choir I have ever heard. The difference between the choirs is immediately evident to me, but the untrained listener may not tell the difference at first. Over the course of the performance though, they will sense a difference. Some people say it "sounds lighter" or "something is missing". I think many untrained ears may not know the difference between an oboe and a clarinet, but that should not give licence to the conductor to interchange the two parts.
We do not have to use boys to sing the upper registers of Bach's sacred works these days. Nor do many people use boys to do so these days. The fact that we have the freedom to use boys' voices if we like, says that we have a broad toolbox from which to choose musical tools. (pardon me ladies for the masculine metaphor of "tools") What is unfortunate is that such vociferous objections are continually raised against the use of boys voices, in spite of the fact that there is zero threat to anyone with such an innocuous and interesting tradition. It is a great interest to society to see and hear boys do things they are "not supposed to be doing" such as standing still, sounding beautiful in high tones, self controlled, disciplined, working well with fellow boys, groomed, and modestly attired. Boys' choir is an opportunity for those truly gifted male singers to perform- the vocal equivalent of a 12 year old Yehudi Menuhin for instance (from whom conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler said he never heard a better performance of Beethoven's violin concerto in D).
I too prefer female sopranos, in certain roles, such as Carmen, and boys have their place in that opera too. I prefer well trained boys in the role of "drei knaben" in The Magic Flute, and I prefer well trained and talented women to sing the Flower Duet in Delibes' Lakme (thank you). I also prefer a well trained boy alto soloist for Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. Meanwhile reserve for me the best trained females for Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte or his Marriage of Figaro; for Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, and for Lully's Alceste. I'll need a talented fat lady with a horny helmet for Wagner's Ring cycle, and a dark and lovely well trained female for Verdi's Aida. It just fits.
As to the question about using girls for Bach, the argument about older singers bringing a supposed inherent maturity to a performance, cuts both ways. If an older singer automatically brings a better performance then girls will be replaced by adult women. I have attended numerous university performances here locally, much of it baroque and renaissance sacred music. There is a big difference between boys, 17 year old girls, and adult women. All three bring unique vocal qualities, and I heartily support all three forms of performance, especially for educational benefits for the youth. After attending a huge amount of choral concerts by sung young women 17-21 years old, I tend to think that well trained boys' voices are the best at melding with baroque instruments.
Ludwig wrote (July 23, 2002):
[To Boyd Pehrson] I agree with you but never was aware that boys choirs was ever a Scottish specialty as I have always thought of it in modern times as English or Viennese. I do know that at one time that there was a Church of Scotland boys choir in Edinburg or so I have been led to believe especially when it comes to Bach. Perhaps someone on the list can enlighten me and the rest of us about this.
Ludwig wrote (July 23, 2002):
< Uri Golomb wrote:
"what matters more, if a Bach keyboard/cello/violin suite is played by a boy or a girl, or if the player is 10 years old or 17 years old? I think the latter; and I think the same applies in a Bach soprano/alto aria)'. >
I feel that it does not matter as long as whoever is playing is competent in doing so. Granted most 10 year old instrumentalists are not going to give a good performance but most gifted youngsters I have worked withcan do as well or better if not equaled to those who are older than they are.
There are very good physiological reasons for the average 10 year old kid turning in a less than a professional instrumental performance---a 10 year old's nervous system and coordination are still developing but this does not usually apply to their voices.
However, the potential is always there and encouraging a 10 year old kid this age to work hard also encourages their nervous systems to get wired up so that they can turn out a professional or talented musical performance assuming that it is in the genes for them to do so. Children and students often rise to the level of expectation. Even in 17 year olds the wiring process is still continuing although to a lesser extent than it was at 10 years. The basic wiring process is generally over by the mid 20s and usually only begins again with adequate stimulation and need. Neural stimulation can cause new wiring and it also can slow or prevent the memory problems of old age. Bach is a good stimulator as is Mozart.
Paul Farseth wrote (July 23, 2002):
Well...if hard musical discipline before puberty is good for the brain and the nervous system, then we should not deprive girls of the opportunities we give the boys in boy choirs. We don't allow castrations in the interests of musical art, and we should probably not allow the exclusion of girls from choirs, choir schools, and opportunities to perform difficult wonderful music. IMHO.
Ludwig wrote (July 23, 2002):
[To Paul Farseth] It is not "hard" work but stimulating work that makes the difference and you have a very valid point. Remember the principle applies to people of all ages.
Young female soloists
Matthew Neugebauer wrote (September 29, 2002):
As this is a mailing list devoted to young (male) soloists and choirs, I feel that this topic is relevant
Note: I know its bad practice to discuss the ongoings of other lists, but I think this might help:
The question asked is, why are there no (or so few) famous youth female soloists, only famous trebles?
Boyd Pehrson wrote (September 29, 2002):
[To Matthew Neugebauer] Hi, I don't know what happened to your post, but your message has been received ;-). I could only give you my opinion about why there seems to be so few girl soloists, or young females as popular figures. I remember Donny Osmond and Michael Jackson as once famous boy singers. Marie Osmond was just as famous but where were the rest of the girls?
I don't know. Perhaps it is the principle of supply and demand at work. I am sure we could try and push more Charlotte Churchs onto the listening public, but will they buy it? Ironically, some critics stated that Miss Church sounded like a boy soprano... I'm not sure I agree. Half of the consumers are women, and they often seem to prefer boy voices. Perhaps it is that girls are expected to sing high and sing soprano, and it is difficult for a girl to break through when you have many adult women who can sing so much better as soprano because they are older. Why listen to a girl when you can hear a woman sing the same thing some might say. Boys on the other hand have a different sound as sopranos, and it is unique. So, with that special sound quality in mind, one could not compare boys directly with girls. Boy sopranos tend to generate more interest simply because soprano boy soloists are doing something boys "aren't supposed to be doing". I think there is a unique sound there among boys, and it too is its own interest. Personally speaking, I would not put girls and boys equally in a class of tonal sound and then ask why are boys getting all the glory? We are often told this is an issue of fairness between the sexes, but it really isn't that at all. The boy sound is unique and is listened to and appreciated among fans of it as a unique class of sound. Also, natural styles of boys and girls tend to be different, and I would not classify them in the same catagory for that reason too. I have encouraged my niece to persue vocal music. She has a great gem of a voice and she will be giving a vocal recital in North Carolina in two weeks- she is 15 years old. I have another niece who is three who seems to have promise in music, and I will greatly encourage her to study voice as well. 95% of the 35 choral concerts I attend each year, and pay to get into, feature women and young ladies as soloists. I rarely hear any boy singers perform live unless the Vienna Boys' Choir or some other ever comes to town.
That is my view of the question and I hope that helps. Any one else have thoughts about it?
Regarding your question about other groups- please mention what you like with regard to music... we can always find a boy choir angle wherever music is concerned! :-)
Juozas Rimas wrote (September 29, 2002):
< sing so much better as soprano because they are older. Why listen to a girl when you can hear a woman sing the same thing some might say. >
Continuing this offer - why listen to a boy soprano (even with his unique soprano sound) when you can listen to a woman sing the same thing much more skillflully?
I listened to many of the Harnoncourt's boy cantatas and the boy solos were ranging from cute/amusing to miserable. Yes, the sound is unique but it isn't enough to justify the unsure, fragile voices of both the boy soprano and boy alto I can hear, for example, in the solo intermissions from the second chor of BWV 138 (Warum betruebst du dich mein Herz). How is a child supposed to master singing in such a short period of time (bearing in mind school and going out with friends)? Drawing an analogy: we don't seem to put boy or girl pianists in the same category with mature virtuosos. Why should we in singing? (the different tone doesn't seem a sufficient reason to me)
So IMHO girl and boy sopranos are no match (exceptions must exist but I'm yet to find them) for adult female sopranos. However, boy choirs, where the flaws of separate voices are hidden by the ample choir sound, are as enjoyable to me as adult choirs.
On the other hand, adult female altos and adult male altos can produce the same quality of singing so choosing between them is a matter of personal taste. To my taste, for example, male altos sound cleaner and more controlled but cold and alien. Could it be that the domination of male altos in today's Bach recordings has made some of talented young female altos forfeit career advancement? ("why bother if the standard in early music is male alto")
Andreas Burghardt wrote (September 29, 2002):
< Juozas Rimas wrote: Continuing this offer - why listen to a boy soprano (even with his unique soprano sound) when you can listen to a woman sing the same thing much more skillflully? >
Well, you seem to have accept that boy soprano have a different (unique) sound. Perhaps, a woman may sing an aria more skilfully (which I think is not true), but this is not the essential point. Women are simply the wrong "instrument". To make a comparison, you can play the same piece on a piano and on a harpsichord and it will have a totally different character. The choice of instrument is especially essential in Bach cantatas. The use of a women soloist will change the character of the music definitely. I personally can arrange with some minor technical inadequacies, but therefore I will hear the music as it was intended and in the most meaningful way. In the last decades some women interprets have started to imitate the sound of boy sopranos, but this is still only a substitution and not the original. I think it is not only the sound which makes a difference, the meaning can be quite different if something is recited by a child or by an adult.
Juozas Rimas wrote (September 29, 2002):
< Andreas Burghardt wrote: cantatas. The use of a women soloist will change the character of the music definitely. I personally can arrange with some minor technical inadequacies, but therefore I will hear the music as it was intended and in the most meaningful way. >
Yes, it's historically correct to use boys but what about this excerpt from the Matthäus-Passion:
Petrus aber saß draußen im Palast; und es tratzu ihm eine Magd und sprach:
Und du warest auch mit dem Jesu aus Galiläa.
If the part of the "Magd" is sung by a boy, will it be semantically correct?
Also, IIRC, I've read on the Bach's recordings mailing list that:
1) Bach made attempts at using females in the church service;
2) Bach temporarily assigned voice parts to instruments when he lacked good voices at his disposal at times.
I'd be grateful if someone on this list could confirm or deny these "rumors".
Also, the most democratic approach toward the HIP issue that I adhere to myself is stating that period instruments as such do not guarantee a better performance ("the musician is more important than the instrument").
Douglas Neslund wrote (September 29, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] As an oboist, you know very well that an oboe da caccia and an oboe d'amore sound quite different from a modern oboe. One of the most striking voices anywhere is the boy who has a "Baroque oboe" quality voice, that is, the very rich overtone pattern that matches the Baroque oboe. In most Bachian arias, the solo voice is paired with a solo instrument playing the countermelody. To my ears, the perfect match is a boy soloist with Baroque oboe overtones singing with a Baroque oboe. I have never heard any woman produce this overtone pattern, which I believe is unique to preadolescent boys. At the same time, it is perfect also to have a woman singing with a modern oboe, if such is employed in performance.
Just more thoughts and opinions,
Juozas Rimas wrote (September 29, 2002):
< Douglas Neslund wrote: As an oboist, you know very well that an oboe da caccia and an oboe d'amore sound quite different from a modern oboe. One of the most striking voices anywhere is the boy who has a "Baroque oboe" quality >
Douglas, thanks for the comments (although I'm not an oboist myself, hence my signature :). I'll listen to as many oboe/boy arias I can find to assess the match. Could you point to the most evident examples?
As a side note: sadly, a recording must be very well balanced for the voice and the instrument to blend perfectly. Usually the singer sings much louder than the instrument plays and this puts the latter in the background. If I could, I'd give exactly 50% volume to the singer and 50% to the instrument...
Katia Tiara wrote (September 29, 2002):
< Also, the most democratic approach toward the HIP issue that I adhere to myself is stating that period instruments as such do not guarantee a better performance >
< ("the musician is more important than the instrument"). >
Isn't a singer musician and instrument alike?
Andreas Burghardt wrote (September 29, 2002):
< Juozas Rimas wrote: << Matthäus-Passion >> If the part of the "Magd" is sung by a boy, will it be semantically correct? >
You are right, it is semantically not correct. But this music was written in the Baroque period. The people in that time didn't mind semantics in the arts, they were very playful and tried to manipulate nature whenever possible. In some operas of this period there is a confusing assignment of roles and the appropriate gender of the voice. Therefore this was not be a problem, perhaps it is irritating nowadays.
< Also, IIRC, I've read on the Bach's recordings mailing list that:
1) Bach made attempts at using females in the church service; >
I don't know if there are any proofs for this theory, however I personally doubt that it is true. Perhaps he used females in secular cantatas, like birthday or wedding cantatas, but I really can't imagine that he used females in church service. His entire writing of church cantatas was embedded in the Protestant Church music tradition. He grew up in that tradition and he was a choirster in a boychoir himself. I am sure, if he would have made an attempt to use females in the church service this would have caused serious opposition.
< 2) Bach temporarily assigned voice parts to instruments when he lacked good voices at his disposal at times. I'd be grateful if someone on this list could confirm or deny these "rumors". >
I think there are some experts in this group who can give a statement on this much better then me. However I know that Bach always adapted / revised his own cantatas according to the forces he actually had available for a performance. This is a reason why there are sometimes different versions of the same cantata.
< Also, the most democratic approach toward the HIP issue that I adhere to myself is stating that period instruments as such do not guarantee a better performance ("the musician is more important than the instrument"). >
Sure! There will never be a guarantee. The word 'better' is always very subjective. Much depends on the personal taste.
Andreas Burghardt wrote (September 30, 2002):
< Juozas Rimas wrote: ... I'll listen to as many oboe/boy arias I can find to assess the match. Could you point to the most evident examples? >
I have uploaded to the file section an example for the wonderful blending of baroque oboe and boy soprano. It is a short clip from the aria "Gott bersorget alles Leben" from cantata BWV 187. The soloists are Antoine Walter de la maîtrise de garçons de Colmar and Héloïse Gaillard, oboe. The recording is taken from the CD "J. S. Bach, Aria", Ambroisie AMB 9907.
By the way there are two more good examples for the combination boy soloist and baroque oboe on this CD, i.e. "Ach Herr! was ist ein Menschenkind" from cantata BWV 110 and "Kreuz und Krone sind verbunden" from cantata BWV 12.
Johan van Veen wrote (October 1, 2002):
< Andreas Burghardt wrote: Also, IIRC, I've read on the Bach's recordings mailing list that:
1) Bach made attempts at using females in the church service;
I don't know if there are any proofs for this theory, however I personally doubt that it is true. Perhaps he used females in secular cantatas, like birthday or wedding cantatas, >
Even that is up to debate. A number of secular cantatas were intended for people of Leipzig University, and were very likely performed by students of the university. At that time there were no women studying at universities. So, unless female singers from outside the uuniversity have been attracted to perform, it could well be that these secular cantatas have been sung by male voices only. The often held view that sacred music was for boys and secular music for women is an oversimplification (in both directions, BTW).
< but I really can't imagine that he used females in church service. His entire writing of church cantatas was embedded in the Protestant Church music tradition. He grew up in that tradition and he was a choirster in a boychoir himself. I am sure, if he would have made an attempt to use females in the church service this would have caused serious opposition. >
The only composer we are sure was doing this was Mattheson in Hamburg. Women were singing from behind a curtain. The fact that seemed to have recognized the sound as different could give some interesting clues regarding the way women were singing.
Boyd Pehrson wrote (October 2, 2002):
[To Andreas Burghardt] Thanks Andreas, This file is a great example of what Douglas brought up. The overtones are lush and rich in places. It is a delightful performance, well recorded and the overtones are showcased in that recording space. Terrific. Andreas, your file demonstrates all the things one doesn't find in a woman's voice. You know how to get right to the matter. The most delicate to piercing dynamics are an ability peculiar to boy voice, as is the sustained upward strength ending the notes. The rich ringing resonance and clear quality are also tonal gems peculiar to boys' voices. Interestingly, I find these patterns across cultural boundries, which makes me think the peculiarities are caused by physical construction of the voice apparatus.
Boyd Pehrson wrote (October 2, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] Hi Juozas, Your reply asks several questions that I thhave already been answered adequately. So, I am replying a bit late in the thread, bear with me please.
Nothing personal against you, but when you write: "I listened to many of the Harnoncourt's boy cantatas and the boy solos were ranging from cute/amusing to miserable." your comments seem quite limited. Certainly the writings of music critics who listened to this series when it was first presented had broader impressions, namely that many were quite impressed with the quality of singing by many of the boy soloists, and choirs. Indeed great conductors and musicians also hailed the success of the performances. Thousands of fans agree as well. The continued success of the series, now re-issued, speaks for itself, it continues to sell well (at too high prices in my opinion ;-), and appearances of it on e-bay are snapped up quickly... quite the critical and commercial success story for "cute" to "miserable" performances I think.
You are entitled to your opinion. My opinion is that there are many most remarkable performances by very well trained boy soloists on that series.
"How is a child supposed to master singing in such a short period of time (bearing in mind school and going out with friends)?"
By very hard work and discipline, sometimes by not focusing so much on school, and sometimes by not going out with friends...sacrifices are made.
I also have another question in response: by what standard is "mastering" singing? The fact is that many children do master singing, sight reading, hitting all the notes, proper measure, tone and musicality all the time. Children soloists are used by great conductors all the time. Are you advocating that children should be banned from performing vocal parts, even ones written for them? And what is this standard that they are to "master"? Please inform me about the master standard.
You also wrote:
"Drawing an analogy: we don't seem to put boy or girl pianists in the same category with mature virtuosos. Why should we in singing? (the different tone doesn't seem a sufficient reason to me)"
Because singing is different from playing. Singing is a natural talent that is second nature to people, pianos and violins have to do with hand-eye coordination among other things (Instrument playing is spatial, and has to do with the way one listens and hears outside tones not generated within etc...). I have been to enough performances of children on pianos and violins to know that many of them can play better than musicians in our local symphony. I think the issue with some talented children not playing in orchestras has more to do with the players unions than with musicianship of youth, we tend to reserve orchestra chairs for those who need jobs. Age is no guarentee of perfection... most child prodigies do not excel past their youthful virtuosity during their grown up years. But, these are issues with instruments, those spatial and hand-eye coordination things, and not vocal singing... so I digress, but only in answer to your question.
My original answer merely stated that some "might" use the argument that adult women would naturally sing better than girls as a rule. I never said I agreed with that idea. I was speculating why girl soloists are not percieved as popular or "out there" in public as boy solists. Maybe it is the same narrow minded thinking that forbids boys from singing Bach, because an adult (they think) would naturally sing it better - so why bother. I think that would be a mistake and a loss in music so profound as to end any logic, rational sense, art and humanity in music.
I think it is time for me to finally write an article on "how to listen to a boy sing". Education is most of the battle.
Juozas Rimas wrote (October 2, 2002):
< Boyd Pehrson wrote: I also have another question in response: by what standard is "mastering" singing? The fact is that many children do master singing, sight reading, hitting all the notes, proper measure, tone and musicality all the time. >
Hitting all the notes is important but doesn't anything come with experience? There may be musicians who achieved the peak of their artistry at 15 or earlier but I haven't yet spoken to a musician stating that (s)he performs worse than in his or her tender years. A former boy soprano who turned into a bass later told me there was so much creative work to for a singer to do and so much to learn all the time - various little techniques of breathing, ornamentation, the well thought-over relation between text and music. Intellectual approach to the performance (ie actually reflecting on the mood of a piece, new ways of expressing it etc) IMO seems to come only with years (not necessarily decades but enough time to listen to much of classical music and to educate oneself in general).
So I don't believe people come with pre-packed second nature singing and can't improve over years. If they improve, I tend to pick the improved version even at the expense of the wrong instrument (or voice color in this case).
< Children soloists are used by great conductors all the time. >
I checked the http://www.bach-cantatas.com website for the altos and sopranos Herreweghe, Suzuki, Koopman and Gardiner use in their cantatas. I got the impression they are mostly using either adult male or female altos for arias (maybe someone could provide more exact data regarding the cantatas in which the mentioned conductors preferred boy altos).
You are indeed right that everyone's entitled to his or her opinion but I'm a bit surprised that no one else on this list shares my opinion about children solo singers generally being less interesting than respective adult singers. When we had a discussion on the Bach Recordings list where I expressed my preference of female altos over male altos, I in fact had some supporters although the topic was entirely subjective. In this discussion I proposed a less subjective belief that the artist usually gets better when gaining experience but surprisingly it doesn't seem to be popular :))
Douglas Neslund wrote (October 2, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] You asked, "Hitting all the notes is important but doesn't anything come with experience? There may be musicians who achieved the peak of their artistry at 15 or earlier but I haven't yet spoken to a musician stating that (s)he performs worse than in his or her tender years. A former boy soprano who turned into a bass later told me there was so much creative work to for a singer to do and so much to learn all the time - various little techniques of breathing, ornamentation, the well thought-over relation between text and music. Intellectual approach to the performance (ie actually reflecting on the mood of a piece, new ways of expressing it etc) IMO seems to come only with years (not necessarily decades but enough time to listen to much of classical music and to educate oneself in general)."
My choirboys spent a minimum of 750 hours per year studying music as well as vocal technique. In some years, that amount was much larger, given eight-week international tours of 44 concerts minimum. You seem to assume that a boy won't have time to "mature" into a worthy-enough singer in the short space of five or six years, which is the average length of time that boys in the best choirs spend before voice change. Each and every chorister in my choir received a music history and theory education equal to that of a sophomore year in college. Some of the more gifted ones went into composition with college-level achievement. I assure you that five or six years is adequate time to gain an insight into musical style, perfect a vocal technique, learn how to ornament, and have a clear understanding of the relationship between the text and the music. I have also heard well-known adult soloists mangle texts, revealing a lack of knowledge and understanding of what they were singing.
"So I don't believe people come with pre-packed second nature singing and can't improve over years. If they improve, I tend to pick the improved version even at the expense of the wrong instrument (or voice color in this case)."
My most gifted soloist was inherentvery musical. We never had to teach him phrasing or text painting. He did come to tears on occasion, though, over a very minor matter of vocal technique that had grown into a habit pattern that needed to be changed in order to open the voice to its full potential.
"You are indeed right that everyone's entitled to his or her opinion but I'm a bit surprised that no one else on this list shares my opinion about children solo singers generally being less interesting than respective adult singers. <snip> In this discussion I proposed a less subjective belief that the artist usually gets better when gaining experience but surprisingly it doesn't seem to be popular :)) "
As for myself, your opinion is welcome, and well stated. Perhaps, for a few of us who may appear to be a bit defensive on the side of preferring a boy soprano in Bach usage to a woman, we have grown to appreciate the uniqueness of the boy voice, and when that happens, it generally turns out that we prefer not to hear a woman sing Bach. Some of that reaction stems from reasons that cannot easily be explained - something on the soul level, I would guess. Each one has his or her list of favorite singers, and in the context of singing Bach, that list is not a long one. In the female soprano category, my preferred singer is Ann Monoyios, who doesn't attempt to sound like a boy (like some of her contemporaries) but has such a sweet, musical way of singing that doesn't weigh my ears with emotional content. I like that. And boys sing like that, too.
Larry Ford wrote (October 2, 2002):
I've been following this discussion with interest and I'd like to make these observations. First let me say that I am not a professional musician nor am I a Bach scholar so what I have to say may not carry much weight.
Let's take a look at the conditions under which Bach wrote his cantatas. It is my understanding that Bach was a church organist at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig when he wrote his cantatas. He was also the choirmaster of the choir of men and boys and therefore (in the case of the boys) was responsible for their training. Since this was a church choir they were required to sing at least once a week and possibly more often as the liturgy demanded. We are certain that Bach composed a cantata each week to meet the requirements of the litugical year so this required that the choir learn a complete new work each week. With a well-trained choir of men and boys this is not an impossible task. There are scores of cathedral and church choirs in existence today that accomplish that very task on a daily basis, week in and week out, and they have excellent boy soprano soloists.
I am not advocating that Bach's cantatas should only be performed with boy voices. I'm only pointing out that a performance or recording that uses period instruments should include the boy voice because the boy voice is an instrument.
Matthew Neugebauer wrote (October 3, 2002):
< Juozas Rimas wrote: the artist usually gets better when gaining experience >
I have to agree with this one-they do get better.
However, there are the rare choirs, such as the Regensburger Cathedral Choir and I'm guessing (because I've never heard them, but they're famous) the Holland Boys Choir, who use boy sopranos (I think that's what the Regensburgers are doing), and all parts are very balanced and gives a satisfying performance.
Continue on Part 2
Women in Bach’s Vocal Works: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4