Friday, January 22, 2010

The Counter-Tenor

Back in days of yore when women weren’t allowed to sing in church choirs, the Catholic church needed to find a way of supplying their choirs with sopranos and altos. (I’m guessing it probably wasn’t much fun to be a yore-woman back then.)

If you were a well-trained boy-musician, you had a pretty good thing going. Singing in choir was probably a whole lot better than working 18 hours a day in a factory. You pretty much had it made, that is, until your voice changed to that of an ugly teenager and you began searching for one of those yore-women to marry.

Legend has it that a lot of adolescent boys, not willing to give up their illustrious singing careers, had themselves “altered” in order to retain their pure, angelic soprano voices. Actually, very few volunteered to become “castrati” but in the early 1700s, over 4,000 of these operations were performed annually – thanks to the influence of the Catholic church. Eeek!

Wives of male politicians probably think there should be more of these 'involuntary alterations' taking place, but that’s another story.

Well, it turns out that guys really needn’t go to such extremes to sing in the alto or soprano range. There’s the counter-tenor.

A counter-tenor is a fully intact adult male who can sing in the vocal range normally occupied by the female voice. A true counter-tenor usually has a baritone singing voice, thus giving a really rich resonance when singing in the alto or soprano range.

Andreas Scholl is probably the most famous counter-tenor these days. Here he is singing a hauntingly beautiful piece from Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus. (There’s about a minute of orchestral introduction before the solo begins.)

And here is Philippe Jaroussky singing the same piece.

It’s quite apparent that one must also be exceedingly good-looking in order to have a career as a counter-tenor. I doubt a homely fellow could pull it off with much success.

When I auditioned for the church choir that I’m singing in, the choir director asked if I’d ever tried singing counter-tenor. (Right – it was because of my looks.) He vocalized me right up there, even had me sing higher than this Vivaldi piece, and asked if I’d be willing to sing counter-tenor on occasion.

Hey, neat!

The other day, I demonstrated this ability over the phone to my brother.

His response?

“Dude, really, don’t do that anymore.”

I had to laugh.
And to thank him for his honesty; that which only my brother can readily supply.

Perhaps I shall stick to my usual, regular-tenor endeavors.

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At 3:43 PM , Blogger Miss Healthypants said...

*smiles* The high voice on a man can be a little disturbing, I have to admit... :)

At 6:19 AM , Blogger contralto25 said...

Hi Buck,
Nice piece you have written.
I used to be Bass-Baritone but added the Countertenor range to it later. Now I generally sing Countertenor. Yes, people laugh at first but that changes into interest quickly.

David Daniels definitely one of my favorites. Try these ones if you haven't already: Max Emanuel Cencic singing Rossini (youtube) and David Daniels. Great singers.


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