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"A SWEET SHRILL VOICE": THE COUNTERTENOR AND VOCAL SCORING IN TUDOR ENGLAND

SOURCE: Simon Ravens, Early Music

February 1998, v.26 n.1 p.123[12]


When Corelli demanded of his pupils that they be able to sustain a forte for ten seconds with a single double-stopped down-bow he was, as any aspiring Baroque violinist knows, making a supreme challenge to their technique. [1] That such a demand should seem relatively unremarkable to the same player on a modern violin neatly underlines a truth which the early instrumental world has long taken for granted: namely, that to appreciate fully the peculiar demands made during any one period in the evolution of musical style, we must also examine the parallel evolution of instrumental technology in the same period.

Scholars of early vocal music, on the other hand, have been far less inclined to recognize such a parallel evolution. While it is true that elements of early vocal style and technique have been examined in some depth, the possibility that the physiology of the voice itself has evolved has been largely ignored. Indeed, one of the common touchstones of early vocal and choral performance practice has been its relationship to modern performing ensembles: any such historical theory is thought to be significantly strengthened if it can be demonstrable as a modern practice.

In fairness to scholars of early vocal practices, we might point out that recognition of the violin's historical capabilities would not be quite so advanced had every early instrument been decaying for hundreds of years under six feet of soil. Neither would we so fully understand the violin - early or modern - if its mechanisms were hidden in the labyrinthine workings of a much larger instrument. In these respects, studies of early vocal performance practice have been hindered. Yet recent breakthroughs in our understanding of the relationship between the larynx and the human body, coupled with anthropometric data about the historical human frame, suggest ways in which the pragmatic vocal demands made in past eras may not match those of our own time. If accepted, the implications of this laryngological and anthropometric research have ramifications for the performance practice of all vocal music before our own time. What follows is an attempt to assess in the light of these findings one particular aspect of early choral performance practice - the vocal scoring and pitch of Tudor sacred music. [2]

In the last twenty years the debate surrounding the performance practice of Tudor sacred music has become polarized by two apparently irreconcilable theories. The first of these is that the original performing pitch of this music was significantly higher than the modern standard pitch of a'=440. [3] The second is that the countertenor part in this music was sung not by falsettists but by what we would term tenors. [4] These two theories appear irreconcilable because the countertenor part in much music of the period regularly ascends to a written g', which, if transposed to accord with the high pitch theory, rises marginally but significantly above the conventional range of the modern tenor. [5]

PHYSIOLOGICAL EVIDENCE
It has been the field of laryngology, and not musicology, which has recently supplied significant evidence which supports the theory that the Tudor countertenor was essentially a tenor and not a falsettist. In a study of cadaveric dissections and healthy human volunteers, two otolaryngolosists at the University Hospital of Wales established two important relationships: first, that a relationship existed between laryngeal size and vocal pitch; second, that laryngeal size is, broadly speaking, related to height. In practical terms - and it should be stressed that the study included and took into account individual anomalies - the result of these findings is that the taller the individual the larger the larynx, hence the longer the vocal cords and the deeper the pitch of the voice. [6]

The application of this evidence to the performance practice of Tudor music becomes clear when we take into account the likely average height of a healthy adult male in the sixteenth century. The height of an individual is determined by both genotype and environment (in particular, nutrition) and by the interaction between them. [7] Presumably, since diet varied widely between social classes in the sixteenth century, height would have shown a parallel variance. [8] (This would account for the stature of Henry VIII, for instance, whose height was considered noteworthy in his day, even though he stood at only a little over six feet.) Since the class and heredity of the Tudor church musician was unexceptional, there is no reason to believe his height would have been abnormal for the period.

While no reliable statistical data exists from the Tudor period itself, highly suggestive evidence is provided by such surviving features as door frames (which were considerably lower than their modern counterparts) and life-size effigies (which typically appear short to us, even though their models are aristocratic, and so are likely to have been taller than average). The implication of this kind of indirect evidence is confirmed by statistics from the middle of the eighteenth century, when the average adult Englishman has been estimated to have measured some 64.97 inches in height. [9] This figure compares to 68.9 inches in 1984, a gain of some 3.93 inches in a 230-year period. These two figures represent not only the earliest and latest reliable national measurements we know, but also the lowest and highest respectively. Between these two figures, the line on a graph of English average height has gradually risen, with small temporary drops at times of economic decline when nutrition has been low, and with a marked acceleration in the latter part of this century. [10] The upward course of these figures has been dubbed the "secular trend" (an initially confusing term which simply means that the rise appears to be enduring): for our purposes this trend is significant because it implies that average height is likely to have increased between the Tudor period and 1750, and again after 1984. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries average height rose by a little under an inch per century (although what tiny evidence there is suggests that this rise could have been slower in the seventeenth century): since the Second World War this figure has risen at a much faster rate, of around 4.5 inches per century. [11] To extrapolate average Tudor and current heights from 1750 to 1984 data is dangerous, since the rate of historical height gain has not been consistent. However, in lieu of other evidence, we might at least note the result such an extrapolation suggests: that between 1550 and 1998 the average height of an English adult male has risen by between five and seven inches.

Taken together, these laryngological and anthropometric findings suggest that the average Tudor man would have had a higher natural voice than the average modern man. [12] Although it would stretch credibility to attempt to establish any precise alteration of natural vocal pitch they might imply, these findings nonetheless help to reconcile hitherto contradictory theories regarding both the nature of Tudor vocal scoring and pitch.

INSTRUMENTAL EVIDENCE FOR HIGH PITCH
Pivotal to the Tudor high-pitch theory have been organ specifications, in particular that of the long-since destroyed 1614 Dallam organ of Worcester Cathedral. As recorded by Nathaniel Tomkins in two complementary notes, the pipe measurements of this instrument - built to the design of Thomas Tomkins - imply that at "choir pitch" the organ sounded higher than a'=440. Precisely how much higher is less clear. As Dominic Gwynn has shown, quantifying pitch standards from organ specifications alone is not as exact a science as one might suppose. [13] When Frederick Gore Ousley first advanced the theory, he described an F played at this Tudor choir pitch as sounding "a somewhat sharp G" at "modern" pitch. Alexander Ellis described this estimation as "slightly incorrect", suggesting instead that Tomkins's pitch (of a'=474.1) "was only a semitone sharper than our present concert pitch." [14] The first reference to this Tudor choir pitch approaching a minor third above "modern" pitch seems to have been made by Fellowes in 1921. However, Fellowes' "modern" pitch standard was a'=435.4 and not a'=440: perhaps this has been overlooked by later commentators and editors, who have stated with less and less equivocation that Tudor pitch was "about a minor third higher than today's standard". [15]

The most recent and comprehensive study of early seventeenth-century organ pitch has included specifications from Dallam's Worcester organ and three other now defunct instruments - in Westminster Abbey, Magdalen College, Oxford, and Salisbury Cathedral. [16] The results of this study, by Dominic Gwynn, suggest that the pitch of the Worcester organ was "one to two semitones sharp" (of a'=440), and that the other instruments had similar, if not identical, pitches. (In the argument that follows, the "high pitch" assumed is of one to two semitones, not a minor third, above a'=440.) Precise universal pitch standards remain a fancy in the twentieth century, let alone the seventeenth. However, the evidence of these organ specifications, together with the existence of much music in geographically separated sources at identical written pitch levels, suggests a degree of national uniformity.

EVIDENCE OF VOCALRANGES
Applying the high-pitch theory backwards in time is more problematic, since there is no direct evidence from known organ pitches before the Reformation. However, a comparison between the vocal ranges of music known to have been accompanied by the Worcester organ and the ranges of pre-Reformation music provides us with indirect evidence. As ex.1 shows, at the time of the Reformation the most significant change to overcome English vocal scoring was the marginalization of the old treble range, which thereafter composers used only on rare occasions. As the old treble and mean parts merged, however, the new mean part (effectively a compromise of its two precursors) rose by about a tone. The reasons for this downward shift in the range of the uppermost part were largely bound up in religious aesthetics, reflecting the new desire to avoid aural opulence and encourage simplicity and comprehensibility [17] Otherwise, a comparison of columns (b) and (c) in ex. 1 [not provided] reveals very little variation in range between the Latin music of the pre-Reformation period and that of Tomkins and his contemporaries. Columns (a) and (b) reveal similarly little variation in the overall ranges of Latin music from the Eton Choirbook through to the Reformation. The natural conclusion to be drawn from this, in lieu of any specific evidence to the contrary, would be that pitch did not fluctuate radically from the period of the Eton Choirbook onwards through the Tudor period. If anything, the marginal upward trend of vocal ranges (other than the treble) would suggest a downward shift in pitch.

The most commonly stated contradiction to the high-pitch theory has concentrated on its apparent impracticality. [18] This assumed impracticality relates not so much to the countertenor part, which, when transposed upwards, can be taken (albeit not easily) by falsettists, but to the treble part. Following the high-pitch theory the treble part in much early Tudor music would commonly reach and remain around a flat'' to a'', thus necessitating, by modern standards, an exceptional breed of boy trebles. [19] Yet contrary to popular myth, contemporary references to high singing by trebles at the time are actually notable by their absence, implying that, though this music may sound remarkable to us when performed at high pitch, whatever pitch it was first sung at, the ranges were regarded as unremarkable. [20] The significance of this observation becomes clear when we take into account the laryngological and anthropometric evidence, cited above, which implies that the average human voice would have had a higher natural pitch in the sixteenth century than today. This being the case, however impractical 'high pitch' Tudor music may be for modern choirs, it would have probably been more practical than modern pitch for its first performers.

One obviously important feature of the high pitch theory has been its implications for the vocal scoring of the period. Although it may have turned the treble part into a problem area, the argument for a higher pitch seemed to solve the problem of the countertenor part, by bringing this closer to the range of what we now think of as the countertenor - the falsettist. In fact, a comparison between the alto ranges of two modern English composers known to have been writing for falsettists (ex. 2 [not provided]) and the countertenor ranges of three Tudor composers (ex. 3 [not provided]) is suggestive, showing that, even assuming a sounding pitch a tone above a'=440, only in the later music of the period does the countertenor range begin to approach that of the modern falsettist.

A comparison with the situation on the Continent during the sixteenth century is also revealing. In Europe (again contrary to the general perception), falsettists were common. [21] Whereas nowadays we associate falsettists with the "alto" part in polyphonic music, in Renaissance Europe they took the soprano part instead of boys, or occasionally along with them. Ex. 4 shows the soprano ranges of two typical Magnificats sung in the Sistine Chapel, where castratos were unknown until the mid-1560s. These works have an overall range of two octaves and a seventh, which is the same range that Tomkins and other post-Reformation composers employed in choirs with boys. It is unlikely that precise pitch standards existed in the Sistine Chapel (in which no instruments were allowed), but if we assume that English and Italian basses had broadly similar ranges, it appears that the range of the Sistine falsettists was a minor sixth higher than that of the English countertenor: even if Italian basses sang a little lower than their English counterparts (and what little evidence there is might suggest otherwise) we are left with a huge discrepancy. [22]

If the English countertenor voice really was a falsetto before the seventeenth century, we seem to be faced with a remarkably and uniquely low range. Superficially, there appears to be a possible musical justification for this. English composers in the Tudor period were, of course, presented with a situation not unlike that of today, with boys singing the uppermost part, or parts. This being the case, it seems musically reasonable that in writing imitative polyphony composers should have set the ceiling of the countertenor range exactly an octave below that of the treble part. Indeed, this is the case in much of the Latin music of Tallis and Sheppard. Yet if this is really an explanation for a low falsettist range, it falls to the ground in a significant number of works, such as Sheppard's Missa Cantate and "Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria", in which the ceiling of the countertenor parts, even in imitative entries, is generally a ninth below that of the treble part. Even sounding a tone above written pitch, the upper ceiling to the countertenor range in these cases would be only g'. Similarly, in a number of works by Tallis the second countertenor part lies below that of the first, with written f' as its common ceiling. As with Sheppard's imitation at the interval of a ninth, Tallis's imitation at the second seems to avoid the musically natural solution in non-sequential polyphony - namely imitation at the unison. What other reason could there be for these low ranges, then, other than that the countertenors in question could comfortably sing no higher? And to take this one step further, if these singers really were falsettists we must ask what kind of falsettists they were that could not be trusted above a g'?

Now let us look at the other end of the countertenor range. Compared to the falsettist ranges of modern English composers (see above), even at high pitch the bottom notes in Tudor countertenor parts lie extremely low. Modern falsettists, faced with this music at high pitch, are commonly forced to switch downwards into chest voice for low-lying passages. Moreover, when sung a tone above a'=440 an inordinate number of entries in this music begin around a, precisely the awkward area in which this 'gear-change' is normally effected. [23] And did late Tudor countertenors suddenly fall mute when faced with a Lord's Prayer recited on an a or b[Flat]', as is the practice in many modern choirs? The difficulty most modern falsettists have with this hybrid range has led to the convenient but unaccountable theory that Tudor countertenor parts call for a technique and style which has been "lost". [24] In any event, as ex. 2 shows, while the high pitch theory brings the countertenor part of the mid- to late Tudor period closer to that of the modern falsettist, it remains closest to that of the modern tenor.

DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE
The ranges shown above in ex. 2, with their apparently high parts for falsettists, are fairly typical of music published in other Italian centres during the Renaissance. Small wonder that Thomas Coryat, an English cleric visiting Venice in 1608, should be drawn to comment on the nature of an adult male soprano he heard there, who

had such a peerlesse and (as I may in a maner say) such a supernaturall voice for such a privilege for the sweetnesse of his voice, as sweetnesse, that I think there was never a better singer in all the world, insomuch that he did not onely give the most pleasant contentment that could be imagined, to all the hearers, but also did as it were astonish and amaze them. I alwaies thought that he was an Eunuch, which if he had beene, it had taken away some part of my admiration, because they do most commonly sing passing wel; but he was not, therefore it was much the more admirable. Againe it was the more worthy of admiration, because he was a middle-aged man, as about forty yeares old. For nature cloth more commonly bestowe such a singularitie of voice upon boyes and striplings, then upon men of such yeares. Besides it was farre the more excellent, because it was nothing forced, strained, or affected, but came from him with the greatest facilitie that ever I heard. [25]

Coryat stresses here that the "supernatural voice" he is describing is not that of a castrato, or eunuch, but of a falsettist. It is possible that it is merely the tessitura, and not the vocal type itself, which Coryat finds "supernatural". But if this were the case, and the falsetto voice as such was familiar to him, surely we might expect him to relate the singer he has heard in Venice to falsettists he has encountered in England, in the same way that he relates the singer to "eunuchs", "boyes" and "striplings" he has heard. That Coryat does not do this, and that he remarks on the phenomenon in such a naive manner, sits uneasily with the notion that the falsettist was a traditional feature of English choral practice in the early seventeenth century.

One of the main arguments used to verify the Tudor countertenor as a falsettist has been a specific piece of documentary evidence, to be found in Charles Butler's 1636 treatise Principles of Musik. [26] As with the evidence of the Dallam organ at Worcester, we should be wary of applying evidence dating from the seventeenth century to the early Tudor era, of which Butler had no direct experience. That said, Butler had sung in the choir of MagdalenCollege, Oxford, from 1579 to 1585, and there are more references to music from the 1575 Cantiones sacrae of Tallis and Byrd than to that of any other composer. (Morley is cited more often, but as a theorist more than as a composer.) When he wrote his Principles,Butler was a Hampshire country parson, far removed from the hub of modern performance. So, while we cannot apply his pronouncements to pre-Reformation Tudor music, we should bear in mind that the best choral standards he is likely to have known would have been at Oxford in the early 1580s. Indeed, in the preface to his PrinciplesButler refers to the present day as "these giddy and new-fangled times", which should perhaps alert us to the nostalgia of a man looking back at the music-making of his youth. Butler's description of vocal types reinforces this image of a backward-looking commentator, since it refers to the five-part vocal scoring of the pre-Reformation period - a vocal scoring which had all but died out in music for the new Anglican rite. It seems probable that we should apply Butler's definitions to choral practice at least as far back as the 1570s. But interestingly, Butler refers to the treble as "the highest part of a boy or woman": since there is no record of women being used in the church choirs which sang this music, we might reasonably assume that his definitions apply also to the kind of private devotional music-making at which post-Reformation Latin music (such as the 1575 Cantiones) was sung. [27] In the following definitions we should be careful to distinguish between Butler's comments on parts and the voices which sang them.

(a) The Base is so called becaus it is the basis or foundation of the Song, unto which all other parses bee set: and it is to be sung with a deep, ful, and pleasing voice.

(b) The Tenor is so called, becaus it was commonly in Motets the ditti-part or Plain-song: which continued in the same kind of notes (usually briefs) much after one plain fashion: uppon which the other parses did discant in sundry sortes of Figures, and after many different ways: or (if you will) becaus neither ascending to any high or strained note, nor descending very low, it continueth in one ordinari tenor of the voice and therefore may be sung by an indifferent voice.

(c) The Countertenor or Contratenor, is so called, becaus it answereth the Tenor, though commonly in higher keyz: and therefore is fittest for a man of a sweet shrill voice. Which Part though it have little melodi by itself; (as consisting much of monotonies) yet in Harmoni it hath the greatest grace: specially when it is sung with a right voice: which is too rare.

(d) The Mean is so called, because it is a middling or mean high part, between the Countertenor, (the highest part of a man) and the Treble, (the highest part of a boy or woman:) and therefore may bee sung by a mean voice.

(e) The Treble is so called, because his notes ar placed (for the most part) in the third Septenari, or the Treble cliefs: and it is to bee sung with a high cleere sweete voice.

Butler's descriptions of the bass part as being that of the lowest man's voice, and of the upper two parts as being those of higher and lower boys (or women's) voices, are unequivocal. His definitions of the tenor and countertenor parts, however, are evidently less specific. In particular, the definition of the countertenor part as being best suited to a man of "sweet shrill voice" has been used to support the theory that this part was taken by falsettists. [28] Before examining Butler's countertenor, let us study its context, by looking closely at the implications of his definition of the tenor which, "neither ascending to any high or strained note, nor descending very low...therefore may be sung by an indifferent voice". These last three words strongly suggest what we would call a baritone. The statement also implies, since there is no clarifying disclaimer elsewhere, that one man's part did ascend to high and, if not strained, at least unrestrained notes. This could only be the countertenor part, and yet, as we have seen, even at high pitch this part lies very low for falsettists, and its general tessitura could hardly be a matter of anything but restraint for a seasoned falsettist. Indeed, one essential characteristic which distinguishes the falsetto voice from that of the tenor is its apparent restraint. (We might note that Coryat commented on the absence of strain of his Venetian falsettist soprano, who would have been singing appreciably higher than an English countertenor.)

Far from suggesting that the highest man's voice was that of a falsetto, Butler's use of the word 'shrill' in his description of the countertenor further suggests high tenors on this part. Today, when used in connection with singers the adjective 'shrill' is commonly applied to a certain kind of female voice: the falsetto voice is, in turn, often derided as effeminate, and perhaps this indirect link has led to the assumption that Butler's "shrill voice" was that of a falsettist. Yet in the early seventeenth century "shrill" was not a gender-exclusive term. Nor was it a pejorative one. Rather, it was simply used to describe loud high sounds: when "shrill" was used to describe musical instruments these were typically military pipes and trumpets, neither of which are immediately analogous with the tone of the falsettist. [29] With the qualifying adjective "sweet" Butler counters the potentially coarse associations of "shrill".

Yet we should be careful not to attribute to Butler an unequivocal description of the countertenor as a tenor. Butler's use of the words "fittest" and "right" in describing the countertenor suggest that, writing in 1636, he was here describing both an ideal and a reality. The first of these words is "fittest". If the part is merely "fittest", and not "fit" for "a man of sweet shrill voice", it could evidently be sung by other kinds of singers. Second, we might consider the word 'right'. 'Right' is not merely a bland qualitative statement that 'good' voices were rare, but a comment about actual voice types. Etymologically the word "right" - then as now - was chiefly used to denote something as being correct, true or just: it only became a qualitative judgment when combined with another adjective, e.g. "right well". If the countertenor part had "the greatest grace" when "sung with a right voice: which is too rare", we might then assume that Butler had also experienced the part sung by what he thought of as an improper voice, and one more commonly available.

If Butler's "right" countertenor voice was that of the modern tenor, what were the natures of these other improper voices? Two possibilities present themselves. One voice could have been that of a modern baritone, yet sustaining a high-lying line in full voice would create problems: perhaps it was this that Butler had in mind when, elsewhere in his Principles he railed against "all harsh straining of the Voices beyond their natural pitch". [30] The second voice which Butler could have experienced on the countertenor line is, of course, that of the falsettist. Indeed, any singers "straining...beyond their natural pitch" will, faced with inevitable and imminent vocal demise, switch into falsetto for high-lying passages. So, Butler appears to be describing an ideal of the countertenor part being sung by what we would call tenors, and a reality in which other men also sang this line, using falsetto as and when necessary. In view of the nostalgic and backward-looking nature of Butler's Principles, it would not be difficult to ascribe his ideal to the practice he knew in his youth, and his reality to the practice of "these giddy and new-fangled times". Indeed, if the practice of feigning high-lying passages was deliberately cultivated by individual "countertenors", we may be able to identify Butler's comment as one of the first sightings of an embryonic English falsettist tradition.

Butler's final words on the "right" countertenor voice are that it is "too rare". From later in the seventeenth century there is evidence that high tenors were a relative rarity in Purcell's London. [31] Similar evidence exists from the twentieth century, indicating that in northern Europe basses outnumber tenors 4:1. [32] These pieces of evidence would support Butler's assertion that in England the countertenor voice (modern tenor) was a rarity, and that the tenor voice (modern baritone), was suitable for "an indifferent voice". (The suggestion has been advanced that at high pitch the Tudor tenor, which at this pitch commonly ascends to f sharp' in the later repertory, can be sung by modern baritones: [33] that this can be done without recourse to the "shaking and qavering of the Notes" and "all harsh straining...beyond their natural pitch" which Butler rails against, is highly doubtful.)

Momentarily switching into falsetto, to cope with a literally untenable range, is a reality familiar to most mortal basses and baritones at some stage in their singing careers. There is no reason to believe that the capacity and occasional necessity for using the falsetto register has not always existed. What seems much less certain is whether in England before the time of Purcell this capacity was ever cultivated and utilized as any kind of norm.

Although it seems improbable that the falsetto voice (as we know it) was used on the countertenor line during the Tudor period, is it possible that this vocal type was used on any other part during the Tudor period? As Butler's unequivocal description suggests, there is no debate that after the Reformation the mean in Anglican choirs was a boys' voice. Yet Roger Bowers has posited that in the pre-Reformation period the mean part was sung in some choirs by male altos and in others by boys (descending to g according to his assumed pitch of approximately a'=440). This is based on three specific pieces of evidence. The first of these is a description, from Chichester Cathedral and dated 1526, regulating the disposition of the male lay-clerks' voices:

quatuor clerici laici concinuas voces habentes et musice docti, quorum unus ad minus semper sit basse naturalis et audibilis vocis: aliorum vero trium voces sint suaves et canore, ita quod a communi vocum succentu possint naturaliter et libere ascendere ad quindecim vel sexdecim notas.

(four lay clerks having mutually blending voices and learned in music, of whom one at least is always [to be possessed] of a natural and audible bass voice; while let the voices of the other three be sweet and melodious, so that by the joint application of their voices they may naturally and freely encompass fifteen or sixteen notes.
[34]

Bowers takes this last phrase to mean that "fifteen or sixteen notes" refers to the range of the three voices above the bass - an extended range which might imply the necessity for falsettists: however, he admits that the Latin of this regulation is "not totally unambiguous". It could, of course, be taken to mean that the two-octave range it refers to applied to that of all the lay-clerks, including the bass voice (i.e., from the lowest written note of the bass part (F) to the highest note (f') of the countertenor part). [35] Such a range would be easily manageable by tenors and basses alone.

The second and third pieces of evidence which Bowers cites are both directions in specific works with a mean (C2 clef) top part. The performance directives state that these pieces were to be sung by "men and a childe": since any such directions were very rare, Bowers takes this to imply that their purpose was to specify something extraordinary - namely that the mean be sung by a boy and not a man. From this he infers that the mean part was normally sung by men. In fact, the extraordinary feature of the performance of these works, which necessitated specific directions, was probably just the scoring, which in both cases involves unusual combinations of clefs (C2, C4, C4, F4 and C2, C4, C4, C4, F4). All other relevant evidence - including the balance of the EtonCollege choir cited below - confirms that the mean was, throughout the Tudor period, a boy's voice. [36]

THE EVIDENCE OF HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Whether as a mean or a countertenor, it has been common to assign a part to the falsettist in the Tudor vocal layout. In so doing, commentators have attempted to discern a link with English choral practice before and after the Tudor period.

A number of commentators have perceived links with earlier practices, citing evidence for falsetto singing from as far back as the twelfth century. From this period there exist a small number of prohibitions forbidding singing with "falsis vocibus", or in an effeminate or womanly manner. Much remains unclear about these prohibitions: did they apply only to men singing chant, or to early improvised polyphony; and did they refer to men exclusively using falsetto, or simply to low basses coping with a high-pitched chant? As Christopher Page has shown, they may not refer to what we know as falsetto singing at all. [37] Yet even if they do, the fact remains that these references exist as prohibitions, and never as endorsements: to posit the tradition of a vocal technique on the strength of them is dangerous, particularly when no piece of extant chant or polyphony from pre-1450 calls for a range which could not be easily accommodated by tenors and basses. [38]

Moving into the early Tudor period itself, our principal source of its church music, the Eton Choirbook, offers little support for the existence of falsettists at the time. Evidence against their use on the countertenor part is given by its range, which is commonly the same as that of the tenor part below: it would seem perverse to imagine that different methods of vocal delivery could have been used for what were basically the same ranges. Another reading of this evidence has been to suggest that both tenor and countertenor parts made occasional use of the falsetto register. Yet even at high pitch neither part would ascend beyond g' - an upper range which would make no great demands on a modern tenor. [39]

It has also been suggested that the mean part in Eton Choirbook music was taken by falsettists, partly on the basis of a perceived continuity between the scoring of the central three parts in the new five-part Eton music, and the three parts in the "chanson-style vocal layout" of Dunstable and his contemporaries. However, to see continuity between the tradition of Dunstable and that of the Eton Choirbook is far from straightforward. Dunstable's music adopted a Continental scoring, and to judge from its surviving sources its intended performing ensembles of four adult soloists may just as easily have been foreign as English: the Eton Choirbook, on the other hand, is uniquely English music, composed for a chorus of boys and men. The four soloists of the old chanson-style performance practice, whatever their disposition, would in any event have been swallowed up in the larger whole of the new choral ensembles. To use an analogy from a later period, the viol music of Dowland and string sinfonias of Purcell may share similar clefs in some of their interior parts, but in itself this does not suggest any continuity between their original performing ensembles. [40]

Specific evidence against the use of falsettists on the mean line in Eton music is provided by our knowledge of the college choir and the music of the choirbook. The choir at Eton during the period of the choirbook constituted some ten boys and seven lay clerks. [41] Assuming full attendance, if lay clerks took mean (commonly C2 clef) parts, in a work such as Browne's O Maria salvatoris mater, the balance would presumably have been 10-1-1-1-1-1-1-1; even in the more common five-part works the (im)balance would have been something like 10-2-1-2-2, as opposed to 5-5-3-2-2 if boys sang both upper parts. Such figures are irreconcilable with the directives for solo and tutti contrasts implied by the Eton Choirbook, as well as the practical dictates of choral balance. [42]

As well as seeing a continuum between the Middle Ages and the music of the Eton Choirbook period, commentators have also stressed a link between the end of the Tudor period and current English choral practice - an apparently simple task since the falsetto countertenor is a self-evident reality in modern professional church choirs. Yet no sooner do we start to trace such a supposed lineage between the Tudor and modern countertenor than we see it disappear.

There is no doubt that falsetto singing was known in late seventeenth-century England. The influence of visiting Italian castratos, in an age when all things Italian were shamelessly aped by the English, may well account for enthusiastic descriptions of falsetto singing by Evelyn and others. [43] (These, we might note, represent the first unequivocal endorsements of falsetto singing in England.) Yet a falsettist such as John Abell was described as a "trebble", a designation reinforced by Locke's comment that in the Chapel Royal "Mens feigned Voices" were used on "superiour Parts" normally sung by boys. [44] The actor Colley Cibber admitted that the song in Sir Courtly Nice which William Mountfort had sung in a "clear Countertenour", he himself could only manage "under the Imperfection of a feign'd, and screaming Trebble", implying a distinction between falsetto and countertenor techniques. [45] Purcell's countertenor parts seem to divide into low and high parts. [46] In the face of documentary evidence such as that presented above, it has gradually been accepted that at least the lower of these was the preserve of tenors: range alone has suggested that the higher of these parts must have been taken by falsettists, yet in the light of the laryngological and anthropometric evidence presented above, we may now need to readdress this.

After Purcell the term "countertenor" dropped out of common usage during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was only resurrected by Alfred Deller and Sir Michael Tippett in the 1940s. [47] We may indeed ask whether the synonymity of the terms "countertenor" and "falsettist", assumed by many to date back to the twelfth century, may have been a reality only since the Second World War.

IMPLICATIONS FOR MODERN PERFORMERS
If we accept that Tudor sacred music was first heard as much as a tone above a'=440 but with tenors singing the countertenor line, as modern performers this appears to lead us to an impasse. However comical it may at first appear, the natural conclusion to this argument appears to be that to re-create this music as it was first heard, we are likely to require an abnormally short breed of tenors. [48] The problem is exacerbated when we consider that the same holds true for the treble line, although most modern performances at high pitch have to some extent avoided this particular issue by using female trebles.

Yet, even if it were possible to find sufficient tenors and trebles to reach their respective top notes in such a high tessitura, and to remain there comfortably, would this lead us any closer to the sound world of the Tudor church? The answer to this conundrum must lie not with the performers but with the listeners. To late-twentieth-century listeners the tessitura of performances a tone above written pitch, even with falsettists on the countertenor line, has rarely proved other than aurally remarkable; with tenors on the countertenor line the vocal scoring of such performances would be truly extraordinary. However, even though there might be disagreement about the pitch (or pitches) at which the music was first heard, there is no evidence that to sixteenth-century ears the "ordinari compas" of the music was in the least surprising. The reason for this would now seem to be obvious: the shorter physiological stature of the sixteenth-century male and his correspondingly higher voice would have made "high pitch" performances unremarkable for singers, and thus unremarkable for listeners also. In order to reproduce the effect - as opposed to the actuality - of the first performances of Tudor sacred music, there are therefore two principles we must observe: first, we must attempt to re-create the falsetto-less vocal disposition of the first performing ensembles; and second, we must perform at a pitch which sounds as ordinary to modern ears as did the original to Tudor ears.

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References

 

(1) R. Bremner, Compleat Tutor for the Violin (Edinburgh, c.1750).

(2) As with previous discussions of this topic, the following argument draws together disparate evidence to reach its conclusions: the fact that much of the same evidence has in the past been presented to reach entirely different conclusions should at least alert us to its ambiguities.

(3) This theory was advanced by Sir Frederick Gore Ousley in his 1873 Collection of sacred compositions of Orlando Gibbons, and then by Alexander Ellis in his seminal 1880 paper 'The history of musical pitch', published in Studies in the history of musical pitch, ed. A. Mendel (Baser, 1968). The argument was subsequently enlarged by Edmund Fellowes in English madrigal composers (Oxford, 1921), pp.70-73, Peter le Huray in Music and the Reformation in England, 1549-1660 (London, 1967), pp.112-14, and most recently and fully by David Wulstan in Tudor music (London, 1985), pp.192-249. For the sake of clarity I shall refer to this throughout as 'high pitch' theory.

(4) This theory is much more recent and less well-advanced. It has been briefly stated in recording sleeve-notes by Andrew Parrott (Taverner: Missa Gloria tibi trinitas, Taverner Choir, EMI CDC 7 49103 2) and Simon Ravens (Midnight Mass for Queen Mary Tudor, Musica Contexta, Herald HAVPCD 195). Roger Bowers, whose knowledge of this whole area is unrivalled, argues that the countertenor was not a falsettist before the Reformation in R. Bowers: 'The vocal scoring, choral balance and performing pitch of Latin church polyphony in England, c.1500-58', Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, cxii (1987), pp.38-76, end 'To chorus from quartet', English choral practice, 1400-1650, ed. J. Morehen (Cambridge, 1995), pp.1-47.

(5) By the term 'countertenor' term I refer to the middle part in the standard five-part texture of pre-Reformation English sacred music, or the second line down in the standard post-Reformation four-part scoring. This part is most often termed 'contratenor'. In the music of the Eton Choirbook the countertenor part is normally notated in the C4 clef: in later music this becomes the C3 clef.

(6) R. G. Williams and R. Eccles, 'A new clinical measure of external laryngeal size which predicts the fundamental frequency of the larynx', Acta octolaryngol (Stockholm), cx (1990), pp.141-8.

(7) R. C. Floud, Height, health and history: nutritional status in the United Kingdom, 1750- 1980 (London, 1990), p.7.

(8) Health, medicine and mortality in the sixteenth century, ed. C. Webster, (London, 1979).

(9) The data in this paragraph is taken from Floud, Height, health and history.

(10) Although the data for these figures (largely provided by measurements of military recruits) does not necessarily satisfy the statistical methods of modern anthropometry, the results are surprisingly consistent with other contemporary estimates of height. The overall upward trend in height among British males is also entirely consistent with similar trends across Europe.

(11) S. J. Kunitz, 'Making a long story short: a note on men's height and mortality in England from the first through the nineteenth centuries', Medical history, xxxi (1987), pp.269-80.

(12) We might note that all of these findings concern adult males. Although logic suggests that Tudor boys must also have been shorter and had higher voices than their modern counterparts, this cannot be readily confirmed.

(13) D. Gwynn, 'The English organ in Purcell's lifetime', Performing the music of Henry Purcell, ed. M. Burden (London, 1996), p.31.

(14) Although in Ellis's great work I can find no reference to what he regards as 'present concert pitch' (an alarming omission), by implication it must have been a'=440.

(15) Wulstan, Tudor music, p.202.

(16) Gwynn, 'The English organ in Purcell's lifetime', pp.31-2.

(17) The reasons for this change are explored in Wulstan, Tudor music, pp.241-2. Charles Butler's assertion, in 1636, that some treble voices could ascend above written g" (see n.20 below) confirms that the boys were still capable of singing in the higher tessitura.

(18) Though often stated by practicing musicians as an understandable reaction to the apparently improbable demands made by the high pitch theory, this view has received predictably little attention in print. The most comprehensive written counter to the high pitch theory is found in the two articles by Roger Bowers cited above. It is important to point out that Bowers does not dispute the applicability of the high pitch theory to post-Reformation music. He disputes its applicability to pre-Reformation music on the grounds of lack of contemporary evidence, and because of what he perceives as a break in continuity at the time of the Reformation. On the other hand, no specific evidence has been produced to suggest that pre-Reformation music was sung at generally lower pitches than that of the post-Reformation period, while the evidence of ex.1 seems to imply some kind of continuity.

(19) It is perhaps worth noting here that most modern performances of Tudor music at high pitch have commonly used adult females as trebles. Such performances, however successful, provide no real evidence as to the feasibility of this performing pitch for boys: modern performances at high pitch by all-male choirs have rarely been wholly successful. Whether using male or female trebles, and whether successful or unsuccessful, modern critical comment of performances a tone or more above written pitch has been magnetically drawn to the stratospheric range of the treble part: we might compare this to the situation in Tudor England (see n.17 above).

(20) Comments on the vocal quality of particular boys trebles - which do exist - should not be confused with comments on their exceptional vocal range - which do not. Specific evidence to the contrary - that the range of the Tudor treble voice was regarded as 'ordinary' - is provided in Charles Butler, The Principles of Musik (London, 1636), p.9 In describing the full range of the standard Tudor five-part vocal scoring F-g" (i.e. A[flat] -b[flat]" at high pitch), Butler offers the proviso 'although there are found soom Bases that reach below, and soom Trebles that arise aboov this ordinari compas.'

(21) It should be stressed that for most of the sixteenth century adult European sopranos were falsettists and not castratos. Castratos were reported in Spain from the middle of the century, and in the Sistine Choir from about 1565: castratos were gradually introduced alongside falsettists, implying that their ranges occupied common ground. Similarly, the fact that in some choirs (the Capella Giulia, for instance) boys and falsettists sang soprano parts together, suggests that the sixteenth-century European falsettist must indeed have been a high voice. Underlining this is the evidence of the written ranges, which shows little change to accommodate the new breed of castratos: in Sistine music after 1565, although the soprano upper range occasionally becomes higher (from f" to g"), the overall compass of the voices does not increase.

(22) Sagudino, secretary to the Venetian ambassador, commented on hearing the Chapel Royal in 1515 that the English 'counterbasses probably have not their equal in the world'. While this may have been a comment on their quality, it could also have referred to their low range. (This would agree with the observation that, historically, English men have been taller than Italian men, and have thus presumably had lower voices.)

(23) For instance, at high pitch a[flat] or a is the most frequent starting note for the countertenor part in the 1575 Cantiones sacrae.

(24) P. Phillips, 'Performance practice in sixteenth-century English choral music', Early music, v (1978), p.194.

(25) Thomas Coryat, Coryat's Crudities (London, 1611), p.252.

(26) Butler, The Principles of Musik, pp. 41-2.

(27) See J. Morehen, 'Sacred songs in the chamber', English choral practice, ed. Morehen, pp.161-79.

(28) Wulstan, Tudor music, pp.233-4.

(29) We might note that some so years later Purcell frequently matched the voice of the countertenor John Freeman with a trumpet, typically in martial music. But Freeman's 'countertenor' was a tenor voice: see O. Baldwin and T. Wilson, 'Purcell's stage singers', Performing the music of Henry Purcell, ed. Burden; 'Purcell's countertenors', Musical opinion, lxxxix (1966), 'Alfred Deller, John Freeman and Mr. Pate', Music and letters, 1 (1969).

(30) See Butler, The Principles of Musik, p..116.

(31) See T. Morris, 'Voices and pitch in the concerted works', Performing the music of Henry Purcell, ed. Burden, p.141, and A. Parrott, 'Performing Purcell', The Purcell companion, ed. M. Burden (London, 1995), p.420.

(32) F. Bernstein and P. Schlaper, 'Uber die Tonlage der menschlichen Singstimme', Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Physik.-Math. ICI) (1922) [cited in Wulstan, Tudor Music, p.221].

(33) Wulstan, Tudor music, p.244.

(34) Oxford, NewCollege, Archives of the Warden and Fellows, 9432, ff.21v-22r.

(35) This is the reading of the passage given in D. Wulstan, 'Vocal colour', Journal of the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, ii (1979), p 51; in the absence of any other corroborative evidence that the mean was a man's voice, it seems on balance the more likely reading.

(36) Bowers's argument assumes two concurrent performing traditions in England, with either adult or boy altos in otherwise similarly deployed choirs singing similarly scored music. While such a divergence within one country is not impossible to conjecture in itself, it would obviously be more likely amongst isolated performing institutions: the similarities referred to above underline that pre-Reformation English choirs, while clearly isolated geographically, were not isolated in other respects. It would be doubly remarkable if these alternative choral dispositions did exist in pre-Reformation Tudor England, since no specific reference to such a situation seems to exist from the period, either in the form of choir records or observations from clerical visitations.

(37) See C. Page, 'False voices', Early music, ix (1981), pp.71-2.

(38) Bowers ('To chorus from quartet', pp.13-14), suggests that 'since the alto [falsetto] voice seems unlikely to have had anything to contribute to the performance of plainsong, it seems reasonable to propose that when used at all it was in the performance of polyphony'. On the following page he assumes that the lower part (F-B) of the bass register was not used in plainsong. This assumption is based on the belief that boys, singing an octave above, would not have been able to sing below about c' - (a belief, incidentally, contradicted by his later suggestion that boys often sang mean parts descending to g). From this Bowers argues that since the lower part of the bass voice was not used in chant, it would not have been used in polyphony. ('It seems fair to propose that the sector of range which they were discarding for polyphony was the same as that which they conventionally abjured in the performance of their prevailing repertory of plainsong chant'.) In other words, Bowers argues that the falsetto range was not used in chant so would have been used in polyphony, and that the lower bass register was not used in chant and so would not have been used in polyphony: these assumptions and conclusions sit uncomfortably together. In fact, if falsetto singing was not permitted in the performance of chant, as Bowers and the prohibitions cited above suggest, it seems practically untenable to suggest that certain singers were expected to utilize their dormant falsetto register on high-profile vocal lines only for a matter of minutes on the relatively rare occasions that polyphony was performed.

(39) Wulstan, Tudor music, p.243.

(40) In fact, out of 54 complete pieces in the Eton Choirbook, only 21 (39 per cent) fit Bowers's picture of being five-part pieces with the third and fourth voices having shared clefs, a 5th below that of the second voice. There are actually no fewer than 31 different clef combinations in the music of the Eton Choirbook: a number of these involve paired clefs elsewhere in the texture, often with adjacent parts lying a 5th above or below. The number and diverse nature of different clef combinations are extraordinary, especially when compared to the repertory a few decades on, which is much more consistent. Yet when seen in context this diversity is hardly surprising, since with the introduction of boys' voices into polyphony, the performing medium had undergone its most radical ever change.

(41) Eton College Statutes, quoted in Musica Britannica, x, pp.xv-xvi.

(42) See Bowers, 'To chorus from quartet', pp.18-20, 37. 37.

(43) The diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. G. De Beer (London, 1959), p.505.

(44) Matthew Locke, The Present Practice of Musick Vindicated (London, 1673), p.19.

(45) Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian (London, 1987), p.78.

(46) See Parrott, 'Performing Purcell', p.418, and Morris, 'Voice ranges, voice types, and pitch in Purcell's concerted works'.

(47) Baldwin and Wilson, 'Alfred Deller, John Freeman and Mr. Pate', pp.103-10.

(48) This may sound far-fetched, but in England the modern early music high tenor does generally appear to be shorter than his bass colleague. One practical observation which helped provoke the present enquiry was of the huge dip between a Taverner Choir bass line including John Milne and Jeremy Birchall, and a tenor line including Simon Berridge and Rogers Covey Crump. This observation is confirmed by figures for the Taverner Choir's Florentine Intermedi television production for Channel 4. In this production the 10 tenors had an average height of 69.7 inches and the 10 basses had an average height of 70.8 inches. I have found a similar difference (though generally more marked) in each choir with which I have had a personal involvement in the last three years.