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A countertenor is an adult male who sings in an alto, mezzo or soprano range, often through use of falsetto, or sometimes natural head-voice. This term is used almost exclusively in the context of the classical vocal tradition. The countertenor voice went through a massive resurgence in popularity in the second half of the 20th century, partly caused by pioneers such as Alfred Deller and by the increased popularity of Baroque opera and also due to a need of male singers to replace the castrati roles in opera. Although they have been considered largely an early music phenomenon, some modern countertenors explore a much larger repertoire.


[edit] History

In early polyphony, the contratenor was a voice part in melodic counterpoint against the tenor. It was written roughly in the same range as the tenor. In the 15th century, contratenor split into contratenor altus and contratenor bassus, which were respectively above and below the tenor. By the 16th century, however, the term became obsolete as Latin lost popularity. In Italy, the contratenor altus became simply alto; in France, haute-contre; in England, countertenor. This, however, is solely the source of the name. In music from the baroque period onwards they functioned as alto or soprano singers, not counterpoint to the tenor part.

Countertenors remained in the niche of sacred vocal music, in part because women were banned from singing in church services. However, they were not prominently featured in the rise of opera. The castrati were far more popular in the operas of Handel. Countertenors, however, did feature prominently in performances of Handel's oratorios: for example Messiah and Saul. On the other hand, prior to the arrival of Italian opera in England the countertenor had been a popular voice in a dramatic as well as in a sacred context. The semi-operas of Henry Purcell contain many countertenor roles, as do his ecclesiastical works, but the arrival of Italianate opera seria in England and the attendant castrati restricted countertenors to almost entirely church-based performances. As a result, the countertenor voice was found only in cathedral choirs and the occasional early music ensemble for a few centuries.

The most visible icon of the countertenor revival was Alfred Deller, an English singer and champion of authentic early music performance. Deller initially called himself an "alto", but his collaborator Michael Tippett recommended the archaic term "countertenor" to describe his voice. In the 1950s and 60s, his group, the Deller Consort, increased audiences' awareness of (and appreciation for) renaissance and Baroque music. Benjamin Britten wrote the role of Oberon in his setting of A Midsummer Night's Dream especially for him; the countertenor role of Apollo in Britten's Death in Venice was created by James Bowman. Deller was the first modern countertenor to achieve such celebrity, but he would not be the last. Russell Oberlin was Deller's American counterpart, and another early music pioneer. Oberlin's success was entirely unprecedented in a country that had seen little exposure to anything before Bach, and it paved the way for the next generation of countertenors.

Today, countertenors are much in demand in many forms of classical music. In opera, many roles originally written for castrati are now sung by countertenors, as are some trouser roles. Such roles now often recorded and performed by countertenors include Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and many of the roles that Handel wrote for the castrati, such as the title roles in Giulio Cesare and Orlando. Modern composers write countertenor parts, both in choral works and opera. Men's choral groups such as Chanticleer and the King's Singers employ them to great effect in a variety of genres, including early music, gospel, and even folk songs. Roles in more modern operas written for the countertenor voice include the title role in Philip Glass's Akhnaten, the role of Edgar in Aribert Reimann's Lear, and the role of Trinculo in Thomas Adès's The Tempest.

[edit] The countertenor voice

Every male singer possesses a falsetto register. In this register the vocal cords shift in a manner enlarging the singer's total range. This range is normally at the end of their vocal cords. Tenors employ a mixture of falsetto and chest voice in their singing, while baritones and basses do not use it at all (unless specifically called for in modern music).

Countertenors, however, are normally singers whose vocal center resides on their falsetto range. For these singers, the falsetto range is not on the edge of their cords, giving them a higher range, stronger and more musical than that of a regular male singer. Tenor-based countertenors learn how to "decentralize" their chest voices in order to achieve a clearer falsetto. Countertenors of this type are referred to as "falsettists".

A number of male singers possess a natural head voice alongside their usual chest voice. This means that while the center of their chest voice is located on a low tessitura[1], they also possess a voice type equivalent to that of female singers. The technical difference is that a falsettist needs to shift his voice from chest to head, while a natural head-voice countertenor need not. Singers of this type are able to develop both their voices. They cannot, however, employ falsetto for professional singing, as their falsetto is equivalent to that of a normal male singer. Many beginning countertenors are not fully aware that they possess natural head voices for some time, seeing as the simple "test" employed to determine this is not achievable by a beginning singer. If the singer can go both upwards from his chest voice in falsetto and downwards from his head voice is flagellio, then it is evident that he possesses natural head voice. Singing technique and studies are the same for all kinds of countertenors.

A small number of singers are males who due to physical and hormonal issues did not develop chest voices; these are referred to as endocrynological castratos.

It was once thought that all countertenors were altos. This may have been because the first few famous countertenors were altos and indeed, this vocal type seems to be the most common amongst countertenor singers. However, it is today evident that countertenors can also be mezzos and sopranos. The latter is given a special name: Sopranist.

An alto countertenor's range is normally A3-E5. Some can have a falsetto range beginning with F#3 (which is the first passaggio for contraltos). Some also possess a range going higher than E5, but not mostly singably. The tessitura for alto countertenors is normally slightly higher than that of contraltos, normally residing between C4 and C5. If notes lower than the singer's actual falsetto range is required, he will mix his voice with his chest-voice.

A mezzo countertenor's range is normally B3 to G5. Again, some have a range descending much lower and going a bit higher, up to B5. Their tessiture resides on either D4-D5 or E4-E5.

A sopranist's range is normally C4-C6, though sometimes while a singer cannot reach so high, his tessitura resides high enough to comfortably sing soprano parts. The tessitura of sopranists resides either on F4-F5, G4-G5 or A4-A5. Natural head voice sopranist possess a flagellio that can descend down to C#3. Many sopranists can reach coloratura soprano notes (C#6-F6) and even beyond.

[edit] References

  • Peter Giles and J.B Steane: "Countertenor", Grove Music Online ed L. Macy (Accessed 31 January 2007),, subscription access.

[edit] External links

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