The Countertenor Connection
Date: June 18, 2013
Every Sunday morning at 8 am, I listen to a Bach Cantata online in Germany, where I now live. After several years, I dawned on me that many recordings of Bach cantatas containing a solo alto part were performed by countertenors, and likewise, the choruses consisted of boys and men. At first I thought I was imagining it, until I tuned into a US classical music station one day, and found the same thing to be true.
How could this be? I decided to write a letter to the German station to express my dismay at this seeming imbalance of CD’s with male performers of treble clef music in Bach.
I received a reply from the programming manager– who admitted she personally preferred the sound of the female alto/mezzo voice soloists to that of countertenors – but to my surprise, said that the station was limited to the recordings available.
I investigated and found out that of the ten recordings of the next Sunday’s particular cantata, only three had women as alto solo performers and only five had an SATB chorus. Not even 50% representation of women.
I personally had long admired Countertenor Alfred Deller singing early music, but as I thought about it, I could come up with no woman doing the same in the late 50’s and 60’s. I just thought that was the way things were. But, we’re we now in the 21st century, and my tune is very different.
After reflection, the answer to my discovered imbalance started to fall into place. The Countertenor connection goes back to childhood opportunities for males in Boy choirs. They represent the natural Petri dish for future Early and Baroque choral and solo performing, especially in Germany.
The connection is seamless. Early on, boys and young men – much more than girls and young women – get introduced to the literature, meet the conductors, and as young adults continue their studies at the conservatories, increasing their contact with (mostly male) conductors, music directors, men in the recording industry, leaving girls behind in the dust.
So where’s your beef you say? There are men that can sing this treble music. And they do. To the victor belong the spoils. If I look and for someone to perform the “Alto” solos, whom would I pick? Easy. Someone with experience, someone I heard on tour, someone I made a recording with or an old pal I performed with – like little Joey from our boy’s chorus in Privilege, Oregon. He’d be great in our next recording.”
This is indeed a sad state of affairs, that women are often excluded or passed over from full participation in Early Music performances, recordings, and musical opportunities. Their absence in concerts and in the recording studio is wide spread and entrenched. Lost opportunity due to what? Singing ability? NO. The nature of their voices? Absolutely not. Through the old boys network and lack of opportunity? You bet.
The implications for altos are enormous. For example, one of Germany’s leading choral quartets, Die Prinzen, owe their existence (and earnings) to all four having been well trained Thomaner. To this day, not one girl has been allowed into the Thomaner Chor – one tried last year and even went to court – in vain. No females need apply. No tickee, no washee.
I performed many times in choruses and sang tenor while enduring cracks about “fake tenors” who sang the wrong clef only when there were not enough men to create a balanced section. We’re acceptable, apparently, but not for “real” situations such as performances and recordings of Bach tenor solos or (horrors) the Evangelists.
So it’s okay for countertenors to sing treble parts, but not okay for Altos to sing bass clef/treble solos. And if that argument doesn’t grab you, then countertenors can play the authenticity card – Bach always performed with males. (Big surprise: Bach didn’t even recognize his daughters in his family tree.).
Rubbish. How about Vivaldi’s Gloria - written for, and sung by women in its first performance - and when was the last time you’ve heard the Gloria performed by women only?
Still not swayed? Them let’s get to the real issue – the one way street, the old boys stiff arming aside. There is no substitute for the rich, full quality of a female Alto/Mezzo singing in her accustomed range and the depth of emotion that female singer’s voice can uniquely bring to Bach’s music. If presented with the choice, I would always program a woman for the arias in Bach, and use SATB in the chorus – or only when girls sing SA side by side with boys – or even on their own.
On a related topic of women singing tenor, one countertenor wrote recently in this forum that he “sang with balls, baby (sic).” Funny, the slang word for “balls,” in German is Eier, or “eggs.” I know of only one gender with eggs. Perhaps the psychodynamics of the language should give us a pause. Altos of the world unite! There is nothing like a . . . Change will start with that first girl’s choir you sing in.
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