Micrologus; The Top Voice
83-03 THE TOP VOICE
One of the most perplexing problems of what might be called the "instrumentation" of early music, oddly enough, concerns vocal rather than instrumental music. Specifically, who sang the top part in vocal ensemble works of the Renaissance, and who sang all those arias for high voice from the Baroque era? One of the reasons it is a problem is that there are so many candidates for the job: boy sopranos, women, male falsettists or countertenors, and, last but not least, those fascinating anomalies, the castrati. On today's Micrologus we are going to try to sort out this situation.
It seems certain, at least, that for the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, polyphonic music for the church was intended to be sung by a group of men only. Boys are known to have been choristers during this period, but there seems to be no direct evidence that they actually sang the polyphony with the men. Presumably, they took part in the singing of Gregorian chant and we know also that occasionally they sang polyphony by themselves, or sometimes with only their choirmaster singing with them. This must have been part of the training, so that when a boy's voice broke at age 17 or 18, as it did in those days, the young man would be ready to become a member of the regular men's choir.
I say "choir," but up to about the year 1430, these vocal ensembles mostly commonly had only one singer to a part, the top voice being sung by a falsettist.
It must have sounded something like this performance of Leonel Power's "Ave regina coelorum," sung by the Hilliard Ensemble.
In the course of the 15th century, not only did choirs grow larger, but composers began to write music for more extended ranges. The first true bass parts date from this time, as does the regular appearance of parts in what we now call the soprano range. In some places, the solution to the performance of such parts was to find men who could sing those high notes; chapel archives in the early 16th century are full of references to young men who sang soprano for a year or two, only to lose their voices at the end of that time. It is not unheard of, but it is rare indeed, when a man develops a real soprano range in falsetto and maintains it beyond his adolescent years. Because of this, some musical establishments simply chose to move the boys into the regular choir for the purpose of singing the highest parts. This practice was especially popular in England, where in the college chapels, a choir of about sixteen singers including about eight boys was typical.
The next selection is the opening of the St. Matthew Passion by the late 15th century English composer Richard Davy, here performed by Choristers of All Saints, Margaret Street, and the Purcell Consort of Voices, directed by Grayston Burgess.
There are many who would maintain that that distinctive choirboy sound cannot be approached by women. Just for the sake of comparison, we are going to listen to a choir whose women consciously strive to sound like English choirboys. The piece is “O nata lux de lumine" by Thomas Tallis, and the performers are the Clerkes of Oxenford, under David Wulstan.
Yes, those really were women on the top part in that performance. I think it is important to note here that women were not banned from making music in the church; they were simply prohibited from singing in church in the company of men. Thus, there was an ancient and excellent tradition of singing in convents which was kept separate from that of parish churches, cathedrals and court chapels where the rule of mulier in ecclesia tacet (the woman is silent in church) still held sway.
Outside of the church, however, women took active part in singing partsongs of various kinds. We have references to singing women minstrels at the court of Burgundy in the late Middle Ages, and 15th century chronicles even document performances of polyphony with men and women singing together. Most of the top parts in such cases are in a range which could also have been sung by a male falsettist, however. The first composer to write secular music which consistently uses the soprano range—suggesting performance by a woman—was Cipriano de Rore, who began doing so in his madrigal collections of the 1540s.
This next work is Rore's "Dalle belle contrade," performed by the Consort of Musicke, directed by Anthony Rooley.
On the top voice there, by the way, was soprano Emma Kirkby.
Once women had become a normal part of such music-making, it was not long before the first virtuoso sopranos appeared. Particularly at the court of Ferrara towards the end of the 16th century, there was a group of women who simply astonished their listeners with the beauty and grace of their singing. Chief among the composers writing for these women was Luzzasco Luzzaschi, whose solo madrigal “O Primavera" we now hear sung by Montserrat Figueras.
Such works led directly to the arias of 17th century virtuoso composers like Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi, and helped to establish an important role for sopranos in the fast-rising new art from of the time—opera.
Before we get into that, we have to back up to something I said earlier in the program with regard to church music, which was that musical establishments in some places tried to find falsettists to sing the highest parts in their choirs. This seems to have been a frustrating experience for them. One would think that, as the demands of the upper range grew, boys would certainly be admitted to such choirs, but even in an important musical center like the Sistine Chapel, boys continued to be excluded. As women singers grew in importance, it might seem logical, to us at least, that they be incorporated at long last into these bastions of male exclusivity. But they were not.
No one knows for certain how the practice was begun, but around the middle of the 16th century castrated males began appearing with increasing frequency—pardon the pun—as sopranos in church choirs. Reportedly, the practice started in Spain and spread quickly to Italy and southern Germany. How would anyone get the idea that a castrated male would make a good soprano? Did they discover it by accident? Even if they did, how could anyone systematically, though covertly, continue the practice? Was it so important to keep women out of the choirs? That may have been the reason initially, but it seems likely that the combination of range, flexibility, and power, as well as the unique timbre of the castrato voice, once established, ensured its continuation as an acknowledged barbarity right up to the threshold of our own century. In opera, castrati sang most of the leading male roles until past the middle of the 18th century, and in the papal states, where there was a ban on women appearing on stage, castrati sang the female roles, too. Women, of course, normally sang the female roles in opera, along with an occasional adolescent male role. The picture of serious Italian opera of the 17th and 18th centuries, then, is one dominated by high voices: women sopranos and contraltos, castrato sopranos and altos, along with a token falsettist, tenor, or bass for contrast.
Now, I'm not going to lead you along and say that we are about to hear a recording of a baroque aria sung by a castrato, but I will say that we are going to hear something almost as unbelievable at the end of this program.
Right now, we are going to listen to a sacred work which was perhaps the most prized of any in the repertory of the papal chapel, during the heyday of the castratos there: the "Miserere" of Gregorio Allegri. So beautiful and secret were the ornaments applied to this work that the pope literally threatened to excommunicate anyone who made them public. We will hear the last part, performed by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, directed by Sir David Willcocks.
Oh, what I would not give to hear a castrato sing that! That was a high C, by the way, in case you were wondering.
No survey of the top voice in the Renaissance and baroque would be complete without a German boy soprano. It is clear that J. S. Bach wrote the soprano arias of his Leipzig cantatas with boy sopranos in mind, and while we have already heard two selections which featured boys, the sound of the German boy soprano is traditionally very different from that of the ethereal English sound. In fact, many who doubt the ability of boys to interpret the emotionally charged vocal lines of Bach may be surprised by the remarkable maturity of this next voice. The soloist is an anonymous member of the Vienna Boys Choir, and the instrumentalists are from that same city's Concentus Musicus, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Now comes the unbelievable part. The last castrato was a man named Alessandro Moreschi, who sang for 30 years in the Sistine Chapel choir, and who died in 1922, at the age of 63. When he was about 45, Moreschi made a handful of recordings of sacred chestnuts of the Romantic era, and in a moment we are going to listen to one. We have no way of knowing how Moreschi's talent stacked up against that of the finest castrati of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and, indeed, his interpretation is so idiomatically Romantic that it obscures comparison even with voices familiar to us today. But the sound is remarkably clear, and the heart is certainly there.
From a recording made in April 1904, the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria," sung by Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato. Listen closely; this is an unforgettable experience.
[MUSIC: "L'angelo di Roma" (the angel of Rome), Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato of a 400-year old tradition]
You’ve been listening to a program exploring the singers of the Top Voice in the world of early music.
- The Top Voice
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- Ross W. Duffin (Pasadena, California)
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- One of the most perplexing problems of what might be called the "instrumentation" of early music, oddly enough, concerns vocal rather than instrumental music. Specifically, who sang the top part in vocal ensemble works of the Renaissance, and who sang all those arias for high voice from the Baroque era? One of the reasons it is a problem is that there are so many candidates for the job: boy sopranos, women, male falsettists or countertenors, and, last but not least, those fascinating anomalies, the castrati. On today's Micrologus we are going to try to sort out this situation.
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Host: Duffin, Ross
Producing Organization: CWRU
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Ross W. Duffin
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Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Micrologus; The Top Voice,” 1983, Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 3, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-0840085f571.
- MLA: “Micrologus; The Top Voice.” 1983. Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 3, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-0840085f571>.
- APA: Micrologus; The Top Voice. Boston, MA: Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-0840085f571