Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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The countertenor is the highest male adult voice.  Peter Giles, a professional countertenor and noted author on the subject, defines the countertenor as a musical part, rather than a vocal style or mechanism. The countertenor range is generally equivalent to an alto range, extending from approximately G3 or A3 to E5 or G5 and they will usually have a vocal center similar in placement to that of a mezzo-soprano.

The term was first introduced in England in the mid 17th century, but the use of adult male falsettos in polyphony (the style of simultaneously combining a number of individual parts that harmonize with each other), was common in sacred choirs for some decades prior to this.  During the Romantic period, the popularity of the countertenor voice waned and less compositions were written with that voice type in mind.  In the renaissance period, the countertenor (although not referred to as such) was most commonly found in the Catholic Church, where women were banned from singing.  However, at this point, the highest male voice in opera was dominated by the castrati- men castrated before puberty in order to prevent the larynx from being transformed. This practice was still legal at this point and highly fashionable, so there was little demand for countertenors.

Purcell wrote significant music for a higher male voice that he called ‘counter-tenor’, examples of this can be heard in The Fairy Queen (1692).  Sadly, Purcell’s ‘counter-tenor’ did not take off in England much beyond the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Similalrly, in Handel’s time, castrati dominated the English, Italian and French operatic stage and took part in several of his oratorios, though countertenors occasionally featured as soloists in the latter.  They also sang the alto parts in Handel’s choruses, and it was as choral singers within the Anglican church tradition that countertenors survived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Apart from within the church, they mostly faded from public notice.

In the 20th century, due to an increase in the popularity of Baroque opera and the need for male singers to replace castrati roles, the countertenor voice saw a huge increase in popularity.  Alfred Deller (pictured) was an English singer in the 1950s and is generally hailed as the most significant icon of the countertenor revival in the twentieth century.  A champion of authentic early music performance, Deller initially referred to himself as ‘alto’ but was dubbed ‘countertenor’ by his collaborator Michael Tippett.

Today, there’s a great demand for countertenors in classical music. In opera, most of the roles originally written for castrati are now sung and recorded by countertenors, and some trouser roles (a male character that is sung and acted by a female singer) originally written for female singers are also now sung by countertenors.

There’s a chance to hear acclaimed countertenor William Purefoy performing Pergolesi’s famous sacred work Stabat Mater at The Works this Tuesday.

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