The Whimsical Past, the Scholarly Present, and the Case of the Countertenor

by Peter Tracy

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel 1559

Overly specific conjectures about the musical traditions of the past should always be taken with a grain of salt. This is not because we have no primary sources on, say, European church music from 1200 to 1600 C.E. – there is plenty of vellum laying around from those days – but because reconstructing an entire sphere of musical practice from the sheepskin testaments of select people and places necessarily requires some extrapolation onto the past from what we experience in the present. In short, what music scholarship often requires is some highly educated guesswork.

Still, trying to reconstruct the music of the past is an essential feature (if not the feature) of Early Music as such. This begs the question: how are we to know, as surely as we can, what our musical fore-bearers were really up to? An upcoming concert organized by Early Music Seattle might help to give us a jumping-off point into these treacherous musical waters: Reginald Mobley, renowned countertenor, will be soloing with the Seattle Baroque Orchestra on the 23rd at Town Hall Seattle. And as a feature of music histories both recent and centuries old, the case of the countertenor is a rather peculiar one. A voice type that has seen a remarkable surge of interest in the past few decades yet whose origins are hotly debated, the countertenor’s assumed history may serve us as something of a parable about the music of the past as it reaches us today, and about the degree to which the musicians of distant times and places were as unpredictable as those of the present.

Let’s start with some background. Voice scholar Laura E. Demarco, in a 2002 article titled “The Fact of the Castrato and the Myth of the Countertenor”, sets the scene for us in her opening paragraph:

“Over the last generation or so, the music world has witnessed an astonishing growth in the number of singers commonly dubbed “countertenors.” The major use for these newly labeled “countertenors” has been to sing featured, if not starring, roles in baroque opera. Most baroque  opera revived in this period has been by Handel, and it has become common practice to cast a countertenor in roles that Handel had written for castrato (and, in the last few years, even in roles that Handel had written for mezzo-soprano).”[1]

Thus, in Demarco’s estimation, the rise of the countertenor coincides roughly with period in which the so-called Early Music Revival was in full swing. This broad movement, centered in post-war London around figures like the countertenor Alfred Deller (but also including earlier figures such as the instrument-maker Alfred Dolmetsch), sought “a kind of authenticity, a contact with… music that made no apologies, made no adjustments, and tried to hear it as those for whom it was intended might have heard it.”[2] Early Music Seattle is a contemporary outgrowth of the work done by these scholar-performers, people who attempted, based on all the available evidence, to “rediscover” and re-historicize the musical practice of everything from the early baroque era to, eventually, plainchant. As the inclusion of Alfred Deller above might suggest, countertenors were an integral part of this process, due in no small part, I would argue, to a still-lingering cultural association between higher-pitched male singing and early vocal music.

To what do we owe this association, however? And how far back does this whole countertenor thing go? In short, did certain men (or boys), before women were commonly allowed to sing in church choirs, let loose angelic and otherworldly high notes in the cathedrals of old, having been trained to do so since before their voices broke? Can we find, in the music made before even baroque opera, evidence for the widespread employment of high male voices?

The answer is complicated. For one thing, you may have noticed that, in the above passage from Demarco, “scare quotes” are used rather conspicuously around the word “countertenor”. What precisely defines the word “countertenor”, the degree to which this voice type has a basis in the historical music of different time periods and places, the contexts in which it should be employed: these are the questions surrounding the countertenor which continue to plague scholars to this day, and which are largely responsible for the sometimes prickly posturing that can be found in some works on the subject.

Perhaps a definition is in order. The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines the countertenor as follows:

“High male voice not to be confused with male alto, falsetto, or castrato and with a strong, almost instrumental purity of tone. Was popular in Handel’s and Purcell’s lifetimes and has been revived in 20th [century] largely thanks to artistry of Alfred Deller… with the search for authenticity in [performance] of early music, it has reclaimed many roles in baroque works long since assigned to [contraltos] or [tenors]”[3]

There we have it then: the countertenor is the highest male voice type, one that was popular in the early baroque era and has now made a comeback. However, ambiguities remain: for instance, how easy is it to confuse a “true” countertenor with a “male alto”? And if it is easy, then what’s the real difference anyway? Demarco opines as follows:

“Since the countertenor is the extreme of the upper range of a natural male voice, it is by definition a relatively rare voice and, in any generation, something of a freak of nature, much like the comparable, relatively few sopranos who can sing in the octave above the normal high soprano. Though rare, such voices do exist… but today, the brace or two of new “countertenors”  that appear to surface every other week make it obvious that we are not discussing the same voice as a true countertenor. These singers are in fact male altos”[4]

The credentials of contemporary countertenors aside, it should be clear that, if specialists like Demarco are already bemoaning the apparent change in meaning which the term “countertenor” has undergone in the past fifty years (being often widened, if only in practice, to include all those pesky “male altos”), then the difficulty involved in identifying historical countertenors must be even more pronounced. Confronted with an aria like Bach’s “Widerstehe doch der Sünde”, which calls for an alto soloist yet employs an unconventionally low range for that voice type, who are we to assume was its singer?[5] Bach himself seems to have had better things to do than to list his intended performers by name in the score, let alone to explain to us how he intended the work to be performed. He simply knew who he was writing for, knew what they were used to performing, and likely figured he could coach them on the rest if need be. I might highlight, too, the fact that the often confusing array of terminology which we use in connection with vocal and instrumental ranges today (is an alto flute lower or higher in range than a standard flute?) is no less complicated than the array of such terms used by, say, the 15th century choirmasters of St. Donatian’s in Bruges. To add to the confusion, the terminology of past and present often overlaps, yet the historical meaning of terms such as “alto” may depart quite significantly from the way use them today. We simply have no way of knowing with absolute certainty.

This may all seem like rather trivial scholarly bickering, but it is important to remember that the way we interpret the minutia of the sources we have on the music of the past can often have far from trivial effects on the way we hear and perform this music today. For Demarco, for instance, the difference between a true countertenor and an alto is an eminently important one: “the sound of a male alto”, she writes, “differs fundamentally from that of a countertenor due to a difference in the method of vocal production.” In fact, as she makes a point of telling us, “male altos are falsettists, and they sing in falsetto.”[6]

Let’s take this as another, related example. Falsetto is just the kind of term that many of us think we know today, yet which may have had a wildly different meaning to the musicians and audience members of the past. It also carries with it some, shall we say, extra-musical connotations of its own: from the diminutive form of the Italian word falso, meaning false, the term falsetto is associated with a method of vocal production in men that is above their “natural” vocal range but which results in a “weaker” or less “full” sound. Yet the characterization of this vocal technique as “false” may also have something to do with the pervasive association between higher-pitched singing and women. That is, a male singer may be considered “false” for singing in a higher vocal range to the extent that this is not his “true” vocal range, and to the extent that this falsely mimics a female voice.

According to scholar Andrew Parrott, this association can have scholarly and ultimately musical consequences, particularly when we consider the many references to “effeminate” music-making (or to other such gendered musical concepts) that litter sources from the Middle Ages:

“more often than not, what is described as ‘effeminate’ may not be a voice or a singer but the music itself, or at least some aspect of its character… falsetto singing—if and when it may have  occurred—would indeed seem more likely than not to have been viewed by our medieval forebears as effeminate. The reverse, however, does not hold: references to effeminate music and singing in the Middle Ages cannot be assumed to imply the falsetto voice.”[7]

This excerpt illustrates the way in which an assumption we make about the culture and the people of the past – that they would have associated falsetto with “effeminate” music-making – can have a direct impact on the way music is made in the present. When we see terms, for instance, like the Latin en fausset appear in documents from the 15th century, it can be easy to assume that this term meant the same thing to the musicians of old as its Italian analogue, falsetto, does to us. Yet Parrott argues that en fausset and other related terms may have denoted either quiet singing (not singing at “full voice”) or an intentionally humorous style of singing which included “wrong” notes. Take, for example, these passages from a 13th century liturgical document featuring instructions for the performance accompanying the Feast of the Circumcision at Sens Cathedral in Northern France:

“Four or five [singers] in falso, behind the altar.
Quatuor vel quinque in falso, retro altare.

Two or three in voce in front of the altar.
Duo vel tres, in voce, ante altare.”[8]

We may be tempted to assume that the Latin in falso is a clear indication of the use of falsetto, and that the staid ritual of the Feast of the Circumcision would naturally be accompanied by the angelic tones of high-pitched male singers. Yet Parrott comments on these passages as follows:

“Since… the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1st) doubled as the Feast of Fools, these  expressions have sometimes been thought to indicate intentional wrong notes or out-of-tune singing (chanter faux), or some other form of irregular singing—including a satirical use of falsetto. This, however, is to misunderstand the nature of the Feast, which had been newly developed ‘as a dignified alternative to rowdy secular New Year festivities’, with the well-known role reversals now properly symbolizing God’s deposing of ‘the mighty’ in favour of ‘them of low degree’. A further possibility is suggested both by [the historical use of] ‘en fausset’ for ‘softly’ and by the similarity of in falso/in voce to the 17th-century Catalan falsete/veu: namely, that Haec est clara dies was to be sung quietly for dramatic effect by one group of singers behind the main altar, after which another in front of the altar would sing Salve, festa dies in normal full voice (‘in voce’). As the present meaning of ‘falsetto’ has long been assumed to stretch back at least 900 years, it seems no less reasonable to imagine that a different meaning of the word may have survived for 600.”[9]

An Illustration of a Carving Depicting the Feast of Fools


A depiction of boys being taught to sing church music 14th century

Which version of the events of January 1st at Sens cathedral are we to believe? That of the rowdy and humorous Feast of Fools? Or its seeming opposite, the hushed and reverent en fausset singing of the Feast of the Circumcision? While this passage clearly illustrates the complexity involved in comparing musical terms between different time periods, places, and languages, it also gives us a glimpse into the complex cultural milieu that the settings of Haec et clara dies and Salve festa dies referenced above must have existed within. Do we have anything particularly analogous in our own musical practice, for instance, to the aforementioned Feast of Fools, in which “priests and clerks [were] seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office”,  dancing “in the choir dressed as women”, and singing “wanton songs”?[10] If we are to take such instances of rowdy, almost unpredictable behavior among these church singers and officiates seriously (even if they only occurred at certain times of year), then we might have some reconsidering to do concerning the values that are often ascribed to the people and the music of the past.


Golf Book

This is not to say that we are entirely wrong to assume that church music or medieval music more broadly were regularly performed with an air of solemnity and gravity, or that the musicians who performed this music did not take their roles seriously. Rather, these varying examples surrounding falsetto and the countertenor should make it clear that making inferences about the past is a complex and often confusing game to play. J.S. Bach himself, given his historically documented and now infamous fist fight with a bassoonist, strikes me as a shining example of the fact that historical people don’t always act quite how we might expect.[11]

Nor should we assume that these historical figures were simple, cookie-cutter products of their time. The further back we look, however, the less evidence is often available, and the more we can project our preferred histories backwards to fill the gaps. These projections can in turn allow us to find in the past many of our contemporary assumptions about how people think and what they value (such as that medieval audiences were fond of the high-pitched voices of countertenors and falsettists). People tend to look for and find patterns in the past, yet this can often lead to the flattening of outliers and oddities (like the aforementioned Feast of Fools) into neat packages of musical history. Thus, we can fall into the trap of turning a difficult to interpret pool of notes, scribbles, records, and artifacts into a non-negotiable case for our inherited theories about musical history, or into a combative validation for our preferred form of contemporary music-making.

I am far from being able to give you a convincing solution to the “problem” of the countertenor. In fact, (as the preceding muddle of scholarly complexity might imply) finding “the answer” is not my intention here. Mainly, I’d like to emphasize that apparently simple answers to specific historical questions are often not as one-dimensional as they first appear. I might also suggest that the people of the past were just as contradictory, whimsical, complex, and ultimately self-reflective as we are. While trying to follow their logic across the sources we have is essential to the project of Early Music, and while a search for musical authenticity is admirable, this is also a process that can have no real and definitive conclusion.

Arnold Dolmetsch

To my mind, therefore, the problems inherent in bringing the musical past into the present need to be approached with both a spirit of rigor and a spirit of playfulness: that is, while we must be willing to respect evidence-based argumentation when we see it, we must also be ready to accept that performing and listening to historical music can involve a great deal of experimentation. Much of the work done by Reginald Mobley, our guest for the coming concert, can be seen in this light: a concert he gave last year, for instance, juxtaposed the music of Bach and Purcell with that of Cole Porter and Sarah Vaughan[12]. I might also draw your attention to the work of Klaus Nomi, a countertenor who, in 1978, “performed at a New Wave Vaudeville show… as a plastic-covered alien singing “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila in full, bel canto falsetto.”[13]Arnold Dolmetsch, too – one of our Early Music “founding fathers” – offers another telling example: seemingly out of thin air, this scholar and instrument maker began recreating old and obscure instruments from the European past, resulting in, among other things, the contemporary resurgence of the viol family and the recorder. Here was a man who, faced with a historical record full of all sorts of odd noisemakers, made the striking decision to simply start building and restoring some of them again, audience or no.[14]

As an instrument maker, performer, and scholar, then, Dolmetsch made it clear that to come out of the library – or the concert hall, for that matter –  swinging our swords and proclaiming that we have found the musical truth of truths is largely unhelpful (and not very fun). Rather, if I may project again onto our musical fore-bearers, I’d wager that Dolmetsch would want us to make our best guess – or perhaps even better, to make a wild, crazy guess – and then try to back it up, acknowledging all the while that the people of the past were just as quirky, playful, and unpredictable as we are. That, in my humble opinion, is to be a scholar, performer, or an audience member at our very best.

A playlist exploring the contemporary resurgence of the countertenor voice type and the countertenor repertoire.

Early Music Seattle: The Countertenor


Works Cited/Further Reading

Ardran, G. M., and David Wulstan. “The Alto or Countertenor Voice.” Music & Letters, vol. 48, no. 1, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 17–22.

Campbell, Margaret. Dolmetsch : the Man and His Work. University of Washington Press, 1975.

DeMarco, Laura E. “The Fact of the Castrato and the Myth of the Countertenor.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 86, no. 1, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 174–85.

Dolmetsch, Arnold. The Interpretation of the Music of the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries Revealed by Contemporary Evidence. By Arnold Dolmetsch. Novello and company, limited: The H. W. Gray co., 1915.

Fugate, Bradley K. The Contemporary Countertenor in Context: Vocal Production, Gender/Sexuality, and Reception, 2016.

Gilhus, Ingvild Salid. “Carnival in Religion: The Feast of Fools in France.” Numen, vol. 37, no. 1, Brill, 1990, pp. 24–52.

Haskell, Harry. The Early Music Revival : a History. Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Herr, Corinna, et al. Der Countertenor : Die männliche Falsettstimme Vom Mittelalter Zur Gegenwart. Schott, 2012.

Hough, John. “The Historical Significance of the Counter-Tenor.” Proceedings of the Musical Association, vol. 64, 1937, pp. 1–24.

Kelly, Thomas Forrest. Early Music : a Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Michael Kennedy ; Tim Rutherford-Johnson ; Joyce Kennedy. “Countertenor.” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th ed., Oxford University Press, 2012.

Parrott, Andrew. “Falsetto beliefs: the ‘countertenor’ cross-examined”. Early Music, vol. 43, no. 1, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 79–110.

Ravens, Simon. “‘A Sweet Shrill Voice’: The Countertenor and Vocal Scoring in Tudor England.” Early Music, vol. 26, no. 1, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 123–34.

Ravens, Simon. The Supernatural Voice : a History of High Male Singing. Boydell Press, 2014.

[1]     DeMarco pp. 174.

[2]     Excerpted from the wonderfully concise Early Music : a Very Short Introduction, (Oxford University Press, 2011) by Thomas Forrest Kelly, pp. 95.

[3]     See “Countertenor” in The Oxford Dictionary of Music (6th ed., Oxford University Press, 2012).

[4]     DeMarco pp. 175

[5]     For a more thorough examination of this dilemma, see Simon.Ravens’ The Supernatural Voice : a History of High Male Singing, (Boydell Press, 2014).

[6]     Demarco pp. 175.

[7]     Parrott pp. 6.

[8]     Ibid.

[9]     Ibid.

[10]   Gilhus pp. 24

[11]   See write-ups such as the following for a more thorough retelling: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/bach/guides/when-bach-took-beating/

[12]   https://www.reginaldmobley.com/all-events/bach-to-bop-reginald-mobley

[13]   Fugate pp. 88-89

[14]   For more on this remarkable man, see Margaret Campbell’s Dolmetsch : the Man and His Work, (University of Washington Press, 1975).