Vocal Music: Countertenor & Castrati

countertenor (also contra tenor) is a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of the female contralto or mezzo-soprano voice types, generally extending from around G3 to D5 or E5, although a sopranist (a specific kind of countertenor) may match the soprano’s range of around C4 to C6. Countertenors often are baritones or tenors at core, but rarely use this vocal range in performance.

The nature of the counter-tenor voice has radically changed throughout musical history, from a modal voice, to a modal and falsetto voice, to the primarily falsetto voice which is denoted by the term today. This is partly because of changes in human physiology, and partly because of fluctuations in pitch.

The term first came into use in England during the mid-17th century, and was in wide use by the late 17th century. However, the use of adult male falsettos in polyphony, commonly in the soprano range, was known in European all-male sacred choirs for some decades previous, as early as the mid-16th century. Modern-day ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen use of counter-tenors on alto parts in works of this period. There is no evidence that falsetto singing was known in Britain before the early 17th century, when it was occasionally heard on soprano parts.

During the Romantic period, the popularity of the countertenor voice waned and few compositions were written with that voice type in mind.

In the second half of the 20th century, there was great interest in and renewed popularity of the countertenor voice, partly due to pioneers such as Alfred Deller, as well as the increased popularity of Baroque opera and the need of male singers to replace the castrati roles in such works. Although the voice has been considered largely an early music phenomenon, there is a growing modern repertoire.

castrato (Italian, plural: castrati) is a type of classical male singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto. The voice is produced by castration of the singer before puberty, or it occurs in one who, due to an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity.

Castration before puberty (or in its early stages) prevents a boy’s larynx from being transformed by the normal physiological events of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of prepubescence (shared by both sexes) is largely retained, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. Prepubescent castration for this purpose diminished greatly in the late 18th century and was made illegal in Italy in 1870.

As the castrato’s body grew, his lack of testosterone meant that his epiphyses (bone-joints) did not harden in the normal manner. Thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of their ribs. This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity. Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible, and quite different from the equivalent adult female voice. Their vocal range was higher than that of the uncastrated adult male. Listening to the only surviving recordings of a castrato (see below), one can hear that the lower part of the voice sounds like a “super-high” tenor, with a more falsetto-like upper register above that.

Castrati were rarely referred to as such: in the 18th century, the euphemism musico (pl musici) was much more generally used, although it usually carried derogatory implications; another synonym was evirato, literally meaning “emasculated”. Eunuch is a more general term, since historically many eunuchs were castrated after puberty and thus the castration had no impact on their voices.

Examples of countertenors:

David Hansen: Rivals – Arias for Farinelli & Co.
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