The Supernatural Voice

The Supernatural Voice: A History of High Male Singing

Simon Ravens
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt6wp943
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  • Book Info
    The Supernatural Voice
    Book Description:

    `The use of high male voices in the past has long been one of the most seriously misunderstood areas of musical scholarship and practice. In opening up this rich subject (to readers of all sorts) with refreshingly clear perspectives and plenty of new material, Simon Ravens' well-researched book goes a very long way to rectifying matters. Ravens writes damnably well, and if the story that emerges is necessarily a complex one, his treatment of it is always engagingly comprehensible.' ANDREW PARROTT Tracing the origins, influences and development of falsetto singing in Western music, Simon Ravens offers a revisionist history of high male singing from the Ancient Greeks to Michael Jackson. This history embraces not just singers of counter-tenor and alto parts up to and including our own time but the castrati of the Ancient world, the male sopranists of late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and the dual-register tenors of the Baroque and Classical periods. Musical aesthetics aside, to understand the changing ways men have sung high, it is also vital to address extra-musical factors - which are themselves in a state of flux. To this end, Ravens illuminates his chronological survey by exploring topics as diverse as human physiology, the stereotyping of national characters, gender identity, and the changing of boys' voices. The result is a complex and fascinating history sure to appeal not only to music scholars but to performers and all those with an interest particularly in early music. Simon Ravens is a performer, writer, and director of Musica Contexta, with whom he has performed in Britain and Europe, regularly broadcast, and made numerous acclaimed recordings. Ravens had previously founded and directed Australasia's foremost early music choir, the Tudor Consort. Between 2002 and 2007 his regular monthly column Ravens View appeared in the Early Music Review, to which he still regularly contributes.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-355-3
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. PREFACE: A Declaration of Disinterest
    (pp. vii-ix)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. x-x)
  6. CHAPTER 1 The Discovery of Alfred Deller
    (pp. 1-5)

    There are perhaps more likely places for a new musical species to be propagated than the choir vestry of an English provincial cathedral. For centuries these vestries, hidden away in the fabric of the country’s great churches, have tended and nourished tradition. Rarely have they functioned as hothouses for breeding musical novelties. Yet in one such room, during the Second World War, two musicians planted the seed of a vocal phenomenon that was to flourish rapidly, bearing magnificent musical fruit in our own time.

    The choir vestry in question was that of Canterbury Cathedral, and the two musicians who met...

  7. EXTEMPORE 1 An Inartistic Trick: Physiology and Terminology
    (pp. 6-11)

    To hear the falsetto voice at its most natural, take a seat in the stand of an average sports match on a Saturday afternoon and wait for the home team to score. At that moment, high above the usual throaty cheers, around you in the crowd you will hear some men whooping with delight. What you are hearing may not be singing, nor is it a thing of beauty, but it is falsetto. The irony of this scenario is that even in the most macho and uninhibited of environments can be found a naturally produced voice which, at various times...

  8. CHAPTER 2 The Ancient World to the Middle Ages
    (pp. 12-37)

    Like the famous tunnel at Colditz which began at the top of a chapel’s clock tower, the history of the falsetto voice in Western music begins in the most improbable of places. As a specific, identifiable style of singing, falsetto may have first surfaced in fifteenth-century Europe. But to find out why this happened then and there, we first have to trace a course back many centuries, and many thousands of miles away. We also have to begin with another type of voice altogether.

    The castrato plays a significant role in the early history of falsetto chiefly because wherever the...

  9. EXTEMPORE 2 A Famine in Tenors: The Historically Developing Human Larynx
    (pp. 38-44)

    Amongst all the variables of pitch, contexts and aesthetics, the one constant we might expect to find in a history of the falsetto voice is the instrument itself. The larynx, and human body that houses it, may differ from individual to individual, but the tendency has been to assume that it has not differed from age to age. Glance at the image of any male singer in history, and structurally they look similar to us. If so, then presumably their larynxes are also fundamentally similar.

    A violinist would make no such assumptions about his own instrument. By way of illustration,...

  10. CHAPTER 3 Renaissance Europe
    (pp. 45-65)

    So far, almost all of the documentary evidence we have seen regarding the falsetto voice has been written by non-musicians. We now come to a text which is very different, in that it was written by a singer and composer of the front rank. Though not without its own ambiguities, a careful reading of this document helps us to understand how falsetto might have been used at the start of the Renaissance.

    Guillaume Dufay was born in or around Cambrai, in northern France, at the end of the fourteenth century, and entered the choir of the town’s cathedral in 1409....

  11. EXTEMPORE 3 Are We Too Loud? The Impact of Volume on Singing Styles
    (pp. 66-70)

    When Grace Moore, primadonna of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was heard by the diarist ‘Chips’ Channon at a private party in 1936, she unwittingly provided a pithy example of how modern singing technique and the tastes of previous ages grate. The ‘Number Three’ in question was the London residence of the Duke and Duchess of Kent in Belgrave Square: this ‘not enormous’ drawing room, then, was quite literally the aristocratic salon – albeit in its dying day. Moore had developed her voice to fill the world’s largest opera house, and to judge from Channon’s description, in this intimate context...

  12. CHAPTER 4 Late Medieval and Renaissance England
    (pp. 71-89)

    So far, in our geographical scan to find areas in which falsettists operated during the Renaissance, England has been notable by its absence. Notable, because the view we have received through Deller and his early followers is that the historical home of the falsettist was not the Continent, but England. As we have seen, part of this received view is skewed, since the falsettist certainly was known in mainland Europe from the early Renaissance onwards. But was the falsettist known in England at the time, or does that part of the picture also need amending?

    Perhaps the first point to...

  13. EXTEMPORE 4 Reserved Spaniards: Cultural Stereotypes and the High Male Voice
    (pp. 90-95)

    Whether based on nation, race, gender or occupation, stereotyping is a practice which we lapse into more than we might care to admit. Be it the restrained Englishman or the full-blooded Spaniard, at some time most of us will use this type of broad brush to tar a group of people. Perhaps its dubious value can best be gauged by our willingness to typecast others, but not ourselves. On British roads most drivers will be wary of white vans, which are regarded as synonymous with cavalier driving. Yet the same drivers, if and when they find themselves behind the wheel...

  14. CHAPTER 5 Baroque Europe
    (pp. 96-122)

    The Grand Tour, that ill-defined rite of passage which for two centuries allowed young gentlefolk to experience the cultural legacies of the Mediterranean, offers up a literature with rich pickings for the musical historian. These travelogues are significant not just for what they tell us of music abroad but also, by implication, for what they tell us of the music the writers knew at home. When in 1770 Charles Burney heard the strident voice of a Neapolitan ‘counter-tenor […] one of the most powerful I ever heard – it made its way through the whole band [numbering a hundred] in the...

  15. EXTEMPORE 5 Into Man’s Estate: Changing Boys’ Voices and Nascent Falsettists
    (pp. 123-129)

    By this stage in our history, it has become clear that the question of whether someone sang with a modalora falsetto voice is often a spurious one: with countless singers from Ziryab to Amorevoli, the answer is not one voice or the other, but probablyboth. Related to this, there is another insidious false dichotomy which we should now bring out into the open, and that is the question of whether certain singers were boysormen. Sometimes the answer is clear – Coryat’s ‘middle-aged man’, for instance, or perhaps Bach’s fourteen-year-old Neucke – but often the distinction is less...

  16. CHAPTER 6 Baroque England
    (pp. 130-143)

    To what extent did England adopt Italian vocal practices? In Shakespeare’sRichard II, when York speaks of ‘Proud Italy / Whose manners still our tardy-apish nation / Limps after in base imitation’ he seems simply to voice an observable trend in social history. From the Elizabethan period onwards, Italianate influences are evident in many aspects of high society, from the fabrics it wore to the madrigals it sang. Yet England’s cultural relationship with Italy during the seventeenth century was actually a highly ambivalent one. When we read Shakespeare’s lines with a more sceptical eye we can sense an artist both...

  17. EXTEMPORE 6 A Musicological Red Herring: The Etymology of the Counter-Tenor
    (pp. 144-148)

    Imagine you are at some large governmental function, and are asked if you would like to meet the ‘secretary’. Armed only with that information, as you are taken across the room perhaps you idly assume the person you are about to meet will have certain office skills, and a relatively passive working nature. You may even make an inappropriate assumption about the secretary’s gender. When you then learn that this same person is actually Secretary of State, you may want to revise some of your assumptions. You may also regret the imprecision of language – that one term can be expected...

  18. CHAPTER 7 The Nineteenth Century
    (pp. 149-181)

    Although the year 1791 saw the death of Mozart – and his final appearance singing as an alto – it is not for this reason that it makes a useful demarcation point in the history of the high male voice. A number of references from this year suggest that the old method of deploying modal and falsetto techniques, which we have traced from medieval times to the Renaissance world of Zacconi and then Tosi, was now on the wane. Not, of course, that 1791 represents any kind of sudden break. We should bear in mind that as far back as 1752 Quantz...

  19. EXTEMPORE 7 The Bearded Lady: Gender Identity and Falsetto
    (pp. 182-185)

    However elegant the high male voice has sounded during its modern renaissance, it has often been heard in counterpoint with a quiet but discordant ground bass. The elements of this insidious lower part may vary – notes of homosexuality, effeminacy and castration can all be heard on occasion – but the repeated theme of sexual prejudice is always recognisable. In short, the accompaniment of grumbling voices avers that the male falsettist is not a true man.

    In the early days of the falsetto revival the hostile undercurrent was at its strongest, and there is no doubt that Deller himself had more to...

  20. CHAPTER 8 The Early Twentieth Century
    (pp. 186-200)

    At this point in our history, a very revealing light begins to search out our subject. Until now, in assessing how men sang high, we have been largely dependent on the pen (a notoriously subjective tool, as every writer must acknowledge). The way music was written, or the way music and its performers were written about, have been our staple. Now, in addition to the pen, we have a more objective tool of communication – the microphone. We should not fool ourselves that the microphone is absolutely objective, though: as we shall see, even its most accurate results still leave room...

  21. EXTEMPORE 8 The Angel’s Voice: Falsetto in Popular Music
    (pp. 201-205)

    As we reach the mid-twentieth century in our history it has become increasingly clear that, far from having a fixed identity, over time the counter-tenor has taken on a number of different guises. Before we come to the present incarnation of the counter-tenor, we might pause to look outside our standard, Western classical context, into the world of popular music. Can we find relatives of the modern falsetto counter-tenor in other spheres and hemispheres, now and in the past?

    Historically, this is virtually impossible. If the arguments for what constitutes a counter-tenor can be far from leak-proof in the history...

  22. CHAPTER 9 The Modern Counter-Tenor
    (pp. 206-223)

    We have now reached the point at which we came in – 1943 and Tippett’s discovery of Alfred Deller. By common consent this marks the birth of the modern era for the counter-tenor. Deller may not have been the first falsetto counter-tenor to achieve a level of fame, but as a revealer of great new musical vistas – early and modern – his influence and importance were profound. More than fifty years on, we still associate the counter-tenor with discoveries in non-mainstream music. In this sense it might appear that little has changed since Deller, and that he marks the real end of...

  23. Bibliography
    (pp. 224-236)
  24. Index
    (pp. 237-244)
  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 245-245)