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January 15, 2010

Why are tenors so scarce?

Albany Times Union (blog) - David Griggs-Janower

The paucity of tenors is due, I think, to the ranges in most choral music! It’s the music that has created the scarcity.

Consider the standard alto part in choral music, mostly hanging between middle C and the C an octave above, and often staying forever at the lower half of that range. This doesn’t mean that altos can’t sing higher, but any lower and they cross into tenor territory, and any higher and they bump up the sopranos. So they get stuck in a kind of middle area. Mezzo sopranos often don’t know what to sing, because the tessitura (the area where most of the notes are) in choral music tends to hang too low in the alto part and too high in the soprano part to be consistently comfortable. In solo music there’s no difficulty, because the tune can extend both high and low, but in choral music you bump into another part.

The same is true of the men. Since most men are baritones and feel most comfortable in the range of middle C to an octave lower, their tessituras tend to remain in that octave for the most part. The low basses get some low notes (which the baritones find uncomfortable), and the tenor part gets pushed up to be constantly at middle C and above, which gets consistently too high for baritones. For some reason we’ve grouped baritones and basses into one group (probably because they now share a clef), where they should really be two.

In the old days when everyone had their own clef (yes, baritone clef, mezzo soprano clef, etc – violas play from “alto” clef) all this was more clear. But now, with only four parts in most choral music, mezzos have to chose, sometimes from piece to piece, whether they are altos or sopranos, and baritones mostly choose the bass part (except when their conductors ask them to sing tenor because there aren’t enough!).

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Posted by acapnews at January 15, 2010 12:00 AM


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