A Short History of the Countertenor


Daniel Taylor
La Scena Musicale

The countertenor's goal is to surpass his physical limitations in order to achieve the balance of humanity and truth.

While there seems to be much confusion over the definition of the countertenor voice, the Oxford Concise Dictionary puts it relatively clearly: "High voice n. not to be confused with the male alto, falsetto or castrato and with a strong, almost instrumental purity of tone."

The term "countertenor" can be traced back many centuries. In the thirteenth century, the cantus was the chant line second to the tenere, while the highest of the voices was called the superius. In the fourteenth century, a melodic counterpoint called the "contratenor" was included. In the mid fifteenth century, the contratenor split into contratenor bassus (low voice) and contratenor altist (higher voice), and by the sixteenth century the term contratenor had become obsolete. This was the time when Latin began to lose its popularity, and as a result the contratenor became the hautecontre in France and the altist in Italy, whereas in England the term countertenor was adopted.

Some sixty years ago, Alfred Dellar and Russel Oberlin revived the importance of the countertenors' contribution and role in performing the repertoires of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries. It was Alfred Dellar who, on the advice of British composer Michael Tippett, decided to use the term countertenor for his unusual voice, which reached into the alto range.

Two basic approaches

As in any voice category, singers can and do use very different approaches to their vocal production. Today, there are basically two types of countertenor, one based on falsetto and the other on non-falsetto singing. The term falsetto refers to the effect of having air flow create a hole in the middle of the vocal folds. Emphasis is put on using the sinus as a focus of the resonance and the sound is then produced by the vibration of the tissue located on the sides of the vocal cords (see Peter Giles's book on the basic countertenor technique). Other countertenors vibrate their cords in the same way as most singers do. To demonstrate this phenomenon, both Andreas Scholl and I had our vocal cords filmed with a laryngoscope.

In our case as, in any other voice-type, the sounds are produced with the vocal cords stretched and therefore thinner, as pitch increases, thereby giving greater range to the normal voice.

The development of both approaches can be loosely traced to English and North American influences. In England in 1970, James Bowman first took the stage of London's Coliseum in a distinguished appearance as Athamas in Handel's Semele. Bowman brought an unmistakable falsetto produced approximately one octave above his speaking voice. During the same decade in North America, Jeffrey Gall's full throaty sound typified the American approach to the countertenor voice. His voice is produced by bringing the majority of the vocal cords together and allowing them to vibrate. He was the first great countertenor to appear at the Metropolitan Opera (incidentally, at the peak of his career he rivalled Marilyn Horne) and in doing so he gave notice that countertenors were no longer to be restricted to tiny theatres. Drew Minter, another very successful American whose technique is more similar to Bowman's than to Gall's, lent his artistic intelligence to dozens of harmonia mundi recordings and revitalized the countertenor voice in North America. In North America, now we have singers like David Daniels, Derek Ragin, Bejun Mehta, David Walker, Brian Asawa. In Europe and Asia, we can witness the accomplishments of Michael Chance, David Cordier, Yoshikazu Mera, Andreas Scholl, Jochem Kowalski, Gerard Lesne, Carlos Mehna and the list goes on and on.

In Canada, Theodore Gentry (more of a mezzo sound) accomplished much for young operatic countertenors, using his imposing stage presence and striking voice to good advantage. The country was then blessed with the magnificent voice of Allan Fast--a career of giant potential, tragically cut short by his early death. Allan Fast's was an instrument of sensitivity and glory. He was perhaps the first North American to attempt to marry the two continents' vocal tastes by alternating a richness of vibrato with straight tone. He is remembered for his ardent expressiveness on the Rifkin Bach Cantata recording for Decca.

Vibrato in Baroque Music

Any singer, with practice, can sing vibrato. The ability to produce what is essentially a controlled quivering note can be developed with certain exercises, as can a straight, non-vibrato. It's basically a question of air flow.

Many people don't realize that vibrato is a naturally occurring device. Applying it to music is much like putting colour on a painter's canvas. It's up to the artist to determine which colours to use, and with what intensity. A song that expresses purity of intent or desire could be performed with less vibrato, whereas the height of ecstasy could be sung with more vibrato. But certain singers might feel just the opposite, and this is where artistic sensitivity comes in. "Aus liebe," for soprano and flute, can often be best expressed without vibrato (listen to Emma Kirkby or Nancy Argenta) whereas some Handel arias seem to call for more vibrato (listen to Ewa Podles or Anne Sophie Von Otter). The thing to remember is that neither is "right." Any singer with good technique can turn vibrato on and off. Constant vibrato isn't necessarily a requirement of good singing, but singing entirely without it doesn't reflect the range of good baritone technique. What's more important, generally, is the singer's intent and exactness of intonation.

Good technique leads to artistry, with the singer's ear and motivation guiding the musical phrase. A singer should not be listening to her or his voice so much as to focussing their sense of heightened awareness of what is to be expressed through the music.

On good singing

Is there a special way of singing to get the countertenor sound? The simple reality is that, as it is for all other voices, good countertenor singing is based on the fundamentals of healthy singing: "vital" breath, natural articulation, proper use of the body combined with the freedom and ease we associate with effective and profound communication. The goal is to surpass our physical limitations in order to achieve the balance of humanity and truth. This is not to say that singing is a purely spiritual phenomenon, because obviously the voice is also an acoustic and physical instrument which relies on the co-ordination of resonance, air, and vocal-fold vibration.

This is what we work towards:

1. the key is proper inhalation: an enhanced sense of breathing which results from decreased tension of the torso and increasing compliance and co-ordination through basic inhalation and exhalation exercises (this results in the "vital" breath);

2. the avoidance of specific "glottal" attacks which result in vocal fatigue;

3. the combination of good diaphragmatic, intercostal and clavicular use;

4. stable use of the vocal apparatus (i.e. relaxing tension in the neck, in the face and jaw);

5. ease in the use of vocal registers (i.e. each note has its own register). Students should not be encouraged to avoid one promised method in favour of another (i.e. stay away from the teacher who swears that there is either no "mask" or no "chest voice").

What is so remarkable about the countertenor voice is that, with all of these differences, the goals of making beautiful sounds and music remain at the heart of the creative process.