AskDefine | Define countertenor

Dictionary Definition

countertenor adj : of or being the highest male voice; having a range above that of tenor [syn: alto]


1 a male singer with a voice above that of a tenor
2 the highest adult male singing voice [syn: alto]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. (Older) a part or section performing a countermelody against the tenor or main part
  2. adult male singer who uses head tone or falsetto to sing far higher than the typical male vocal range


Extensive Definition

This article is related to a series of articles under the main article Voice type.
A countertenor is an adult male who sings in a contralto, mezzo-soprano or (more rarely) soprano range, usually through use of falsetto, or more rarely the normal or modal voice. A pre-pubescent male who has this ability is called a treble. This term is used almost exclusively in the context of the classical vocal tradition, although numerous popular music artists employ countertenor technique. The countertenor voice went through a massive resurgence in popularity in the second half of the 20th century, partly due to pioneers such as Alfred Deller, by 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.

The countertenor in history

In polyphonic compositions of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the contratenor was a voice part added to the basic two-part contrapuntal texture of discant (superius) and tenor (from the Latin tenere which means to hold, since this part "held" the music's melody, while the superius descanted upon it at a higher pitch). Though having approximately the same range as the tenor, it was generally of a much less melodic nature than either of these other two parts. With the introduction in about 1450 of four-part writing by composers like Ockeghem and Obrecht, the contratenor split into contratenor altus and contratenor bassus, which were respectively above and below the tenor. Later the term became obsolete: in Italy, contratenor altus became simply alto, in France, haute-contre, in England, countertenor, terms still in use today. Though originally these words were used to designate a vocal part, they are now used to describe singers of that part, whose vocal techniques may differ (see below).
In the Catholic church during the Renaissance, St Paul's admonition "mulieres in ecclesiis taceant" ("let women keep silent in churches" - I Corinthians 14, verse 34) still prevailed, and so women were banned from singing in church services. Countertenors, though rarely described as such, therefore found a prominent part in liturgical music, whether singing a line alone or with boy trebles or altos; (in Spain there was a long tradition of male falsettists singing soprano lines). However, countertenors were much less prominent in early opera, the rise of which coincided with the arrival of a fashion for castrati, who took, for example, several roles in the first performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607). Castrati were already prominent by this date in Italian church choirs, replacing both falsettists and trebles; the last soprano falsettist singing in Rome, Giovanni de Sanctos (a Spaniard), died in 1625. In Italian opera, by the late seventeenth century, castrati predominated, though in France, the haute-contre remained the voice of choice for leading male roles, and this was also true to a considerable extent in English stage works of this period, for example, the roles of Secrecy and Summer in Purcell's The Fairy Queen (1692). In Purcell's choral music the situation is further complicated by the occasional appearance of more than one solo part designated "countertenor", but with a considerable difference in range and tessitura. Such is the case in Hail, bright Cecilia (The Ode on St Cecilia's Day 1692) in which the solo "'Tis Nature's Voice" has the range F3 to B-flat4 (similar to those stage roles cited previously), whereas, in the duet "Hark each tree" the countertenor soloist sings from E4 to D5 (in the trio "With that sublime celestial lay". Later in the same work, Purcell's own manuscript designates the same singer, Mr Howel, described as "a High Contra tenor" to perform in the range G3 to C4; it is very likely that he took some of the lowest notes in a well-blended "chest voice" - see below).
By Handel's time, castrati had come to dominate the English operatic stage as much as that of Italy (and indeed most of Europe outside France), and also took part in several of his oratorios, though countertenors also featured as soloists in the latter, the parts written for them being closer in compass to the higher ones of Purcell, with a usual range of A3 to E5. They also sang the alto parts in Handel's choruses, and it was as choral singers within the Anglican church tradition that countertenors survived throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Otherwise they largely faded from public notice.

The modern countertenor

The most visible icon of the countertenor revival in the twentieth century was Alfred Deller, an English singer and champion of authentic early music performance. Deller initially called himself an "alto", but his collaborator Michael Tippett recommended the archaic term "countertenor" to describe his voice. In the 1950s and 60s, his group, the Deller Consort, was important in increasing audiences' awareness (and appreciation) of Renaissance and Baroque music. Deller was the first modern countertenor to achieve fame, and has had many prominent successors. Benjamin Britten wrote the leading role of Oberon in his setting of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960) especially for him; the countertenor role of Apollo in Britten's Death in Venice (1973) was created by James Bowman, the best-known amongst the next generation of English countertenors. Russell Oberlin was Deller's American counterpart, and another early music pioneer. Oberlin's success was entirely unprecedented in a country that had seen little exposure to anything before Bach, and it paved the way for the recent great success of countertenors there also.
Today, countertenors are much in demand in many forms of classical music. In opera, many roles originally written for castrati are now sung and recorded by countertenors, as are some trouser roles originally written for female singers. The former category is much more numerous, and includes Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and many Handel roles, such as the name parts in Giulio Cesare and Orlando, and Bertarido in Rodelinda. Many modern composers other than Britten have written, and continue to write, countertenor parts, both in choral works and opera, as well as songs and song-cycles for the voice. Men's choral groups such as Chanticleer and the King's Singers employ the voice to great effect in a variety of genres, including early music, gospel, and even folk songs. Other recent operatic parts written for the countertenor voice include Edgar in Aribert Reimann's Lear (1978), the title role in Philip Glass's Akhnaten (1983), and Trinculo in Thomas Adès's The Tempest (2004). Countertenors have also appeared in rock music, most notably Freddie Mercury and Roger Meddows-Taylor of Queen and Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria.

The countertenor voice

A trained countertenor will typically have a vocal centre similar in placement to that of a contralto or mezzo-soprano. Peter Giles, a professional countertenor and noted author on the subject, defines the countertenor as a musical part rather than as a vocal style or mechanism. In modern usage, the term "countertenor" is essentially equivalent to the medieval term contratenor altus (see above). In this way, a countertenor singer can be operationally defined as a man who sings the countertenor part, whatever vocal style or mechanism is employed. The countertenor range is generally equivalent to an alto range, extending from approximately G or A3 to E5 or perhaps F5. In actual practice, it is generally acknowledged that a majority of countertenors sing with a falsetto vocal production for at least the upper half of this range, although most use some form of "chest voice" (akin to the range of their speaking voice) for the lower notes. The most difficult challenge for such a singer is managing the lower middle range, for there are normally a few notes (around Bflat3) that can be sung with either vocal mechanism, and the transition between registers must somehow be blended or smoothly managed.
In response to the (in his view) pejorative connotation of the term falsetto, Giles refuses to use it, calling the upper register "head voice." Many voice experts would disagree with this choice of terminology, reserving the designation "head voice" for the high damped register accompanied by a relatively low larynx that is typical of modern high operatic tenor voice production. The latter type of head voice is, in terms of the vocal cord vibration, actually more similar to "chest voice" than to falsetto, since it uses the same "speaking voice" production (referred to as "modal" by voice scientists), and this is reflected in the timbre.

Controversy over the terms male soprano, male alto, and countertenor

The terms male soprano and male alto have been invariably used to refer to men who sing in the soprano or alto vocal range using falsetto vocal production instead of the modal voice. This practice is most commonly found in the context of choral music in England but has not been universally embraced elsewhere, particularly within operatic vocal classification which prefers the terms countertenor or sopranist. Several vocal pedagogists have argued against the use of the terms male soprano and male alto because of the differences in the physiological processes of vocal production between female singers and countertenors. From this perspective, the singer Michael Maniaci is the only known man who could refer to himself as a true male soprano because he is able to sing in the soprano vocal range using the modal voice like a woman would. He is able to do this because his larynx never fully developed like a man's voice does during puberty.
Other authorities, have the opposite view, prefering to restrict use of the term countertenor to singers employing little or no falsetto, equating it with haute-contre and the Italian term tenor altino. Russell Oberlin was himself a countertenor of this type, noted for his ability to sing alto and/or countertenor parts extending above C5 (the notorious "tenor high C" popularized by Italian opera) while still employing modal voice (many high tenors, particularly those who specialise in the bel canto repertoire of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and their contemporaries can also do this, but generally use a more robust voice production). Some writers insist that this can only be accomplished physically by a man in possession of vocal cords considerably shorter than average, and that such a singer would therefore possess an unusually high speaking voice (a falsettist countertenor normally speaks as a baritone or bass). Like the haute-contre, these tenorial countertenors have a lower range and tessitura than their falsettist counterparts, perhaps from D3 to D5. Those authorities who hold that only non-falsettists are "real" countertenors would prefer the phrase "male alto" or "male soprano" for the more common falsettist type.

Listen and compare

To hear an example of a countertenor using a falsetto technique in the alto/mezzo-soprano range (David Daniels in the title role of Georg Friedrich Handel's Rinaldo), Watch here.
To hear an example of a countertenor using a falsetto technique in the soprano range (Jörg Waschinski in an extract from "Invan minacci e credi vincer" from Jommelli's Il Vologeso) click on this link Listen here
To hear an example of a male soprano using an entirely modal head voice technique in the soprano range (Michael Maniaci in the role of Nireno from Handel's Giulio Cesare) click on this link: Watch here

Further reading

countertenor in Bulgarian: Контратенор
countertenor in Catalan: Contratenor
countertenor in Czech: Kontratenor
countertenor in Danish: Kontratenor
countertenor in German: Countertenor
countertenor in Spanish: Contratenor
countertenor in Esperanto: Kontratenoro
countertenor in French: Contreténor
countertenor in Korean: 카운터테너
countertenor in Italian: Controtenore
countertenor in Hungarian: Kontratenor
countertenor in Malay (macrolanguage): Kauntertenor
countertenor in Dutch: Contratenor (zangstem)
countertenor in Japanese: カウンターテナー
countertenor in Norwegian: Kontratenor
countertenor in Polish: Kontratenor
countertenor in Portuguese: Contratenor
countertenor in Russian: Контртенор
countertenor in Simple English: Countertenor
countertenor in Serbo-Croatian: Kontratenori
countertenor in Finnish: Kontratenori
countertenor in Swedish: Kontratenor
countertenor in Chinese: 假聲男高音
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