Day 135 – May 5
Farinelli is one of the more famous castrati. Maybe it was his powerful voice or the fact that he came from an affluent rather than a poor family. In any case he was famous. As far as I know, there are no modern day castrati, but there are counter tenors . . .. the main difference, of course, being the castration part.
Counter tenors, or male altos, are often used in early music, especially that of the Baroque era. I can always tell when I hear a choral work that has a counter tenor singing the solos as opposed to a mezzo soprano. Their sound is just very different from that of an alto or a mezzo-soprano. There’s something about the timbre of counter tenors that cuts through more and is less round and warm, if you will. Whenever I hear a counter tenor sing, I wonder how their sound differs from that of the castrati, and wonder if it’s possible for counter tenors to have the power that some castrati, like Farinelli, were known for.
I don’t know the answer to that, but today I DID discover that yes, counter tenors actually do have a more powerful sound than mezzos. I was at choir rehearsal, and we were working on a Purcell piece. As the altos and tenors were singing through their part together I thought, “Hmmm . . .there’s ALOT more sound coming from the alto section, and it’s a different quality than I’m used to. There must be a countertenor over there.” Sure enough, a male alto had joined the section. I was really surprised at what a big difference it made to have him singing. Just one person was able to produce almost more sound than the whole alto section. To be fair, he’s a trained singer, whereas many of the female altos are not. So it’s not exactly an even comparison. But, I’m pretty confident in saying that were the mezzos all trained singers, I still would have picked out the male alto. I was thinking about this all day. (Yes, yes I AM a music nerd!) I decided that it had to do with the fact that the male alto is singing in the upper part of his voice while the female altos are singing in the lower part of their voices. I won’t bore you with a complete discussion of how vocal sounds are produced, but suffice it to say that the male altos sound is going to carry farther than that of his female counterpart due to where the notes sit in their range.
Now, this isn’t to say that I think counter tenors should be filling all of the seats in alto sections across the country. As I said before, the male altos lack a sense of warmth and roundness that is more likely to be present in the alto or mezzo sound. Really, I’m just saying that the performance of Baroque music is definitely enhanced by having male altos supplement the alto section.
Okay, now that your eyes have glazed over, I’ll stop=)