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Voice Definitions and Ranges

This note tries to clarify the meanings and uses of the names given to high-pitched male voices (counternors, haute-contres, altists, castrato). A good deal of confusion comes from the fact that we, today, use these labels to denote voice types, whereas the same labels were used for voice parts at the time.

In the beginning... there was polyphony, and it was, like Gaul, divided in three parts: superius or discantus, tenor, and contratenor. What do these terms mean? Before polyphony, sacred music consisted of plainchant. When another voice was added to the monophony in the 13th c., the part which "held" (Latin tenere) the cantus (chant) line was called tenot, while the voice added above it was called superius (Latin super=above). Then another part was added in the 14th c., written in counterpoint against the tenor line and in the same range, hence its name contratenor. The tenor and contratenor are both more active, though not as florid, as the cantus part (which is higher), and the tenor is written first.

Then, about 1450, the contratenor split in two parts: the contratenor altus and contratenor bassus (Latin for "high" and "low" respectively) and the simple term "contratenor" dropped out of use, at least on the continent, in the 16th c. The contratenor altus was usually a little above the tenor, and overlapped in range with it, while the superius remained above and the contratenor bassus was below. In the 16th and 17th centuries the ranges of voices became more stratified, and the range of the contratenor altus, or altus, moved higher.

At the same time, the vocabulary changed, and was adapted from Latin to the local language. In Italy, contratenor altus became contralto or (more often) alto. In France, the term haute-contre was adopted. In England, the word became countertenor. They all meant the same thing, that is, a line of polyphony between cantus (canto, soprano) and tenor (teneur or taille in French), usually written in a clef a 3d apart from the tenor. Over time, as I said, the range of the alto moved up, to f-c'' sometimes, from c-g' where the tenor was.

It is important to note that, at this stage, the labels refer to parts, not voice types. Who sang the part of countertenor in the 16th-17th centuries? There were 5 possibilities:

  • a man with a high natural voice. those were rare, and prized; it is claimed that most haute-contres in France sang in their natural voice in the e-c'' (sometimes c-c'') although occasionally using falsetto at the top of the range.

  • a falsettist: a natural tenor, barytone or bass singing falsetto in the alto range. Falsetto singing is a technique involving the vocal chords vibrating at a shorter length than usual. The term was common in the 16th c., and equated with "voca di testa" as opposed to ordinary chest voice.

  • a boy alto: this again is rare, as most boys are sopranos.

  • a castrato with a lower range, common only among Italian singers of the 17th-18th c. Most alto parts were given to falsettists or "high tenors" (category 1), and soprano parts to castrati; but, "to avoid confusion" falsettists were often called "alti" or "voci naturali" to distinguish them from castrati singing alto.

  • a female contralto, late in history because of the church's prohibitions. Only after castrati had disappeared and women replaced falsettists did the term contralto become reserved, at least in some languages, to women, as opposed to male alto in English, meaning either a boy or a falsetto. That distinction is not always made, however, especially in America where, absent the falsetto tradition, there was not much to be distinguished.

The French haute-contre became a fixture of French Baroque opera. It used to be thought that the haute-contre was a falsetto, but that was before anyone actually performed French baroque opera in a historically informed manner. It is really a light tenor with a good balance of registers. The famous 18th c. haute-contre Jelyotte sang from f to d'', while Legros reached eb''. The term fell in disuse in the early 19th c., as the Italian terminology replaced the French one. Current examples of haute-contres are Howard Crook, Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, Guy de Mey, Gilles Ragon, John Elwes, Philip Langridge, John Mark Ainsley, Paul Agnew, Rogers Covey-Crump.

Castrati first appear in the late 16th century in Spain, but the practice of castration to obtain fine voices took root mainly in Italy, where it remained until the mid-19th century. Castrati were basically employed as substitutes for boys to sing the high parts in sacred polyphony; at least, that is where most castrati found employment. But, with the development of Italian opera in the second half of the 17th century, a new career opened itself. The castrati reigned supreme over 18th century Italian opera, which was written and performed in England, Spain and Germany as well. The best castrati had international careers and commanded phenomenal fees. Among the most famous were Senesino, Gizziello, Caffarelli, Carestini and Farinelli. Castrati were classified according to their range, into sopranistas, mezzo-sopranistas and altistas. Their dominance came to an end around 1800, and while Beethoven and Rossini had castrati sing some of their music, the last castrato to appear on stage retired in the late 1820s. Castrati continued to sing sacred music in Italian chapels until Popes finally banned the practice. Only one castrato was ever recorded: Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), lead singer of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, was recorded in 1902 and 1904. The recordings are available on Opal 9823.

In England, the falsetto tradition remained for a long time, and was brought to the for of the musical scene by Alfred Deller (a natural baritone) in the 1940s and 1950s. He, in consultation with Michael Tippett, decided to use the term countertenor to denote his voice, and the term has since come to mean any male alto, possibly a boy or high tenor (types 1 and 3) but normally a falsettist since that tradition remained. Only recently have there been attempts to distinguish between male altos, understood to be falsettists (type 2) and countertenors, that is, type 1. It does not help, of course, that some people insist on using the term male alto for non-falsetto singers (that is, type 1).

But is there really a difference between 1 and 2, high tenors and falsettists? Tenors found a professional advantage in cultivating the uppermost range of their voices, and became adept in moving back and forth from falsetto to natural tone with little or no break: it is therefore difficult at times to determine whether a certain singer is type 1 or type 2. Moreover, Ardran and Wulstan in a 1967 paper using radiographic evidence, have claimed that both types produce their voices by exactly the same physiological means. So there might really be no clear distinction between the two anyway.

The following table displays the ranges of voices (18th-19th c.). The ranges for French voices come from a plate in Diderot's Encyclopédie from the 1750s. The castrati ranges com from Franz Haböck: Die Kastraten und ihre Gesangskunst, 1927. The rest (modern ranges of soprano, mezzo, tenor, barytone and bass) is from Grove's Dictionary.

Of course these ranges only represent averages, and there is the added problem that the castrati ranges come from contemporary evidence, and it is not clear what pitch people were thinking of when naming ranges, so you may have to move the ranges down a semitone or two.

G A B c d e f g a b c' d' e' f' g' a' b' c''d''e''f''g''a''b''c'''d'''
 haut-dessus - ---------------------------- - 
 bas-dessus - ---------------------------- - 
 soprano -------------------------------------
 mezzo ------------------------------------- 
 - --------------------------- - haute-contre 
 - ---------------------------- - haute-taille 
 - ---------------------------- - taille 
 ------------------------------------- tenor
 - ------------------------------- - basse-taille 
 ------------------------------------- barytone
---------------------------------- - basse-contre
<------------------------------------ bass

G A B c d e f g a b c' d' e' f' g' a' b' c''d''e''f''g''a''b''c'''d'''

Gizziello ---------------------------------------------
Aprile, Mustafa ------------------------------------------------ 
Saletti ------------------------------------------------------ 
Caffarelli -----------------------------------------
Salimbeni, Bindi --------------------------------------------------------
Nicolini ---------------------------------------
Moreschi ------------------------------------------ 
Carestini --------------------------------------------- 

Marchesi -----------------------------------------------------------
Orsini ------------------------------------------------ 

François R. Velde

Supplementary Remarks

All I can think to add is that the English term "treble" seems to derive from the Latin "triplum", used in 13th century (and later) motets to indicate the third (and, incidentally, highest in range) part. The first two voices of a motet, from the bottom up, are the tenor and motettus, a french term meaning "the part with the words (mots)"

Also, I don't think "superius" was used as early as François suggests -- I've never seen it before ca. the 15th century. However, the terms that were used to describe the part written in counterpoint against the chant-bearing tenor soon died out, so perhaps it's better not to confuse the situation by discussing them!

I would also add that the "Contra" in Contratenor is the same word as the "counter" in Counterpoint, i.e. it means "against". The original term for counterpoint was "punctus contra punctum" or "note against note" (not a bad description, no?)

Elizabeth Randell Upton


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