We’re all going on a meane hunt
Until we have placed boys once again on the top line at the lower pitch, we cannot judge what this music really sounded like.
Fayrfax 5 part Magnificat, 1525
I am quoting myself here! I express this sentiment in a newly written position paper entitled: The Meane Voice Revisited: can physiological studies illuminate historical practice or create new performance opportunities? (downloadable from this page) The music referred to at this point in the paper is Taverner’s Missa Sine Nomine, otherwise known as the “mean mass”. The top line referred to is the highest vocal line – in this case not soprano or treble, but mean. It was unusual for Taverner, writing before the 1549 prayer book, not to have included a treble part above the mean. In the immediate aftermath of 1549, though, it became for some time the normal practice for the mean to be the highest voice.
What, exactly, was a mean voice? The short answer is that we don’t know for certain. Of course, it’s the “not knowing” that excites me as a researcher! We know, of course, that mean was a boys’ part lower than “treble” and it can be said with some confidence that it was not an alto voice. Whether there are any voices living today might come close to what it could have been is the research question – the “Cinderella’s slipper” quest to find a living voice that exactly fits a mean part. To what extent might the singer and voice so discovered match what theoretical considerations suggest boys looked and sounded like when William Byrd took up his appointment at Lincoln Cathedral?
My own quotation might be set against one from from Peter Phillips, also found in the position paper:
the best modern choirs tend to employ women to sing these parts; indeed, the idea of boys singing the mean part in modern performances almost never happens, whichever pitch is chosen
Well, the idea has happened now and is beginning to gather momentum!
There are no women in a recording of Taverner’s Mean Mass by Phillip Cave’s Chapel Musick – but no boys either! Cave employs counter-tenor voices on the mean part. Whilst the recording is in many ways a fine one, the use of counter-tenors is something of a scholarly double whammy for the simple reason that majority of present day scholars would agree that counter-tenors may not have been used anywhere. A sonority somewhat alien to what the composer would have heard is introduced into any performance that employs falsettists.
So we must say, not only that we need to place boys on the top line, but equally that we need to place high voiced tenors and not counter-tenors on the line below it. The hunt is on, then, for boys who will produce good tone in a tessitura a little lower than that customary for trebles and tenors who will produce good tone in a tessitura that reaches into today’s alto range. Such tenors exist, but are currently not common outside specialist early music choirs.
Some no doubt will needless say that this search for boy means and high tenors is unnecessary, esoteric, even retrograde if it searches for male voices only – but let us at least give it a try. The primary task is to get as close as possible to the original sonority. When we have done that, we can look again at the present day voice types that may be able to reproduce it. Female voices might well be included at that stage!
Where would we be today if the quest to recreate keyboard instruments predating the modern pianoforte had been similarly dismissed? If these ideas excite – or even mildly interest you – you will find a growing wealth of detail and information on my new page recreating lost voices. And if you would like to offer a high tenor voice or a boy who might be a mean, we would love to hear from you!
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