This is a new page and a bold new venture in current research! Taking inspiration from the historically informed performance movement, the objective is to recreate lost male voices from the past. We take it for granted now that if we hear a Bach Brandenburg concerto it will be performed on period instruments. But what of period voices? Until now, people have shied away from such a possibility, largely on the grounds that where human subjects are concerned, the task is impossible since human beings change and evolve and we cannot reconstruct a sixteenth singer in the way we could a sixteenth century viol or sakbut. This may be too pessimistic a view!
Work has begun on a new book, provisionally titled What did Taverner hear? Recreating lost male voices
For the present, this page will serve mainly a resource for those involved in the research, though it will have updates of more general interest as the research progresses.
Grounds for optimism!
For the last ten years my research interests have included the boy soprano circa 1880=1940. We know a lot about this historic voice and how it was produced. Perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries or finds during the time of this research have been the occasional living boys capable of reproducing this voice. Quite a lot of important knowledge of this otherwise lost singing technique has come from analysis of how these boys were singing as well as some vital physical measurements that will never be able to be made of deceased singers.
Here is a recording made in 2013 of the thirteen year old featured above. He is singing the first verse of the Walford Davies setting of O Little Town of Bethlehem. I have used this as a test piece several times, making comparison against a reference standard recording made by Denis Barthel in 1932.
Another considerable knowledge base to draw upon is all the work I have done on cambiata voices. The range of the cambiata voice is similar to that of the lost meane voice. There is no shortage of boys living today who might be candidates for recreating the sound of meanes. There are three key tasks involved in this:
- Historical research into the meane voice and its contemporary settings
- What is called “historical anthropometry” – the study of human body sizes and shapes from historical times
- Identification and training of the boys most likely to be able to produce what (1) and (2) above identify as the possible sound of meanes.
High tenors, contratenor altus and haute-contre
It is not only boys’ voice types that have been lost. Of at least equal importance is work on the type of adult voice that would have sung the part immediately below the boys. Today, of course, we expect some kind of falsetto voice, whether a trained counter-tenor or a bass singing in falsetto (or indeed, increasingly a female contralto in an otherwise all-male choir). Historical scholarship is now of the opinion that we should be looking for a high modal tenor, similar to but not necessarily the same as the Haute Contre. And if boys really did sing at lower pitches in the sixteenth century, what kinds of bass should be be looking for?
Short sample of tenor voice quality in alto range (Valdemar Villadsen)
One possible sound of meanes
The extract below is from a recording made in 2007 by the choir of Magdalen College Oxford under the direction of David Ives. Byrd’s O Lord, Make Thy Servant Elizabeth is in six parts, the highest being the meane part ranging an octave from C4-C5. The performers in this case are the regular boys of Magdalen, demonstrating the truth of my claim that “Byrd’s meane parts are relatively limited in range . . . almost any modern boy could perform them” (see position paper p16). The performance is pitched a semitone sharp of the original, so that the boys actually sing between Db4 and Db5 – still within the meane range. (One wonders whether this was to help the tenors who otherwise have to manage a Bb2). Seeming to miss the point about pitch and parts, reviewer James Manheim wrote “part of the unearthly effect comes from the unique sound Ives coaxes from the choir’s boy “trebles” – this may be a disc for those who think they don’t like choirs with boys on the top part”. At least there is recognition that meanes are a “unique sound” that might appeal to listeners who don’t normally like boys.
Byrd O Make Thy Servant Elizabeth short sample: meane pitch range Db3-Db4.
Although “almost any modern boy” could in theory produce the sound, there is a lot of research to undertake in order to discover the “how” as well as defining more precise and accurate delineations of “almost any modern boy”.
Searching for living voices that might be similar to sixteenth century meanes
First, quite a lengthy position paper for those interested in the fuller picture:
Pilot research project: Information for parents, teachers and conductors
Pilot research project: Ethical statement and principles
Pilot research project: Extracts for voice sampling
AND, it’s all explained to boys in boyspeak here!