The concept of voice part is deceptively simple. Voices have ranges and music is written in parts that fit those ranges. Thus we have the four main voice parts of soprano, alto, tenor or bass (SATB). Given that these can be further subdivided into first and second, all singers ought to fit somewhere in choral writing. Alas, it’s not that simple. First, there is the issue that children’s voices are different and the voices of adolescents, particularly boys, yet different again. Then there’s the issue that much of our greatest choral music was never written for SATB in the first place. The quest to understand these issues better has taken me off the SATB piste in two major directions.
(1) The Cambiata Voice. For over a decade, I devoted much attention to making known in the UK the work of Irvine Cooper on the Cambiata voice and evaluating the results.
The table opposite from p197 of Singing in the Lower Secondary School is based on Cooper’s work in its most recent form, as promoted by the Cambia Vocal Institute. It is the basis of the OUP Emerging Voices Choral Series, which I have edited with Andy Brooke as co-editor.
A current project is to use different choirs across the UK to record this entire series. The recordings are being evaluated for research purposes. You can follow the project here. The photo shows Voces of Winchester College.
Cooper’s methods undoubtedly work if enthusiastic singing by boys where previously there was none is the yardstick.
Maid of Amsterdam, arr Andy Brooke, sung by Cambiata North West (extract)
I would hate it though, if Cambiata were to become some kind of doctrine. It is not the only approach to boys’ voices.
(2) The Meane Voice Now, with the luxury of emeritus status, I have turned my attention to another off-the-SATB-piste voice, the meane (also called, mean, meany, medius . . .).
This is an historic boys’ voice, largely forgotten but in my view, ripe for revival. It is located approximately midway between today’s alto and soprano voices. William Byrd is one England’s greatest composers (some would say, the greatest). Whilst it is often assumed that he wrote for boys’ voices, the large majority of his output was conceived for performance in domestic settings, almost certainly with female voices on the high parts. Where he did write for boys, he wrote not for trebles (there were no trebles after the Reformation), but for meanes. We have become used to hearing Byrd’s music sung at too high a pitch. Historical music scholarship has advanced our understanding of choral pitch in leaps and bounds since the time of Edmund Fellowes. The task to which I have turned my attention is to bring to bear what is known about the physiology and acoustic of boys’ voice upon these researches, forging new knowledge out of the resultant synthesis.