The Fearest Voyces of England -some testimonials from foreign visitors:
Hearken, I do heare a sweet musicke: I never heard the like!
A boy, cum voce tremula, sang with such sweetness that unless the nuns at Milan surpassed him, we have not heard the like on our journey.
Sweet voices! The “fearest voyces” of England, those of the best boy choristers of the sixteenth century, were sweet. They were not shrill.
What was a sweet voice and how did it differ from a shrill voice?
What did John Taverner hear when he wrote ““finis quod taverner for iiij men and a childe” on the score of his Missa Sine Nomine?
We don’t know, because we have never heard Taverner’s childe, nor are we likely to hear anything like it unless things change.
We have never heard the sound Taverner heard because modern performances use adult counter-tenors on the boys’ part. Today we are used to boys singing the soprano line and we tend to call them “trebles”. During the sixteenth century the normal part for boys was lower than today’s “treble” and was called mean (also medius, meany, meane). There were also higher voiced trebles during the sixteenth century, but they were rarer than means and even then didn’t sing as high as today’s boy sopranos. When the new English protestant rite was introduced in 1549, the treble voice fell out of use altogether. It was thought too high, florid, effeminate and papist by the dour protestant clergy of the day. High voices were considered to be shrill, not sweet.
Few issues have excited so much debate and controversy as performing pitch during the renaissance. Most scholars now accept that choirs have been performing Tudor music at too high a pitch. The pitches that boys actually sang at (in their modern A=440 notation equivalents) are shown in this tabular analysis of Magnificats composed between 1475 and 1625. The disappearance of the treble voice is plain to see! Look more closely and you will also notice that mean parts didn’t descend as low after 1549. This is probably because the two pre-1549 boys’ parts of treble and mean merged to form just one part and all the boys became means.
So, if we are going to put boys (and, perhaps, their girl equivalents) on the top part instead of counter-tenors, where are we going to put the counter-tenors? We aren’t! Contrary to popular belief, counter-tenors took little if any part in renaissance choral polyphony. The part below the boys’ part(s) was sung by light tenors without the characteristic falsetto sound that is ubiquitous today. That will be controversial, but if we are to be serious about historically informed performance we need to be open-minded enough to open our ears to the possibility!
Sweet voices were not the voices we hear today.
Ever since I wrote this book, I have continued to ponder upon the question! The more I read and understand about sixteenth century choral music, the more I think there is a simply huge piece missing from the whole saga of boys’ choral singing and our appreciation of it. That is why I have joined forces with a number of experts in the field to answer what, on the face of it, is a deceptively straightforward research question.
What would happen if boys sang the mean part instead of counter-tenors?
Those who appreciate their Allegri Miserere and the sound of soprano (“treble”) voices soaring towards top C6 (to say nothing of the counter-tenor sound) need not worry that I am campaigning to end such practice. For as long as cathedrals can recruit boy choristers, C6 won’t go away! However, we do hope through this project to at least give listeners and choral music enthusiasts the opportunity to judge for themselves. We hope also to right a wrong, and to create new exciting and interesting singing opportunities for boys
- Writing a wrong. This is not the first time an academic has claimed to have discovered a “lost boy voice”. David Wulstan believed in the existence of a very high treble voice unknown to modern singing. The results of his work are well-known through such choirs as the Clerkes of Oxenford, the Tallis Scholars and others. There is just one fatal flaw. The high sopranos in all these choirs are women. Boys cannot sing that high (at least, not with the same strength, stamina and vocal resilience). So, I am proposing that Wulstan went the wrong way. If there is a “lost boy voice” to be found, it is a lower one, not a higher one. Of course, Wulstan recognized the existence of means and, to give him credit, he gave more attention to the mean question than most other scholars (and certainly conductors) have. However, I believe he may have made a fatal error. He supposed that the means must have sung only in what is commonly called “chest voice”. Anybody familiar with the loud, forced “chest voice” singing of primary school children will agree that it is anything but a sweet sound. So, there we have the force of the question “what was sweet singing in the sixteenth century and how was it produced”?
- New performance opportunities One wouldn’t quite put it like this, but in essence the question is “how can we get new boys to enjoy and sing old music?” As fewer and fewer boys join church and even cathedral choirs, this question assumes an importance of growing urgency. We are in danger of losing altogether the sound of boys’ voices in choral polyphony. One reason for this, of course, is that there is a mismatch between the social and vocal identities of twelve and thirteen year olds whenever we ask them to sing high soprano parts. Seasoned choristers cope because they often love the music so much that they don’t care. But such boys are only a very small and diminishing (and, dare I say it, privileged) minority. Suppose we’ve got it wrong? Suppose that, between the unchanged child voice and the newly emerging young baritone voice there’s a “lost boy voice”? We’ve seen glimpses of what might be possible with cambiata, but that’s only scratching the surface and as my new paper in Music Education Research shows, nine times out of ten “roaring baritones” stifle any attempt to find the lost boys’ voice at birth! It’s time to revive the Boyes of Paule’s and Blackfriars! There’s nothing schools enjoy more than a good musical production after all . . .
This project, then, is creating two new performance opportunities. For those already well versed in choral singing, there’s the Quire Pitch Evensong Project. For those interested in a musical, dramatic adventure there’s the Rainescrofte Chronicles Project.
You will find a lot more of the theoretical background to all this in these pages. Wee shall hear the fearest voyces of all cathedral churches in England: Uncovering a lost treasure of English choral singing gives a more detailed and academic background to the mean voice. A high-stretched minikin or a good strong meane? Male puberty and voice change in the late sixteenth century gives a similar background on the chorister/actor boys of St Paul’s. As the title suggests, it draws on differences between speaking and singing voices in an attempt to advance understanding of the timing of puberty in history – a question that is absolutely critical to the claim that Taverner’s childe (and most other means) was an unchanged voice. Finally English Choirboys Ancient and Modern: some preliminary investigations into acoustic profiles associated with renaissance choral music reports on some empirical work that has already been undertaken and which justifies the proposed investment in the two projects. It’s quite a technical paper for those who enjoy their acoustics!
What would happen if boys sang the mean part instead of counter-tenors? Here’s one possible answer . . .
Taverner: Missa Sine Nomine (the “Mean Mass”) Sanctus with counter-tenor
Taverner: Missa Sine Nomine (the “Mean Mass”) Sanctus with boys
No boys, living or dead, have yet recorded this work [the magic of modern technology!]
(Pages updated May 2018)