Grounds for optimism!
Research undertaken during 2017 is suggesting that it may be easier than first imagined to recreate a “period singer”. Historical anthropometry is the study of past human body forms and shapes. Perhaps surprisingly, much of this work takes place in the field of welfare economics where anthropometric data, particularly that relating to stature, is extremely useful as a surrogate measure of prosperity. A leading exponent in the field is Richard Steckel. Drawing on his work and that in the UK of Gregori Galofré-Vilà, it has been possible to make a good estimate of how a sixteenth century boy chorister compared with one of today. They were not that different and it is possible to find living boys who might be very similar to boys who died 500 years ago.
The instrument exists. What we need to discover is how to play it!
A recent success
Between 2005 and 2015 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 finds during the time of this research have been living boys who could reproduce this voice.
It has, of course, been possible to talk to these boys and measure their vital statistics. Physically, they are the same as any other living boys. The difference lies entirely in the way they have been taught to sing. In other words, for the 1930s boy soprano, we have access to the instrument and we know how to play it!
Here is a recording made in 2013 of a boy one month short of fourteen (as featured above) singing like a fifteen or sixteen year old of the 1930s. 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.
So, can this be done for meanes?
The most common singing range for an unchanged boy voice is A3 – G5 (similar to the mezzo-soprano range). If the meane range is C4 to D5, then in theory any living boy should be able to sing it. Alas, it’s not that simple! Sometimes it helps to start by discounting what you have grounds to believe was not the case.
We might want to discount, for example, trained boy choristers of today on the grounds that, even though popularly called “trebles” they are actually conditioned to sing soprano parts. The soprano tessitura is some way above meane and the top reaches involve extending the range to places most boys’ voices don’t go, in extremis the high soprano C6.
Equally, we might want to discount boys in primary school choirs (where they exist) on somewhat the opposite grounds. Much of the music published for primary schools is pitched too low to develop what is called the child’s “singing voice”. In consequence, children use only their speech register. The results of this kind of singing do not match prescriptive accounts from the sixteenth century that use words such as “sweete” and “cleare”.
Until recently, I was reliant on occasional finds such as this recording 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 and the performance is pitched a semitone sharp of the original. The boys actually sing therefore between Db4 and Db5 – still within the meane range. 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” (sic) – 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.
Now, at last, we have some choirs actually participating in meane voice research. The first of these is Romsey Abbey under the direction of George Richford. Their excellent recording in the Convivium Tudor Choir Book series is due for imminent release. Pitch is set by their use of the historic St Teilos 5′ organ. Here is a short extract of Byrd’s Verse (or Second) Service, sung at historic pitch from Andrew Johnstone‘s latest scholarly reconstruction of Byrd’s manuscript.
A highly profitable visit to Romsey the week after this was recorded has yielded some extremely useful voice samples and measurements that are forming the basis of more scientifically constructed research questions to be answered by would-be meanes over the next twelve months. Re-visit this page for regular updates.
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.
Short sample of tenor voice quality in alto range (Valdemar Villadsen)
Of course, Romsey were presented with this problem. They chose to use Convivium’s own Adrian Green to sing the Byrd verse that in old high pitch editions would have been sung by a counter-tenor.
Obviously, there are many practical issues raised by this, not least of which is the role of the counter-tenor in the modern choir.
Work has begun on a new book, provisionally titled What did Taverner hear? Recreating lost male voices. More details soon.
(Page updated October 2017)