There is a strange, mythical creature that is said to haunt the ancient choral establishments of England and Germany, inspiring some degree of awe. The puer tremendus was a male singer, aged in his late teens or early twenties who had the voice of a child yet the lung-power and intellect of an adult. Those claiming knowledge of the puer tremendus testify to his phenomenal feats, his ability to render complex and difficult soprano passages with the facility of a trained coloratura. His ability to ascend to stratospheric heights of a tessitura between C5 and C6 with a prodigious stamina that far outpaces the twelve and thirteen year old boy trebles known today is legendary. Some choir directors, frustrated perhaps by the limitations of their thirteen-year-olds, are said so much to desire puer tremendus that they might be persuaded to crowd fund an expedition in hope that the creature might be found.
This will be hard. In spite of his accomplishments, the puer tremendus appears to have been a shy creature about which little is known scientifically. The nearest known approximation to the puer tremendus may be the male castrato. It is known that a surgical operation, now outlawed, was responsible for impeded laryngeal growth, resulting in the retention throughout adult life of the childhood soprano range. Other parts of the body grew to adult proportions, though in distorted fashion. Limbs tended to be abnormally long and lung capacity often exceeded that of a normal adult owing to a distended rib cage. The result was indeed an unrivalled capacity to sing lengthy coloratura passages without pause for breath and the castrato became the operatic superstar of the eighteenth century.
Notwithstanding the (for the day) fabulous sums earned, the castrato was an ambiguous figure, both superstar and creature to be pitied. Of Farinelli (1705-1782 and recreated in a 1994 feature film), the contemporary writer Roger Pickering wrote “What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Ecstasy to the Ear! But, Heavens! What Clumsiness! What Stupidity! What Offence to the Eye!” There are many other extant records, paintings and contemporary accounts of the castrati upon which scholars have been able to draw. A comprehensive account is given in Patrick Barbier’s The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon, published in 2010. A particularly precious primary resource is a series of several recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, one of the last known castrato singers of the Sistine Chapel choir. These were made between 1902 and 1904.
Concerning the puer tremendus, nothing comparable exists or is known about. Frustratingly for the investigator of male singing, there are neither paintings nor scientific accounts describing the actual anatomy of the puer tremendus. This is odd, given the frequency with which even musicologists of repute have been known to refer to the puer tremendus. The search for scientific evidence nevertheless continues.
OK, I write tongue in cheek! Yet belief in something like the puer tremendus does persist. Belief in “boys” (?) of nineteen or so whose voices had not “broken” yet whose adult sized bodies and intellect did indeed permit singing feats beyond the ability of today’s choristers is still encountered. Otherwise respectable and scholarly texts on music history have promoted the idea of normal adult growth occurring simultaneously with abnormally late puberty as the norm in the eighteenth century.
To suggest that puberty at age 19 was in any way the norm at any time in history, however, is simply implausible from a medical point of view. It is frustrating that the belief is so persistent because it stands in the way of attempts to understand how choral singing in historical times actually sounded. The truth is that there are very frustrating gaps in our knowledge of boy singers in times past. Several sources record the age of seven as the time a boy would begin to learn chant – Chaucer’s “litel clergeon, seven yeer of age”, for example, seems to have been typical of practice at least until the fifteenth century (quoted by Mould, 2007). But at what age would such a boy, being “older” be required to “sing below the chant” having voices “lower in range” (Wylde’s Anonymous, quoted in Flynn, 1995)? Actual ages seem elusively hard to unearth and the reliability of many sources is questionable. Roger Bowers’ study of St George’s Windsor is one of the few based upon actually recorded ages and suggests that most boys had left the Windsor choir by the age of fifteen in the fifteenth century. So an “older boy” may well have been about fourteen at that time. Mould has managed to unearth a source from Durham dated 1541 where ten boys were listed in order of seniority. The third on the list, one William Sim, was recorded as about twelve years of age. This adds to such evidence base as we have the suggestion that chorister ages in the sixteenth century did not differ radically from those of today. The very youngest were about seven, a “senior” boy might have been twelve or thirteen and voices lasted perhaps until fourteen or fifteen, though perhaps being recognised (unlike today) as “lower” in those age groups.
Aside from such tantalising snippets, the honest answer to the question of the puer tremendus has to be “we don’t know However, I did publish in 2014 a comprehensive meta-analysis entitled Boyes are apt to change their voices at about fourteene years of age (Ashley & Mecke, 2014). A meta-analysis is a review and synthesis of all the studies that can be found on a particular subject. My co-author was Ann-Christine Mecke, a scholar from the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy University of Music and Theatre In Leipzig. Anne-Christine’s specialism was the boy soprano in the time of J.S. Bach, so I was particularly keen to embrace her expertise given the frequency of the claim that the voices of Bach’s boy sopranos did not “break” until eighteen or nineteen years of age.
You can read our meta-analysis here. The conclusion was that fourteen would have been the most common age of voice change climax in eighteenth century Germany, much as it was in Aristotle’s Greece. As acknowledged and mapped out in that and subsequent publications, the timing of puberty does fluctuate to some degree – just not as much as required for the existence of puer tremendus. At the present time, puberty does seem to be unusually early. Most English choristers will be showing the first medical signs by age 10 or 11, and changes will be clearly affecting their voices by age 13. Sadly, that does lead to losses of appreciable numbers of good young voices during Y8 (age 12.5 – 13.5). Would they ever have lasted until 19? It is well-known that Bach complained frequently about the quality of his singers in Leipzig. Perhaps less well-known is the near certainty that if “boys” were singing soprano for Bach in their late teens, most would have been doing so in a “hoarse and oversung” falsetto – not a sound we should want to replicate today.
There is, though, a sound that we do want to replicate today, – that of the boy meane that William Byrd would have known. Is this going to be possible? We’re giving it our best shot in a project entitled What Did Taverner Hear? Taverner’s Missa Sine Nomine (the “Meane Mass”) has a note on the manuscript specifying that the meane part (the highest) be sung by “a childe”. But what kind of child, singing with what kind of voice? Answering that question is the current great quest! We already have some good ideas from research ongoing in several English choral establishments, but I’m not going to make the mistake of speculating too early on the results. It’s August and I don’t want to create another puer tremendus!