Chant, castrati and chesting top C


MUSIC: Tenor: The History of a Voice By John PotterYale University Press, 305pp. £20

THIS SCHOLARLY book takes as its subject that enigmatic object, the tenor voice, and discusses its history and its development from the 13th century up to the present day (or later – there is a section just before the end subtitled “The Future”). The author, John Potter, is himself a tenor of some distinction and many readers will have heard him singing with the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek’s soaring saxophone improvisations on the Mnemosyneand OfficiumCDs released by ECM in the 1990s. But he is more than just a pretty voice, and his activities and publications must make him one of the most actively practical scholars, or actively scholarly practitioners, of the craft of singing.

Of the book’s 306 pages, only the first 192 are the main text, which is a chronological treatment of the voice’s history. The next 23 pages are notes to the chapters of the text, and there are 73 pages of what the author thinks of as a “tenorography”, which is basically a reference list of tenors, living and dead, which the author thinks of as being historically important, but for whom he didn’t have enough space in the text to include more details. Where relevant this list includes a discography, filmography, website information, or just simply references to other texts. There are 489 tenors in the list (give or take a few; I may have miscounted . . .) and it stretches from Jacopo Peri, famous for being the composer of one of the earliest surviving operas, Euridice(1600), to some young tenors born after 1980. This list doesn’t include the more famous tenors who receive treatment in the text itself, and these are many.

It is thus as a reference book for people interested in the tenor voice that this book will make its mark. But it is more than that. Interesting anecdotes abound for the tenor-curious. The opening chapter covers the early manifestation of the tenor part in medieval church music as the voice which sang the chant around which the other voice(s) wove their counterpoint. The author then moves on to the early days of opera, in which castrati, not tenors, were given the main roles. Boys in pre-late-19th century Italy were often castrated before puberty if they had good voices in the hope that they would develop the ethereal tone quality and enormous breath capacity of the castrato male, thus enabling them to make fortunes as singers; sadly many were mutilated without reaping the benefits, and ended up singing in church choirs instead of on the operatic stage. The decision by the Church around the end of the 19th century to end the practice of using castrati finally put a stop to the mutilation of young boys. There is a considerable discussion of the role of the castrato in opera in the 17th century, in which it emerges that it wasn’t until the 19th century that the tenor voice began to replace the male “castrato” voice in opera, and begin its evolution into its various subspecies, including the heroic tenor of the late 19th century, and ultimately into the “Stadium” tenor of the 1990s that we know too well today.

Tenuous connecting on this reviewer’s part now follows. It is worth pointing out the similarities between the evolution of the tenor voice and football, which are numerous. They begin with (obviously) the need for at least one ball in the first place, then go on to include frequently being flat, Italian celebrity status, performances in stadia, an awful lot of shouting, huge female fan bases, and “chesting” (footballers “chest” the ball on occasion, and tenors vie with each other to “chest” top Cs ). I await with trepidation some gratuitous violence during an opera performance, if it hasn’t already happened.

In fact, this book tells us (there we are, back again) that James Joyce (himself a tenor) seems to have tried to accelerate the development of violence at concerts after he met the “loud and dreadful John OSullivan” in “1829” ([sic], obviously 1929 is meant). Joyce took it upon himself to champion this particular tenor at operas in Paris, “. . . shouting out approbation for his fellow Irishman and raining insults on his Italian competitors”, thus possibly adding “First Irish Opera Hooligan” to his list of other achievements.

Correctly, the book ascribes to the “Three Tenors” phenomenon the opprobrium it deserves. It “. . . reinforced the tendency for the public to be offered a very limited musical diet, anthologised into a ‘greatest hits’ collection, with none of the vagaries of operatic plots, or the contortions of recitative, to contend with”. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Fergus Johnston is a composer. His opera The Earl of Kildarereceived a workshop performance in February in the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Co Wicklow, by Living Opera Company