Of Cheshire cats … countertenors … and other wonders of the world …

This coming Sunday morning we have the privilege of having Jonathan Hudson coming to sing for us at the eleven o’clock worship.  Jonathan was our tenor soloist for a few years, and even though he wished not to be working every week in the choir, our relationship has remained very cordial and his willingness to come and sing solos, either on Sunday morning, or in a major work, has been greatly appreciated.  He’s singing a wonderful piece by Saint-Saens, and another from John Stainer’s well-known cantata, “The Crucifixion”.  In the Saint-Saens he will use his ability to sing countertenor to bring this score to life.

Countertenors are a rare and interesting breed!  They are basically men who are able to sing in the alto range.  The history of this is interesting, so I thought I’d share some of it with you.  As many of you might know, in the medieval church, women were not welcomed into church leadership … and I use medieval to indicate from the Dark Ages onward (we can’t really be sure about earlier times, but there are indications that the ‘all-male’ nature of the church became deeply ensconced by this time).  This all male ‘club’ included the choir as well as the clergy.  And thus, as music continued to develop and divide into parts, depending on the voice ranges available, the need for sopranos and altos came into being.  The soprano problem was easy to solve … boys!  They had lovely soprano voices and would do nicely.  The other option was to use a man, whose voice change had been prevented by removing vital parts of his anatomy!  These men were known as ‘castradi’ and usually sang secular music … particularly opera, where they portrayed women … perhaps the original ‘cross-dressers’!  These gentlemen made tremendous livings as singers, but even with the financial incentive, not enough men were willing to undergo the deprivations necessary for the sake of art to fill church choirs with them.  Thus, boys were the logical choice.

This left the area of the alto … that part between soprano and tenor that provides much of the harmonic interest in later day music.  This part, for instance, often singing a third below the soprano can make chords major or minor depending on which note is sung by the alto.  For this, the countertenor voice was trained.  Men who were already able to sing high in the tenor range learned to use their ‘head voice’ (or what was left of their boy soprano voice) to sing up to the A above middle C.  This allowed them to fill the alto line quite nicely, and a good countertenor has always been worth his weight in gold to any choral organization!  For instance, it is only when the countertenor is used to sing the alto solos in “Messiah” that they truly come alive.  For most women altos, they lay too low in the voice to properly project the music into a church or concert hall … but the countertenor is perfect.

In the United States, the art of the countertenor was preserved for many years in the choirs of men and boys in the Episcopal Church.  It is a long and honored tradition in the Anglican Communion to use men and boys, and the special tonal color of an all-male choir is undeniably beautiful. But over the years, even this bastion of all-male singing has gone by the wayside with the exception of a very few parishes that have the means to make it happen.

However, the void created by the ever diminishing numbers of choirs of men and boys has been filled for the countertenor by the ‘early-music’ movement, where musicians have set as a goal to perform ancient music as it was originally heard.  So the countertenor comes to the fore again.

Jonathan started his studies as a tenor, and when he arrived at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore to pursue his Master’s degree, he realized that he had the capability to sing in this upper range.  The wonderful staff at Peabody encouraged him and trained his voice.  He is no doubt, one of the best countertenors anywhere.  I do not exaggerate.  This is a special and very beautiful voice, and it has graced many of our performances and services here at Pine Street.  It is always a pleasure to have Jonathan join us and I hope you will find his offerings for Sunday inspirational.

As for the Cheshire cat reference in the title … Countertenors are ALMOST as rare as Cheshire Cats … but no less wonderful.



Categories Music Blog | Tags: | Posted on June 7, 2012

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Pine Street Church

310 North Third Street
Harrisburg, PA 17101
(717) 238-9304 (717) 232-9341 fax