Contratenor altus (Lat.: ‘high [part] against the tenor’)
- Owen Jander
A line in polyphony lying just above the tenor. In the 15th century, as music came to be written in four rather than only three voices, composers approached the addition of the fourth voice by an extension of earlier compositional procedure. The most common arrangement of three voices had been superius (or cantus), tenor and Contratenor; in the new four-voice texture the composer used two contratenor parts, a contratenor bassus and a contratenor altus. The original method of writing these two voice parts is still evident in Pietro Aaron’s Il Thoscanello de la musica (1523), where ten rules set out ‘the method of composing the controbasso and the controalto, after the tenor and canto’ (bk 2, chap.21). In Italy ‘contratenorbassus’ was abbreviated to ‘bassus’, ‘controbasso’ or ‘basso’; ‘contratenor altus’ became ‘altus’, ‘controalto’, ‘contr’alto’, ‘contralto’ or ‘alto’. In France the term became Haute-contre. English usage was complicated because even in the late 16th century (by which time the word ‘contratenor’ had long been obsolete on the Continent) an alto part might also be called a meane, a contra, a counter or a Countertenor. Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction (1597), for example, discusses four-part writing with the designations ‘treble’, ‘counter’, ‘tenor’ and ‘bass’.
Whereas in the 15th century the contratenor bassus was distinctly the lowest of the four voices in range, the contratenor altus still shared the same range as the tenor, roughly c to g′. In the 16th and 17th centuries, as the contratenor altus assumed the verbal forms just cited, the range gradually became higher (sometimes as high as f to c″), depending on the type of singers employed. Singers who were able to perform in the range between the tenor and the top voice (superius, cantus, soprano) were of five types, and the particular choice varied not only from period to period, but from region to region – even from choir to choir, or, later, from one production of an opera to a later revival. The first type of alto-range singer was the man with an extremely high natural voice. Unusually high tenors of this sort have always been rare, and highly prized. Burney, for example, described one William Turner (1651–1740) as ‘a counter-tenor singer, his voice settling to that pitch: a circumstance which so seldom happens naturally that if it be cultivated, the singer is sure of employment’ (History, iii, pp.459f). The second type was the falsettist – a man with an ordinary tenor, baritone or even bass voice, who could readily sing Falsetto in the alto range. Falsetto singing has been the most common source of alto voices in all-male choirs throughout the history of Western music. Because it was professionally advantageous for tenors to cultivate the uppermost ranges of their voices, they became adept in moving back and forth from falsetto to natural tone with little or no break; as a result it is sometimes impossible to determine whether certain singers were in fact basically falsettists or tenors with naturally high voices. A third type was the boy alto; most boys are sopranos, and boy altos with strong voices tend to be rare. Fourth, there was the Castrato with a low range, common only among Italian singers during the 17th and 18th centuries. Finally there was the female Contralto, who arrived late in the history of choral music because of the church’s opposition to the participation of women in ecclesiastical rites.