Wednesday 30 December 2015

High and bright - looking at the origins of the haute-contre

Costume for Apollon (danced by Louis XIV) in the Ballet de la Nuit (1653)
Costume for Apollon (danced by Louis XIV)
in the Ballet de la Nuit (1653)
If you look up the haute-contre voice in Grove's Dictionary of Music, the article by Owen Jander and Ellen T. Harris talks about how the voice type came to prominence in the operas of Lully which were performed in Paris from the late 17th century and then goes into a discussion about how much falsetto the original singers used (of which more anon). But the article gives little indication of where the voice type came from. And in John Potter and Neil Sorrell's A History of Singing (Cambridge University Press) the voice type gets barely a mention.

Opera came to France in the 1640s in the form of imports from Italy such as the Italian composer Luigi Rossi who wrote Orfeo for Paris in 1647 (see my review of the recent production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). The French had their own form a spectacular musical entertainment, the ballet du cour, which combined complex dance with formal social dancing, music and spectacle in often long events (the Ballet de la Nuit of 1653 lasted 13 hours). 

Cardinal Mazarin by Pierre Mignard
Cardinal Mazarin by Pierre Mignard
Italian opera, in fact all things Italian were associated with the regime of Cardinal Mazarin (born Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino) who was the de facto ruler of France during the regency of Queen Anne (with the death of Louis XIII in 1643, when Louis XV was five). The Fronde between 1648 and 1653 led to Mazarin's fall, and an associated dislike of all things Italian. Louis XIV would eventually put a ban on foreign musicians. Francesco Cavalli, who had come to France to mount his opera Ercole Amante in 1660, returned to Italy in 1666. This antipathy to things Italian seems to have been combined with a dislike of the castrato voice.

The Paris Opera, the Academie Royal de Musique, was founded in 1669 at the urging of the poet Pierre Perrin who wanted to create a new synthesis of French poetry and French music (the French language being rather different from Italian, needed a different way of setting to music). From its founding, the Paris Opera was a monopoly giving the holder exclusive rights to court opera. The monopoly was taken over by Lully in 1672 (ironically an Italian who had naturalised in France). Lully had performed in the Ballet de la Nuit with Louis XIV. From Lully's first tragedie lyrique Cadmus et Hermione the haute-contre voice comes into prominence.

So what was it? The voice type has suffered in Anglophone areas somewhat from translation problems, often rendered into English as an alto or counter-tenor. The voice is essentially a high tenor, but extended up to around D. Tenors of the period would generally take their full voice up to G above middle C. But is is what happens above this that is uncertain, what technique did the voices use to extend the voice upwards? Part of the problem in this field is that there is no definitive vocabulary for the various techniques, and different schools of teaching use different words so that the same singer can talk about the same technique in completely different terms. If you read articles you are blinded with a selection of terms including chest voice, head voice, falsetto, falsettino, voix mixte, tenor altino, contraltino... But here goes!

If we take the C above middle C, a tenor has roughly three distinct methods of producing the note. He can take the chest voice up, using the full resonance of the chest and requiring enormous power. This is the high C of tenors like Luciano Pavarotti, a style invented by the French tenor Gilbert Duprez (1806-1896) in the early 19th century and now common currency in opera. Or the tenor can use the voix mixte which I learned as head voice, in which the singer combines head and chest resonance, a technique commonly used by choral singers particularly in Renaissance polyphony. And then a singer can do the trick with their vocal chords which causes them to vibrate at half their length, thus giving a man access to his high, falsetto register.

Joseph Legros
Joseph Legros, the haute-contre
who first sang Gluck's Orpheus
in Paris
The difference between the various male voices in the tenor alto range is how the singer blends the different techniques. One point worth bearing in mind is that two singers might have the same range but a different tessitura. This is perhaps best explained by a mezzo-soprano friend who commented that the difference between her voice and a soprano was that the very upper notes were a region she liked to visit but not stay long whereas the soprano was happy staying

So where did the haute-contre fit in and how did the voice come about? Well, in the early 19th century the tenor Domenico Donizelli wrote to Bellini describing his voice (preparatory to Bellini writing the role of Pollione in Norma for him), he uses terms to describe the sound which resemble our impression of the haute-contre. So even in the 19th century tenors used to take their voices very high, leaving the so-called chest voice at G and going into what some singers called falsettone. In an earlier generation, the role of Bajazet in Handel's Tamerlano which was written for a virtuoso tenor, can be sung nowadays by a modern baritone.

When we revived old pieces nowadays, inevitably we tend to back-project our current techniques onto our forebears so that Rossini operas are sung with the top C's ringing out in a way that Rossini's tenors in Naples would have found surprising (and possibly a little crude). Most alto parts in 17th century music were sung in the 20th century by counter-tenors or female altos as this was the norm, but we are coming to realise that the 17th century was more flexible. Some of Purcell's alto parts seem to challenge falsettists and seem to have been written for high tenors.  And most contemporary choral singers (especially if they are altos or tenor) know that in music of earlier centuries (16th and 15th century) it was clear that singers were expected to be flexible with tenor parts going high and alto parts going low. This can happen if you are using male singers who have a technique which flexibly blends the tenor's chest and the alto's upper register; modern vocal ensembles often get round this by pairing an alto and a tenor on the part.

The problem is that names change and can refer to different things, so that with early scores we have no complete certainty of the voice type of the person singing; for example does Arnalta, Poppea's nurse in L'incoronazione di Poppea sing as a high tenor, or sing falsetto? We just don't know from the surviving sources. And pitch can affect things, this could vary enormously and in Paris in the 17th century it was I believe quite low.

It would seem that the early French operas simply took a standard contemporary vocal technique, whereby a tenor could be expected to extend his voice upwards, and developed it. Perhaps there was an early haute-contre who was able to make this mixed voice sound suitably heroic.After all, haute-contres play the heroes in Lully's operas. We are used to hearing quite a light lyric voice in the roles, partly because many of the early haute-contres in the 1970's, when the operas were re-discovered, were lyric tenors.

That an entirely different technique is, perhaps, possible we might briefly consider the role of the Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov's last opera Le coq d'or. When it was last performed by the Royal Opera in London the role of the Astrologer (written for a tenor altino, a later extension of the type of high florid Rossini tenors) was shared between a French tenor who specialised in haute-contre roles and a Russian tenor. The haute-contre sang with beauty of tone and flexibility whereas the Russian linked his upper extension to his chest voice by singing with bravura strength and a glittering vibrato which made a sound which was less comfortable perhaps, but far more heroic.

For another example of differences in vocal production in the same role we only have to look at the recent production of Gluck Orphee et Eurydice at Covent Garden where the haute-contre part (written for the tenor Joseph Legros) was sung by Juan-Diego Florez (see my review) using a technique which owed nothing to the idea of extending the voice upwards using falsetto at all, and relied on him carefully (and brilliantly) managing his use of his full voice. And he sang the work in the original keys.

We still have a lot to learn about tenor techniques when it comes to pre-Verdian operas. Whilst it has come to be recognised that the modern tenor technique owes much to the developments in Verdi and Puccini's operas, few are inclined to experiment. So we have an effective gap between the lighter Italian tenor who essays florid Rossini roles and the modern day haute-contres, whereas more of a continuum would be possible. What would happen, say, if a tenor like Juan-Diego Florez was daring enough to attack one of the key haute-contre roles in Lully or Rameau, or if an haute-contre used his technique to sing florid Rossini opera in a way not considered by modern tenors. I doubt that we will ever know, but the early haute-contre voice is still intriguing and perhaps misunderstood.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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