Countertenors - Things you didn't know!


  • Giles, Peter. The History and Technique of the Counter-Tenor : A Study of the Male High Voice Family. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1994.

  • Corinna Herr, Arnold Jacobshagen, Kai Wessel (Editors). Der Countertenor : die männliche Falsettstimme vom Mittelalter zur Gegenwart. Mainz: Schott, 2013.

  • Ravens, Simon. The Supernatural Voice : A History of High Male Singing. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2014.

  • Summary of historical evidence regarding countertenors collected by Tim Braithwaite: website


1 [01:13] For a more scientific exploration of the human voice, see for example: 1. Roubeau, Bernard & Henrich Bernardoni, Nathalie & Castellengo, Michèle. "Laryngeal Vibratory Mechanisms: The Notion of Vocal Register Revisited." in Journal of voice: official journal of the Voice Foundation 23 (4) July 2008, pp. 425-38 [link]; 2. Herbst, Christian & Ternström, Sten & Svec, Jan. "Investigation of four distinct glottal configurations in classical singing - A pilot study." in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, April 2009 [link].

2 [01:30] The term ‘head voice’ today has a variety of different meanings in different contexts. In male voices it is usually, but not always, used to describe an approach distinct from ‘falsetto,’ or ‘mode 2,’ the mechanism used by the majority of modern ‘countertenors.’ It is instead commonly associated with a sound produced in the upper part of ‘mode 1’ with fewer and weaker high harmonics, which tends to be flutier and lighter in timbre. In female voices the term ‘falsetto’ is one of the possible registers of ‘mode 2’ phonation. The term ‘head voice’ often functions in its place.

3 [03:45] Before the sixteenth century, the names of the musical parts were often connected with their function: a voice below the tenor was commonly called the ‘contratenor bassus,’ that is, a lower voice moving literally against the tenor. This voice was later simply called ‘bassus.’ Similarly, a voice above the tenor was often called the ‘contratenor altus,’ a higher voice which also moved against the tenor. This voice could also be referred to as ‘altus’ or simply ‘contratenor.’ When further voices were added to the cantus, altus, tenor, and bassus, they were often given names according to their number such as: ‘quintus’ (‘a fifth voice,’) ‘sextus’ (‘a sixth voice’) etc. These names had no fixed association with vocal ranges.

4 [04:48] A source that demonstrates such confusion is, for example, Johann Agricola’s Anleitung zur Singkunst (a commented translation of Pier Francesco Tosi’s Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni.) In one of his comments Agricola defines falsetto as being both the very lowest and very highest notes of a singer’s range. [‘Most scientists and musicians describe the falsetto notes that occur in every voice in its highest reaches, as well as those in its greatest depth, as forced tones and a falsetto voice as a forced voice.’] ‘Die meisten Naturkündiger sowohl als Tonkünstler, beschreiben die Falsetttöne, welche bey jeder Stimme sowohl in der äussersten Höhe als in der äussersten Tiefe vorkommen können, durch gezwungene Töne, und eine Falsettstimme durch gezwungene Stimme.’ Agricola, Johann Friedrich. Anleitung Zur Singkunst. Berlin: G.L. Winter, 1757. p.34. [imslp] English translation from Agricola, Johann Friedrich. Introduction to the Art of Singing. Translated by Julianne Baird, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. p.75.

5 [06:02] Nevertheless, there are some countertenors who reject the use of the term ‘falsetto’ due to its unjust connotation of falseness. One famous example is the American countertenor Russell Oberlin (1928–2016). See this interview where he insists that he, as a countertenor, did not use his falsetto [Youtube link]. Interestingly, not all authors agreed that the term ‘falsetto’ actually had its etymological roots in ideas of falseness. Jean-Jacques Rousseau for example, suggests a link between the French ‘fausset’ and the Latin word ‘faucis’ meaning ‘throat.’ ‘Si ce mot vient du François faux opposé à juste, il faut l’écrire comme je fais ici, en suivant l’orthographe de l’Encyclopédie : mais s’il vient, comme je le crois, du Latin, faux, faucis, “la gorge,” il falloit, au lieu des deux ss qu’on a substituées, laisser le c que j’y avois mis’. [If this word comes from the French faux <false> as opposed to juste <just/correct> it must be written as I do here, following the spelling of the Encyclopédie; but if it comes, as I believe, from the Latin faux, faucis, “the throat,” it should be written with a c instead of the double s.] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Dictionnaire De Musique. Paris: Chez La Veuve Duchesne, 1768. p.219 [imslp].

6 [06:45] For example:

  • Lodovico Da Viadana (1602): ‘In these Concerti, Falsetti will make a better effect than the natural Sopranos, (on the one hand, because the boys normally sing carelessly and with little grace, and furthermore because the Falsetti can be heard from a distance) in order to obtain a more beautiful performance; however, undoubtedly, a natural Soprano is priceless, but they are rare.' [‘Che in questi Concerti faranno miglior effetto i Falsetti, che i Soprani naturali, si perche per lo più i Putti cantano trascuratamente, e con poca gratia, come anco perche si è atteso alla lontananza, per render più vaghezza; non vi è però dubbio, che non si può pagare con denari un buon Soprano naturale; ma se ne trovano pochi.’ Viadana, Lodovico Da. Cento Concerti Ecclesiastici : Opera Duodecima. Venice: Giacomo Vincentini, 1602. [imslp] Translation Lisandro Abadie.

  • Scipione Cerreto (1608): ‘Nowadays falsetto singers enjoy a higher appreciation than sopranos, not only for being of a more mature age, but also because such voices give more satisfaction when they sing, and provide more sweetness to the ears of the listeners.’ ['E si bene al tempo d'hoggi gli Cantori di Falsetto stanno con maggior prerogativa, che non stanno gli Soprani, non solo perche sono di età più matura, ma ancora perche tali voci mentre cantano danno maggior sodisfatione, e rendono maggior dolcezza all'orecchie de gli ascoltanti.'] Cerreto, Scipione. Dell'arbore musicale. Naples: Gio. Battista Sottile, 1608. p. 29. Translation Lisandro Abadie.

7 [07:25] Simon Ravens states that ‘despite the fact that castrati and falsettists occupied much the same territory in church, this transferability never existed in the opera house. (Here, it may be worth stating that the first major operatic role known to have been written for a falsettist was the part of Oberon in Britten’s A midsummer Night’s Dream, first performed by Alfred Deller in 1960.) In 1739 Charles de Brosses writes that in Italian opera houses alto parts were sung by low female voices. Persona non grata [sic] in the opera house, then, the falsettists were left with the church as their only viable employment, where they had fewer castrati (or at least, fewer of the best castrati) to compete against.’ Ravens, Simon. The Supernatural Voice : A History of High Male Singing. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2014. p.99. Whether the statement about Deller is entirely true is difficult to ascertain, nevertheless it’s clear that at no point did countertenors occupy a major role on the Baroque stage before Deller’s time.

8 [07:55] In 1740, J.S Bach stated that a certain Christian Friedrich Schemelli had been useful to him as a Soprano which, considering he attended St Thomas School between the ages of 18-21, makes it extremely likely that he was functioning as a post-pubescent soprano ‘falsettist.’ Wolff, Christoph, et al. The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. pp. 208-209. Furthermore, Johann G. Walther writes in his 1732 Lexicon that the Cammer-Ton (the habit of playing a piece a whole tone or a minor third lower) is mostly used when adult sopranos cannot reach the highest notes [‘hauptsächlich um den erwachsenen Sopranisten, so die Höhe nicht wohl haben können’]. Walther, Johann Gottfried. Musicalisches Lexicon. Leipzig: W. Deer, 1732. pp.130-131‌. [IMSLP] J.S. Bach was Walther's cousin, his teacher, and the godfather of his first son.

9 [08:10] On Buxtehude's singers: Snyder, Kerala. Dieterich Buxtehude: Leben, Werk, Aufführungspraxis. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007. pp.414-415.

10 [08:38] A pivotal moment which connected the English choral tradition and the countertenor voice was the ‘discovery’ of Alfred Deller in the 1940s by Michael Tippet who said the following in a BBC broadcast: ‘It was quite clear to me that this was the voice which Purcell wrote for. I had been at that time drawn more and more to Purcell, and more and more to Purcell performances.’ Giles, Peter. The History and Technique of the Counter-Tenor : A Study of the Male High Voice Family. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1994. p.135.

11 [09:00] The connection between countertenors and Elizabethan alto parts is perhaps linked to the idea that English choral pitch was substantially higher than it is now; an idea that is now broadly considered to be incorrect. See Johnstone, Andrew. “‘As It Was in the Beginning': Organ and Choir Pitch in Early Anglican Church Music.” Early Music, vol. 31, no. 4, 2003, pp.507–525 [JSTOR].

12 [09:38]

  • Giovanni Luca Conforto (author of the famous Breve et facile maniera d'essercitarsi a far passaggi, 1593) is known to have usually sung in his falsetto, but when he sung in the papal chapel he supposedly sang the alto part [‘He usually sings soprano, but when he was in the papal chapel he always sang, so I understand, contralto, perhaps to avoid joining his falsetto to the natural voices of the castrati.'] ‘…e di soprano tuttavia nel tempo che egli stette in cappella di N. cantò sempre, si come intendo, il contralto, forse per non accoppiar il suo falsetto alle voci naturali de'castrati.' It is later clarified that when he did so, he sang in full voice ‘voce piena.’ Sherr, Richard. “Gugliemo Gonzaga and the Castrati.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 1, 1980, pp.33–56. Accessed 23 July 2020. pp. 43 and 54 [JSTOR].

  • Giovanni Battista Bovicelli (author of the well-known Regole, passaggi di musica, 1594) is known to have sung both soprano and tenor in professional settings. Rosenberg, Jessie and Rostirolla, Giancarlo. “Regole, Passagi di Musica (1594) by Gio. Battista Bovicelli.” Historic Brass Society Journal, iv, 1992, pp. 27–44. p.28 [link].

13 [10:03] Joseph de Lalande says the following whilst documenting his travels through Italy in 1769: [‘I have said that the tenor of the Italians was the haute-contre of the French...The [Italian] tenor goes from C to g in full voice and to d in falsetto or fausset: our haute-contre, ordinarily, after g goes up in full voice to b♭; while the tenor after g enters into falsett but this is not without exception: Babbi goes up to C in full voice, the same as Caribaldi did until the age of 48. Amorevoli, who was a little older, went up to D.’] ‘J’ai dit que le tenore des Italiens étoît la haute-contre des François… Le tenore va de ut à sol en pleine voix, & jusqu’a re en falsetto ou fausset: notre haute-contre, ordinairement après Ie sol, monte en pleine voix jusqu’au si b au lieu que le tenore après le sol entre dans le fausset mais cela n’est pas sans exception : Babbi montoit jusqu’à ut en pleine voix, de même que Caribaldi, jusqu’à l’âge de 48 ans. Amorevoli, qui étoît un peu plus ancien, aloit jusqu’à re.’ Lalande, Joseph de. Voyage en Italie, vol. 7. Genève: 1790. pp. 204-5. Translation from Ravens, Simon. The Supernatural Voice : A History of High Male Singing. Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2014. p.121 [link]. Jean-Jacques Rousseau goes as far as to say that [‘the general spirit of French composers is to always force the voices in order to make them shout rather than sing.’] ‘L’esprit general des Compositeurs François est toujours de forcer les Voix pour les faire crier plutôt que chanter…’ Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. ‘Voix’, Dictionnaire de musique. Paris: 1768. p.545 [link].

14 [10:15] After a visit to the Parisian Concert Spirituel in 1770, Charles Burney describes an haute-contre as follows: ‘The principal counter-tenor had a solo verse in it which he bellowed out with as much violence as if he had done it for life, while a knife was at his throat.’ Burney, Charles. The Present State of Music in France and Italy (2nd, corrected edition). London: T. Becket and Co., 1773. p. 27 [link].


Created by Elam Rotem, Lisandro Abadie and Tim Braithwaite, July 2020.

Special thanks to Álvaro Etcheverry and Anne Smith.

  • Lisandro Abadie is a bass-baritone, born and raised in Buenos Aires. He graduated at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and at the Musikhochschule Luzern. He sings opera and concerts, and collaborates with musicians, artists and authors like Facundo Agudin, William Christie, Laurence Cummings, Luis Felipe Fabre, Benjamin Lazar, Annie Le Brun, Fernanda Morello, Mónica Pustilnik, Paul Suits, and many others. As a researcher, his various interests extend from European singers and composers of the 17th and 18th centuries to the opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, by Viktor Ullmann. At present he is preparing a book on vocal and instrumental vibrato in historical sources, with special interest in organ stops and early recordings. Since 2019 he teaches in the AVES Program at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. See his article "Vocal Undulations and the Vox Humana Organ Stop" in: Vox Humana Journal, 2019 (link).

  • Tim Braithwaite began his musical career as a chorister in the choir stalls of the English choral tradition before winning a choral scholarship with the renowned chapel choir of Royal Holloway, University of London in 2011. Tim enjoys a vibrant international career as a countertenor and baritone with a particular focus on exploring performance practices before the turn of the seventeenth century. In 2020, Tim graduated from the specialised master’s in Early Music Theory course at Het Koninklijk Conservatorium in Den Haag where he also runs a class on the history of singing, and is currently in demand leading workshops and lecturing on a variety of issues related to historical performance and theoretical issues at a number of top European conservatoires. In 2019, Tim founded the online initiative Cacophony! an experimental early music platform dedicated to the practical exploration of historical traditions of singing.