Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Musicological lesson of the day 2/8/05


In modern English usage the term denotes the lowest of the three principal female voices, the others being soprano and mezzo-soprano; but when the term was first used it would have denoted a male singer, originally a Falsetto singer, later a Castrato. The various attempts (e.g. Brossard, 1703; Walther, 1732; Grove5) at an etymological understanding of ‘contralto’ directly through its roots, contra (‘against’) and alto (‘high’) – thus, one part written against another high part – are misconceived. The word originated in the early 16th century as ‘contr’alto’, a local abbreviation of the late 15th-century Contratenor altus. Throughout the 16th century, however, the form ‘contralto’ was used only rarely, (See Alto (i)) being the common term. In the 17th century, as castratos became more numerous in Italy, authors sometimes sought to create distinctions. ‘Alti naturali’ was used to designate falsettists, while Andrea Adami (a castrato soprano) used the word ‘contralto’ in his Osservazioni (1711) to refer to the castratos Stefano Landi (d 1639) and Mario Savioni (d 1685), members of the papal choir. Burney, however, made no such distinction, and used ‘contralto’ for both castratos and women. In later English usage, when castratos were no longer on the musical scene, ‘contralto’ came to refer always to a woman, as distinct from a male alto (a boy alto, or a falsettist).
The term ‘contralto’ is usually limited to solo singing; in choral music ‘alto’ is preferred for boys, falsettists or women, or any combination of these.

-Courtesy of the Grove Online Dictionary of Music

In other words, this means a Contralto is either a) a woman with a really low voice or b) a man singing in his falsetto (or "girly") voice.

Earlier I was in a discussion with somebody who insisted he was a Contralto, not a Male Alto and talked about Romantic Lieder. He bragged that he was going to perform Schubert's Die Winterreise as a Contralto. I politely and respectfully disagreed with him and said that Schubert, Schumann and all the other German Romantics wrote their songs for Tenors (which is the original key, after all), or Bass.

You see, by the time of Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, etc. Castrotti and Falsettists were out of fashion and the Romantics were discovering and maximizing the full sound of the modern piano. With a full sounding piano, one need a full sounding male voice. Performing Lieder with a Falsetto voice is akin to doing a Debussy piano piece with a Harpsichord, or Heavy Metal with a banjo. It's not stylistically correct. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind countertenors and male altos and the sort, they get utilized in all male choirs, like Chantecleer, or early music or even a few new compositions where a "clean" straight tone is preferred, like Philip Glass' Akenaten.

He then immediately questioned my musicianship by saying, "I believe you're not qualified to judge that." Excuse me, I'm only 6 GE classes short of a BA in Music.

This person went on to insult my intellect, questioning my intelligence because I casually dropped an F-bomb in our casual conversation, and accusing me of speaking like a rapper (he really doesn't know what he's talking about, if he insulted a rapper's intelligence he'd be dead right now.).

He also said I had no talent and was an "American Idol" type singer. Which is ironic because he started to sing An Die Musik in his falsetto, which in essence is male pop singing.

I'm mad at myself because I let myself lose my temper at that guy. Insults usually roll off of me but this guy happened to push all of my buttons. I'm not a violent person, but for the first time in a long time I felt the urge to kick some ass. Some 19-year old punk was questioning my musicianship, intellect and talent. I shouldn't have let him get to me but he did, and that was my fault.

The more civilized part of me took control and decided I shouldn't kick his ass and instead started shouting obscenities. That was not classy of me at all.

I really shouldn't have let him get to me, since I'm the one with the paid gig, he's the one doing a musical for free at Cal State. Besides, there's more work out there for tenors than male altos.

I'm just venting. Please forgive me if I seem out of hand. Better to vent here than to really kick some poor sap's ass.

Just eleven days 'till pitchers and catchers report.


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