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Wednesday, 11 July 2012

No, it's not unnatural

Alan Yentob’s frequently beguiling TV series, Imagine, consists of well-ridden, quirky and often obscure hobby-horses. Last night  he daringly examined male falsetto singing.

I say “daringly” because many men tend to draw only one conclusion about full-grown members of their tribe who twitter away in the soprano range. Little do they know, since several “falsettists” revealed women are often attracted to such singing, reckoning it to be evidence of a gentler, more sensitive alternative to  the hairy chests.

But where are they employed? Leading gospel choirs and in close-harmony barbers shop quartets seemed to suggest these voices are only suited to slowish, often humdrum songs. Not so, since both The Beach Boys and the Bee Gees made good use of them. And falsetto’s pop apogee occurs with Queen where Freddie Mercury multi-tracks his voice to the point where the different layers eerily “pulse” in a way I thought required more than one singer. Making a sound I can only describe as beautiful.

All of which was news to me but Yentob was moving towards something I do know a little about – counter-tenors, otherwise known as male altos. Despite forcing myself to be open-minded I must confess I am occasionally uneasy listening to counter-tenors, not because of their range, rather their timbre. A little too flutey. But I’ll make an exception with Iestyn Davies (pictured). We’d heard him recently in Handel’s opera Rodelinda but here he sang an achingly gorgeous Purcell song (Name forgotten, damnit) which left me unequivocal: this was echt counter-tenor territory.

Afterwards, Davies spent several minutes teaching Yentob to explore the counter-tenor range with his own voice and there were further techno-sessions where a voice specialist, using a fibre-optic probe, showed how one singer’s vocal cords coped with these upper flights. Good on yer, BBC.


  1. "Evening Hymn" Henry Purcell

  2. In a village not far from Tunbridge Wells called I think Broughton Aluph lived and is still celebrated the great counter tenor, Alfred Deller.

  3. Anon: Thanks a million. I assume you tracked this down via I-Player, I did try by other means but failed.

    Anyway it was reassuring to confirm, twenty-fours later, the impressions I'd absorbed very casually the night before. That there is no flutiness in Davies's voice, that he easily over-vaults any oddness about counter-tenors, and that he has a wonderful talent for lingering emotion. En passant let's all raise our caps to good old Henry who was writing pops back in the 1600s that are still as fresh and original as they were four hundred years ago.

    To anyone who has doubts about counter-tenors, take advantage of Anon's timely link and click on:


    Plutarch: For a long time you would have thought that Deller was the only counter-tenor in existence.