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A listener to Alfred Deller’s 1940s radio broadcasts decried his countertenor voice as ‘just another gimmick thought up by the BBC’. The voice wasn’t a gimmick, but defining it as ‘countertenor’ was an historical faux pas by Michael Tippett, who mistakenly believed Deller’s was the kind of voice ‘for which Purcell had written’. Nonetheless, thanks to Deller’s celebrity, ‘countertenor’, a term which, as Simon Ravens notes, had become ‘virtually obsolete’, re-entered public discourse and today is commonly associated with much early music that was probably composed with other voices in mind.

Such shifts of meaning explain why Ravens insists his scholarly study of what he carefully terms the ‘high male’ voice is not so concerned with what that voice is, as with what it has been – in all its many guises. He traces this history through slippery categories such as ‘alto’, ‘falsetto’ and ‘countertenor’, explicating how their meanings varied in different places and different times, although his main focus remains the classical tradition during the Renaissance and baroque periods in England and continental Europe. Brief ‘Extempore’ sections consider various extra-musical factors, from gender identity to the importance of height, that have affected the production and reception of the voice. It’s a convoluted story, but Ravens unravels it with admirable clarity in this fascinating and impressive book.

Graham Lock Read the full review on Agora Classica


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Early Music Today, 2015 - ©Rhinegold Publishing