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Here we have a 400-page collection of essays written by conductor/scholar Andrew Parrott between 1977 and the present decade. So there is very little new material. For instance, the four Monteverdi essays (amounting to 90 pages) are merely ‘brought together for the first time’, whereas the postscript to Chapter 15 is from 2014. other sections deal with Purcell, Bach (the recurring debate regarding choir-size) and Machaut.

The first three chapters, which occupy nearly 150 pages, are concerned with 1) the general question of how to realise composers’ intentions; 2) a survey of the ‘anatomy’ of choirs through the ages – voice-types, female voices, added instruments, etc – and what the term ‘choir’ signified before the currently understood meaning of the word evolved; and 3) a study of the countertenor voice (entitled ‘Falsetto Beliefs’). This last topic occupies 100 pages and covers ‘the uncertain pedigree of today’s countertenor’.

It must be said that specialist interest in these musical topics is essential for full appreciation of Parrott’s writings – this book is not for the general reader. Indeed, I often felt that such close, detailed and lengthy argument would sit more comfortably within the environs of a musicological seminar. (indeed, chapter 6 began as a paper presented at a University of London conference.) Parrott’s challenging of received ideas and his clarification of the muddle surrounding different voice-types such as haute-contre, countertenor and falsetto (in the chapter Falsetto Beliefs) are very welcome. However, the 90 pages of writing on Monteverdi – regarding downward transposition – draw us into deep waters. Parrott includes a table of ‘no fewer than 100 documented cases of the explicit link between high-clef notation and transposition’ writing that ‘this might reasonably be thought to settle the matter’.

Here I feel readability is often sacrificed in favour of controversy between the author and Roger Bowers, ending with ‘a short critique of further thoughts from Bowers’. All this manifests an admirably high degree of scholarship but I confess that I grew weary of personal disagreements and self-justification and sometimes wished for a rather broader, more objective approach.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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