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Women tenors and basses - a brief introduction

How were the tenor and bass vocal parts performed at the Pietà in Vivaldi's day?

It has usually been assumed that women could not sing low enough, and several alternative theories have been proposed:

  1. the “invisible men” theory
    Male maestri, or men from choirs outside the Pietà, sang tenor and bass behind the scenes. However, surviving pictures and documents do not support this, and several of the women are named “dal Tenor”, or in one case, “dal Basso”.

  2. the “instrumental” theory
    The lower parts were played on instruments, such as cellos (there were many cellists at the Pietà). Although possible from a purely musical point of view, this overlooks the liturgical significance of words, especially in contrapuntal textures, where their absence would be obvious.


  3. the “eye music” theory
    A variant on the “instrumental” theory – it was sufficient for the notated lower parts to be seen (by the musicians) and not heard. See (2) above.

  4. the “chiavetti” theory
    The pitch was raised by substitution of different clefs. There is no evidence that this earlier practice continued into the Baroque era, when voices were usually accompanied by instruments, many of which survive to this day and were clearly played at “normal” pitch (A~440Hz in 18th century Venice).

  5. the “octave transposition” theory
    The bass (and perhaps tenor) parts were transposed up an octave, as was the practice of Porpora, Pampani and others at the neighbouring Ospedaletto. Whilst this is possible in chordal textures, especially when the bass is doubled by instruments, it can be confusing in contrapuntal music. And it assumes that women cannot reach the lowest notes.

Test your own vocal range

Vivaldi's Women challenge the cultural stereotype which assumes that female voices are naturally high and that it is wrong for them to sing low. To determine your lowest note, hum slowly down the scale until the pitch becomes uncertain – then try one note higher than this.  

Here are the first two choral phrases of Vivaldi's Laetatus sum, giving the names of four of Vivaldi's singers with whom you might identify. Try to imagine that you entered the Pietà as an illegitimate girl, and are simply known by your first name and your instrument or voice (e.g. Cecilia dal Contralto, Silvia dal Violin); Apollonia was so famous that only her first name was used.

As an experiment, try each part in turn: soprano, contralto, tenor and finally bass. Remember that pitch in 18th century Venice was similar to today's (A=440) or a little higher, so there is no need to sing a semitone lower at so-called "baroque pitch" (A=415). Most women can sing the tenor part quite easily, and some can manage the bass except for the low G2; even this is possible for a small number of gifted singers. The bass line was always doubled by continuo instruments, so the low voices are never left exposed. In scores by some of Vivaldi's Pietà contemporaries an alternative bass note is sometimes given an octave higher - the low G2 of the bass part below, for example.

Laetatus Sum

Vivaldi's Women Female Vocal Range Survey

Our recent survey (sample: 132 women aged 14-80) suggests that about 20% of women are capable of singing tenor, and 2% could sing bass (down to F2 or lower, see below). In current western vocal teaching female voices are usually trained upwards - women's speaking voices are typically just a fifth to an octave higher than mens', but in singing most teachers concentrate on the head register, so that the difference appears much greater (if men developed their countertenor registers the situation would appear very different!). At the high end of the voice we see that 20% of women can sing a high B5 and 2% a top G6 ("in alt"). Vocal range and vocal quality are not the same thing, of course; women who normally sing alto or even soprano may be able to manage the tenor range, whilst others with a more "masculine" sonority may not.

bellcurve

The residents of the Pietà in Vivaldi's day

Priora Meneghina’s inventory of Maestre e Figlie di Choro dated 24 May 1718 lists 59 musicians, of whom 26 were singers (some of these were also instrumentalists):

  • 2 “singers” (voice unspecified)
  • 9 sopranos
  • 8 contraltos
  • 1 "contralto tenor" (Lugretia)
  • 5 tenors
  • 1 bass

This is just one piece of evidence of musical practice at the Pietà. We should remember that the name ("dal Tenor" etc.) specifies only the woman's primary instrument or voice. There were many named sopranos, contraltos, violinists, cellists and organists. Violinists may also have played the viola or viola d'amore, and wind players normally played several instruments. These musicians were nothing if not versatile and could switch voice or instrument as the music demanded. The data has to be interpreted in conjunction with known musical requirements of the time: no woman is named as a trumpeter, and Anna is the only named bass, though Vivaldi's scoring sometimes requires a trumpet or two bass singers, for example, as does that of Porta (1726-37) and Porpora (1742). We believe that the women operated a "shift" system, not all performing at the same time. Little is known of the old Pietà church (the present building dates from 1745, four years after Vivaldi's death); it probably resembled the church of the Ospedaletto, and the galleries would scarcely have accommodated the whole coro at once.

Singing the lowest notes

case study: Porpora “Magnificat a due cori” (Pietà, 1742)

Interestingly, this piece dates from the year of Anna dal Basso's death. Vivaldi had died in 1741, and Porpora was maestro di coro for just one year. This is just one example of "ossia" notes in the bass (shown in red) -

ossia

Contemporary accounts

As well as Anna dal Basso we know of at least two other Venetian women basses:

  • Venice, July 1687 (from the journal "Pallade Veneta") about Maria Anna Ziani, from the Mendicanti: “although a woman, she is endowed naturally with a male voice, but one that is so tender and full, and of such a sweet tone, that she sings baritone with enough grace to transport and captivate the minds of her listeners.” (Michael Talbot - Venetian Music in the Age of Vivaldi).

  • Venice, September 1758  (from a nobleman’s diary): this refers to the death of a woman in her eighties, also from the Mendicanti, named Anna Cremona and described as a “distinguished bass singer.”

- click here to see an example of a female bass/tenor/contralto trio on YouTube

text and musical examples © 2009 Richard Vendome