Charles Vincenti

The Tenor Voice - Part 1

After we were presented with very interesting information about the phenomenon of the Castrati by Alan Scerri, 2 weeks ago, this week we again take up the topic of the operatic voice with an article in two parts focusing on the tenor voice. The article is by Mr. Charles Vincenti, a tenor himself.

Before the sixteenth century, tenor simply referred to the voice and the line of music that it sang. In the sixteenth century, the falsettisti (natural altos) and the tenorini were used for sacred polyphonic music. However, by the middle of the seventeenth century, they were substituted by the evirati or musici (castrati). These were first employed in the Sistine Chapel choir way back in 1586 by the Papal Bull of Pope Sixtus V, authorising the engagement of four castrati in the choir.

The history of the tenor voice goes back to the beginning of opera in the early seventeenth century. In this new genre, the tenor voice progressed as a soloist because many tenors were also composers. Jacopo Peri, singer-composer, was known for his sensitive singing, extreme virtuosity and the ability to give life to the text. He invented the recitative through which he ‘would have moved to tears any heart of stone’.1 Peri insisted on the singers to improve on the composer’s work by adding ornamentation to the drama. Through his endeavour the tenor became an important narrative voice.

Another singer-composer was Giulio Caccini.2 For him, singing meant ‘speaking in tones’.3 He insisted on the rhythms of poetry and the expression of phrases over metrical rhythm. His Le nuove musiche contains a very elaborate and detailed description of the art of vocal ornamentation. Contrary to Peri, he insisted that his scores had the necessary information thus affirming a total control over his music and the singers. Importance was given to expression and virtuosity and not to sound quality.


  • John Potter, Tenor: History of a Voice. (London: Yale University Press, 2010), 13.
  • Together with Peri, he took part in the first performance of Peri’s Euridice in 1600.
  • John Potter, Tenor: History of a Voice. (London: Yale University Press, 2010), 14.

Taken over by the castrati, the tenor voice declined and was given secondary roles such as kings and character roles. This decline can be seen in the late opera of Monteverdi, L’incoronazzione di Poppea, where the principal role of Nero is for a castrato, and it continued in the works of Francesco Cavalli and Giacomo Carissimi’s cantatas.

In France, the tenor voice took a different turn. When Caccini went to France in 1604, he encouraged Italian singing. The French tenor Pierre de Nyert became interested and passed his knowledge to his student, the tenor Bénigne de Bacilly. During this period, the French haute-contre, high tenor, was thriving. There was also the taille, a voice for ordinary tenor roles. Most of Lully’s and Rameau’s operas use the haute-contre tenor. However, the castrato voice was not popular in France. The French tradition gave great importance to text and a characteristic French sound was developed according to the needs of the French language. Singers added elegant ornamentation in a slight way that did not endanger the quality of the language. Bacilly’s treatise Remarques curieuses sur l’art de bien chanter (1668) is an insight into the singing practices of the time.

In the second part of his article on the tenor voice, Mr. Charles Vincenti starts off by telling us how the tenor fared in England. 

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