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Contratenor

Contratenor
(Lat.: ‘against the tenor’).
The name given in the 14th and early 15th centuries to a polyphonic line composed in the same
range as the Tenor. The practice of writing a part ‘against the tenor’ superseded the typical 13th-
century process of adding parts above a tenor line. The first theoretical mention of the word
‘contratenor’ occurs in the treatise In arte motetorum (CS, iii, 88; 14th–15th century), and
its earliest known appearance in a musical source is in a fragmentary motet manuscript of
between 1315 and 1319 from the cloister of S Giorgio Maggiore, Venice (facs. in Quadrivium,
ix (1968), table 1). The innovatory practice of adding a contratenor to a tenor is interestingly
revealed in two motets (Vos quid admiramini/Gratissima/Gaude gloriosa and
Impudenter circuivi/Virtutibus laudabilis) by Philippe de Vitry (1291–1361), which may
be performed either with a conventional single-line tenor (‘tenor solus’) or with the same part
ingeniously rewritten in the new manner as two lines, ‘tenor’ and ‘contratenor’.
In late 14th- and early 15th-century works with borrowed tenors (motets, isorhythmic motets
and tenor masses) the cantus firmus appears in long note values, while the added contratenor
moves with rather more rhythmic flexibility, often assuming the chief responsibility for providing
the harmonic foundation (e.g. Dunstaple’s Preco preheminencie). In a typical three-voice
chanson of the period the tenor and contratenor parts are both more active (though usually not
as florid as the superius). The tenor, no longer prius factus, still shows signs of having been
written at least bar by bar in advance of the contratenor in so far as it usually forms perfect
intervals with the top voice (e.g. Du Fay’s Belle, veulliés moy retenir).
The technique of conceiving a tenor part first and then adding another line, or lines, against it
persisted after about 1450, when the contratenor split into two parts, the Contratenor altus and
the contratenor bassus; it is still reflected in Pietro Aaron’s instructions ‘Del modo del
comporre il controbasso, et controalto doppo il tenore et canto’ (Il Thoscanello de la
musica, 1523, bk 2, chap.21). In the generation of Josquin Des Prez, as composers began to
stratify more clearly the ranges of voices in polyphony and, in particular, as they became
interested in the art of imitative counterpoint, the term ‘contratenor’ and the compositional
approach that went with it became obsolete. For further information see D. Hoffmann-Axthelm:
‘Contratenor’ (1973), HMT.
OWEN JANDER

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Contratenor altus

Contratenor altus
(Lat.: ‘high [part] against the tenor’).
A line in polyphony lying just above the tenor. In the 15th century, as music came to be written
in four rather than only three voices, composers approached the addition of the fourth voice by
an extension of earlier compositional procedure. The most common arrangement of three
voices had been superius (or cantus), tenor and Contratenor; in the new four-voice texture the
composer used two contratenor parts, a contratenor bassus and a contratenor altus.
The original method of writing these two voice parts is still evident in Pietro Aaron’s Il
Thoscanello de la musica (1523), where ten rules set out ‘the method of composing the
controbasso and the controalto, after the tenor and canto’ (bk 2, chap.21). In Italy
‘contratenorbassus’ was abbreviated to ‘bassus’, ‘controbasso’ or ‘basso’; ‘contratenor altus’
became ‘altus’, ‘controalto’, ‘contr’alto’, ‘contralto’ or ‘alto’. In France the term became Haute-
contre. English usage was complicated because even in the late 16th century (by which time
the word ‘contratenor’ had long been obsolete on the Continent) an alto part might also be
called a meane, a contra, a counter or a Countertenor. Morley’s A Plaine and Easie
Introduction (1597), for example, discusses four-part writing with the designations ‘treble’,
‘counter’, ‘tenor’ and ‘bass’.
Whereas in the 15th century the contratenor bassus was distinctly the lowest of the four
voices in range, the contratenor altus still shared the same range as the tenor, roughly c to
g'. In the 16th and 17th centuries, as the contratenor altus assumed the verbal forms just
cited, the range gradually became higher (sometimes as high as f to c''), depending on the type
of singers employed. Singers who were able to perform in the range between the tenor and the
top voice (superius, cantus, soprano) were of five types, and the particular choice varied not
only from period to period, but from region to region – even from choir to choir, or, later, from
one production of an opera to a later revival. The first type of alto-range singer was the man
with an extremely high natural voice. Unusually high tenors of this sort have always been rare,
and highly prized. Burney, for example, described one William Turner (1651–1740) as ‘a
counter-tenor singer, his voice settling to that pitch: a circumstance which so seldom happens
naturally that if it be cultivated, the singer is sure of employment’ (History, iii, pp.459f). The
second type was the falsettist – a man with an ordinary tenor, baritone or even bass voice, who
could readily sing Falsetto in the alto range. Falsetto singing has been the most common
source of alto voices in all-male choirs throughout the history of Western music. Because it was
professionally advantageous for tenors to cultivate the uppermost ranges of their voices, they
became adept in moving back and forth from falsetto to natural tone with little or no break; as a
result it is sometimes impossible to determine whether certain singers were in fact basically
falsettists or tenors with naturally high voices. A third type was the boy alto; most boys are
sopranos, and boy altos with strong voices tend to be rare. Fourth, there was the Castrato with

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Contratenor altus

a low range, common only among Italian singers during the 17th and 18th centuries. Finally
there was the female Contralto, who arrived late in the history of choral music because of the
church’s opposition to the participation of women in ecclesiastical rites.
OWEN JANDER

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