The art of the countertenor

Thomas Morley, 1557-1602

Thomas Morley, 1557-1602

This Sunday, April 10th, the LCH Choir will be singing “Out of the deep” by English Renaissance composer, Thomas Morley (1557-1602) which will feature Carl Crosier singing an extended countertenor solo. A countertenor is a man who uses his head voice (falsetto) to sing notes in the alto range. Some men are natural baritones while others are tenors who extend their range into the treble.

When Carl was a young boy, he sang many solos in church and his mother used to tell me that he had a “voice as clear as a bell.” He used to laugh at the sopranos in his church choir who struggled to sing the high notes while he sang an octave above them! He could easily sing a high ‘G’ above high ‘C.’

When his voice changed, though, he focused on learning the piano and in fact, claims that he found it difficult to match pitch. (I find that hard to believe!) He could sightread just about anything on the keyboard but “couldn’t read his way out of a wet paper bag” (his words) as a singer. And then he moved to Hawaii and became the organist of the Lutheran Church of Honolulu.

One of the first projects the choir took on was a recreation of Martin Luther’s Formula Missae. When Carl volunteered to sing the highest part in the all-male mass setting by Josquin des Pres, he found that instead of getting tired, his voice got stronger and stronger. Very early on, he went to local voice teacher, Neva Rego, who had never worked with a countertenor before, but decided to treat it like any other voice.

The countertenor voice was not new to Carl, having heard Peter Hallock and other men sing in this range at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle at Compline. Peter Hallock, in fact, replaced famous Alfred Deller in the Canterbury Cathedral Choir in England, and Deller is credited with the resurgence of the countertenor in the 20th century. In Hawaii, there is a whole tradition of male falsetto singing, and of course, we have countertenors in the LCH Compline Choir to sing the top part.

Over these many years, Carl has sung many countertenor solos in the services as well as in concerts. What has been challenging for him is to conduct the orchestra, let’s say the opening movement of a cantata, which sometimes can be quite energetic, THEN turn around and sing an alto recitative and aria. After conducting a vigorous chorus, he would be almost breathless, and then have to turn around and sing? But the reason he sang so many alto solos was that he felt there wasn’t a local mezzo-soprano who could sing Baroque arias stylistically, so he did it by default.

Carl and I are shown with Dana Marsh and a girlfriend.

Carl and I are shown with Dana Marsh and a girlfriend.

In 1993, our friend Dana Marsh (another countertenor and a student of Peter Hallock), came to Hawaii and he and Carl sang a whole concert in the LCH courtyard called “The Art of the Countertenor,” with countertenor solos as well as duets.

Someone even speculated that Carl would sing the alto solos in the Bach Mass in B Minor! Now, that would really be a stretch, wouldn’t it?! I’m afraid not!!

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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