The History of Men and Women Singing in the Church – The Divine Reflection in Natural Acoustics
I am going to lose some readers after this post.
Recently I had to leave a cantoring job that I loved because I was being asked to do some things with my time and my voice, I was not comfortable with. One of these requests was to sing “straight tone.” In case you don’t know, “straight tone” is a style of singing in which the singer manipulates the vocal tract in such a way as to eliminate all-natural vibrato in the voice. VIBRATO is defined as:
a rapid, slight variation in pitch, producing a stronger or richer resonance.
Straight tone singing is most popular in early music styles from the Baroque and Renaissance, and in contemporary pop-style singing.
Music Directors and choral conductors who request it, are trying to use the human instrument that God made to manipulate a certain kind of “sound” or “effect.” Just the mention of these words makes my skin bristle. The voice makes its own sound. Sorry, but God made the human voice, not you. As far as I know, it was designed to only work one way. Everything else, done in the name of, “a better sound” is a manipulation. Please stop trying to impose your personal, historical or even intellectual constraints on His instrument.
That will be sixty dollars please…
We need to stop looking backwards.
Because back there. It’s not all a bed of silk and daisies. Some of it is bad. Really bad . . .
So, to edify the common man, who might innocently be getting sucked into the bottomless pit that is the “traditionalist” constantly pointing backwards for Christ’s Church … for a moment, let’s go back to the Renaissance, shall we?
Ah the Renaissance. I love it when purists start waxing eloquently about how we shouldn’t be singing any music composed after the Renaissance. Because that’s when they had it right. Polyphony. Yes. That was perfect pure music. Polyphony will save the world.
No. Jesus will save the world. (He already did)
Polyphony will save the liturgy. . .
Um, no. Jesus will save His liturgy. (He doesn’t need to. He’s still running His Church.)
Brace yourself. You may not know this, but once upon a time in the oh-so-perfect Renaissance, women were not supposed to sing in church. Sounds silly, I know, but remember that as late as the time of Shakespeare, female roles in theatrical productions were not to be performed by women. That’s right, our ancient heroines from Juliette to Cleopatra were all performed by men in drag. . . . it’s true. Here’s a very cool document about women and singing in the Church.
So, what could the musicians of the time do? Acoustics (better known as God Himself), had dictated that the soprano voice would carry best over a crowd of people. But mankind in his arrogance, prohibited women from singing. They needed voices that could sing in the higher octaves. Since the women were not allowed to. . . .
Enter the young boys. Young males, before they pass the changes of puberty, actually sing in a soprano voice, very much like a woman’s voice. We call them “Boy Sopranos.” Today most boys don’t like being called that, so we call them Trebles – or in my choir, we call them “Troubles.”
But boys were a problem, because no sooner had you gotten them trained and able to sing difficult music, than they hit puberty and bye-bye off to play whatever football was in the Renaissance. Also, a boy soprano voice, though lovely, is not nearly strong enough to balance a large group of fully grown singing men. You need at least double the number of boys.
If only they could have captured the soprano quality of the young boy voice and kept it in the strong fully grown body of a mature man . . . Ugg.
That’s exactly what they did. Since it so abhors me, I can only ask you to click these links to reveal a horrific practice known as castration that took place for centuries.
Yeah. We did that. Ick. But we certainly needed those castrati to keep up with our “no women singing in church” weirdo thing. According the records, the Church publicly condemned castration, but loved hiring castrati. So, we had no problem hiring them…for a couple centuries… Ah how the Devil cleverly leads us from one small sin into another bigger, and bigger and bigger until, as CS Lewis described in Screwtape, ‘we’ve got everything backwards’ and like contemporary culture preaches, abortion is holy and chastity a sin. . .
In case you are curious, one of these castrati did survive into the recordings era and we have one recording of the last castrato singing the Ave Maria. First, you would probably swear that it is a woman singing. It is not. The voice is very strong, as the singer uses both head and chest, though he doesn’t seem to have any middle voice or mix between the two. I seem to remember that this recording was made when he was quite old, so that might also explain the break.
You’ll notice that the singer has very little vibrato in his large and powerful head voice. That’s because boy Sopranos (and castrati) generally don’t have very much vibrato in their tone. Vibrato is a natural occurrence of acoustics when a mature vocal track is relaxed and open above good breath support. Relaxed and open. We don’t make vibrato. God made vibrato . . . we MAKE straight tone.
Let me say that again:
God made vibrato.
Man makes straight tone.
As the centuries have passed, the “purists” in the Church music world are asking more and more for “straight-tone singing” from their choirs, soloists and even congregants. Especially now, as a reaction against Vatican II and all the absurdities that followed in its wake. The request almost always comes from choral directors and organists, NOT vocal pedagogues (teachers), unless they are teaching the contemporary style of singing used in pop songs and current musical theater. Generally speaking, teachers of healthy, natural singing, do not propagate straight tone, or try to develop it in their students unless for an occasional affectation or particular piece. In general, good teachers try to find the voice God made, and that, most often, naturally comes with some vibrato.
I love that word: “man”-ipulation.
Made by man’s weird desire to make things “sound” the way he wants.
The request to sing straight tone is based in a century’s old custom of castrating young boys and denying women the gift of singing in worship.
We need to let straight tone go.
It’s not holy.
In fact, it’s pretty sick, no matter how you look at it.
Not everything that came from the Renaissance is “holy.” Not everything that we did centuries ago is “better.” Sometimes, just studying the “science” and going with God’s plan for us and our bodies is really the “holier” thing to do. God made us man and woman. God also made vibrato. Therefore, it’s not a bad thing, and if we all sang with our relaxed voices vibrating as He made them to, well, then we wouldn’t hear any one person.
I for one, refuse to “constrain” the voice He gave me, because some people around me have decided how they want my voice to sound. I’ll be using my voice, thank you. The one, and only one, God made in me, with the natural vibrato He built into my body when he designed me at my conception.
Can we please just agree to let the women sing like women
and the men sing like men?
Now, just in case there are a couple looney bins reading this, who think the whole “no women should sing” thing was another brilliant idea. . . How do we know that God wanted the women singing in church?
Remember back at the beginning of this, I talked about how the human ear can much more easily discern the higher notes, or the soprano voice than the lower bass notes? Well, God made that ear. It’s like He’s saying “Let my women sing. You will be able to hear better.”
Let My women sing. You will be able to hear better.
What a message. Does this set up of acoustics not naturally reflect the beautiful design of the family life and home? Let My women sing. The woman daily guides her children and her family, teaching them the faith in the tiniest of details, bringing the beauty to their lives, carrying the torch of our story, the “melody” of faith. The woman is really the star in the production of the family. Just by her nature.
And the man. Sings the bass, the rock, the lowest tones, the foundation of all tonal harmony. The bass is the most important voice in the harmonic structure of music. Without a bass, you simply have a pretty tune, but add the bass and you suddenly have a thousand harmonic colors, a hidden depth behind the melody that ties it all into a cohesive beauty. Together, Soprano and Bass form melody and harmony. Each serving the other, playing beautifully alongside one another, constantly moving together, sometimes contrasting, but always complimenting, always resounding in fruitful waves.
[For the purposes of this analogy, I just have to add that the “inner voices” might represent the humblest of souls, those who have chosen a life of service, or solitude with God: a religious vocation. Alto and Tenor. They are in the center, at the heart of God’s plan. They fill out the harmonies to their lushest potential, but they are always hidden on the “inside” of Christ’s heart. They turn the song into the Feast that is the gift of our Catholic faith from Christ to us.]
I love being Catholic. . . sigh
Let My women sing.
And support them. Support them with the very depth of yourself, your chest voice, your manly, deep, resonant, and powerful sound. Uphold her, sustain her melody, love her like Christ loved His Church. And let her sing with the voice He gave her.