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John Potter, Tenor: History of a Voice.

John Potter, Tenor: History of a Voice. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. Cloth, xi, 305 pp., $35.00. ISBN 978-0-300-11873-5. www.yale

Billed as the first comprehensive volume on the subject, Tenor: History of a Voice, offers an expansive account of the high male voice from its earliest roots to its current exponents. The volume is both a history of the voice type, and a list of noteworthy tenors. The chronicle is sweeping. John Potter begins in the medieval period, when there were no designations for different voice types, and adeptly traces the tenorial thread through the fabric of music history. The first individuals of note are Leonin and Perotin of the Notre Dame School; in addition to being the first named composers, the music they wrote for their own performance suggests they may have been tenors. The volume follows the tenor through the warp and weft of the tenorista of the ars nova to the birth of opera at the end of the sixteenth century. Peri, credited with writing the first opera, also has the distinction of being one of the earliest named tenor soloists, thereby forever and inextricably linking the voice type to the operatic form.

As opera evolved and the popularity of the castrati increased, the role of the tenor was diminished. Potter vividly illustrates the change with the operas of Monteverdi: in Orfeo of 1607, the composer chose a tenor to play the title role, but thirty-five years later his last opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea, featured a the main character (Nero) sung by a castrato. The author pursues the voice through time and geography: here in Austria, with Mozart and his favorite tenor Valentin Adamberger; there in France, with Duprez's high C in chest and the tragic consequences when his colleague Nourrit attempted to adopt a similar technique. The importance of the Italian tenor permeates the book, but Potter does not overlook other national styles (including those of France, Russia, and the British Isles), and devotes chapters to the Heldentenor and the romantic tenor hero.

Potter presents summaries of the lives and careers of noteworthy tenors; the information is neither extensive nor ground breaking, but it affords the reader an overview of the roster. (An augmented listing of tenors at the end of the book is a convenient reference.) His descriptions of the singers are studies in diplomacy; for instance, Pavarotti, who lacked music reading skills, is tactfully described as "never completely at home with staff notation." The only exception to Potter's penchant for nicety is in regard to recording. The preface states the history is divided into two parts: prerecording and postrecording singers. The dichotomy is not apparent in the organization of the book, but the author notes those singers--such as Caruso--whose careers were aided by recordings. "It was his supreme good luck to mature as recording technology first become widely available," writes Potter, "... but before electrical recording and the microphone reduced the need for singers to be completely self-sufficient vocally" (italics added). In another section, the author is critical of the rush to market personable young tenors who have little experience with strictly acoustic performance. While neither statement can be categorized as a stinging indictment, they are nevertheless criticisms of singers who rely upon the microphone rather than technique.

The research is thorough and well documented. The implications of different pitch standards (A 440 was not adopted as standard pitch until 1975), the thorny issue of registers, and the role of the Italian army in nurturing some remarkable tenors (such as Caruso and Martinelli), are only a few of the peripheral issues discussed in the volume. Potter touches upon technical issues when they are germane to the discussion at hand. He notes, for instance, the importance of the lowered larynx in Duprez's singing, and observes that tenors who studied with sopranos often display a facility moving into their high range. The book, however, is not a history of tenorial pedagogy; instead, it is an extended case study that traces the development of the contemporary tenor via its progenitors, from Machaut to Melchior, and Perotin to Pavarotti. Potter illuminates the impact of the changing musical and dramatic tastes upon the voice type, as well as the influence of tenors upon composers and audiences. Tenor: History of a Voice is a absorbing account recommended for anyone with an interest in classical singing.
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Author:Greschner, Debra
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2010
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