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I see a recent trend for countertenors to sing the alto parts for Bach's cantata / passion oratorios such as Maarten Engeltjes in Magnificat and Tim Mead in St. Matthew Passion.

Is this recent trend part of trying to be authentic, as those 2 performances used original instruments? Did Bach call specifically for countertenor in his lifetime?

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    Well, we think of it today as "instead of a female alto," but his church choirs were entirely men and boys, so the real question is "adult countertenor or boy"? Although I'm a baroque musician, I'm ashamed to say I can't speak with much authority to this one. Here's a relevant page (see also its "part 1" on sopranos). Pull quote: "Using a countertenor to sing an alto part in Bach is as far from the composer’s intentions as using a woman for a soprano part." Dec 15, 2021 at 19:46
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    To the best of my knowledge, that's true. (See the part 1 about just how rare it is to find a boy who can handle them! Dec 15, 2021 at 20:55
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    @AndyBonner average age of puberty was rather later then, though, so it was probably less rare in those days.
    – phoog
    Dec 16, 2021 at 0:25
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    @AndyBonner I just read both articles thoroughly (great essays, BTW) and it looks like Bach preferred to render Soprano and Alto solo with proficient young boy voices, making it harder for us today as boys break their voices earlier and there are not that many virtuoso boys capable to meet Bach's musical demands. Dec 16, 2021 at 3:02
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    @AndyBonner from your link: "Bach must have met with a few exceptional young alto singers at specific periods in time, though unfortunately history hasn’t retained their names. In 1726 for instance...." As I was falling asleep last night, it occurred to me that this could have been one of Bach's sons, and indeed, his first son, Wilhelm Friedemann, was the right age to have been this alto, having been born on 22 November 1710. I wonder whether we know if he was an alto, however; Johann Sebastian was apparently a soprano as a boy.
    – phoog
    Dec 16, 2021 at 8:23

2 Answers 2

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Bach did not need to specifically call for countertenors, because at the time he was composing, it was a given that all parts were sung by men or boys (unless the piece was specifically composed for girl choir). Soprano and alto parts would be assigned to boys whose voices had not yet changed.

Bach was in Weimar from 1708 – 1717. The list of musicians in the court in 1714 – 1715 includes clearly and only male names for the higher-voices singers.

Johann Philipp Weichardt ..... discant [i.e., high voice]
Johann Christian Gerrmann .... discant
Christian Gerhard Bernhardi .. alto
(Wolff 158, Table 6.2)

Many of Bach's cantatas were written from 1723 – 1729 during his time directing the St. Thomas School's musical activities.

Most of the vocal concertists were found among the alumni [emphasis original] assigned to the first choir, an elite group consisting of the best twelve to sixteen singers. Their entry ages as resident choral scholars varied, but they usually began as thirteen- or fourteen-year-old sopranos, invariably with prior singing experience in other Latin school choirs, and they stayed for maximum of eight years, usually two years per class. Because in the eighteenth century the change of voice occurred later than it does today, many of the boys could sing soprano for several more years. (Wolff 260)


Wolff, Christian. 2000. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. W.W. Norton & Company.

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    The question of boy vs falsettist seems to be quite heated, though. Dec 15, 2021 at 19:47
  • @AndyBonner My understanding is that it was both, depending on the available singers.
    – Aaron
    Dec 15, 2021 at 19:48
  • So even though the Magnificat manuscript says "Soprano" and "Alto" they were sung by men / boys? Even the solo (Recitative & Aria) parts? Do we have a reference to a journal article / book such as the Bach Reader? Dec 15, 2021 at 20:47
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    @GratefulDisciple the idea that "soprano" and "alto" imply female voices is completely anachronistic. Note that none of this applies to Handel's oratorios, however. For example, the first person to perform the role of King Solomon was a woman, Caterina Galli. These are not liturgical works, of course.
    – phoog
    Dec 15, 2021 at 23:57
  • "My understanding is that it was both, depending on the available singers": is that understanding based on any evidence, perhaps accounts of specific performers at specific performances?
    – phoog
    Dec 16, 2021 at 0:27
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Bach was a church musician with a certain budget and certain conditions he had to perform with. That implies an all-male choir and typically male soloists, often adolescents. "Did Bach call for" however is not a question about how the performances were usually made but what Bach did envision or at least would have wanted.

Bach himself did in a number of pieces just ignore performance constraints and expected best-fit replacements. There was his Great Catholic Mass in B minor where a "historically informed practice" would demand it not be performed as all, written in an old rite no longer performed in Catholic churches and certainly not in Protestant ones. There are four-part fugues for solo violin and other works where it takes a lot of performer's judiciousness to arrive at an execution.

A male countertenor would certainly be period-adequate for a Bach performance, but Bach did not employ them ironically (like one would a drag queen). So it's more doing a favor to current audiences who want to imagine reexperiencing what the old audiences witnessed than following Bach's vision in a particularly validated manner.

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  • Great point distinguishing Bach's vision vs. performance limitation. Given the choice in modern times, without "boys only" church rule, and with a choice of 3 color of adult female (soprano,mezzo or alto), adult male countertenor or (God forbid) male soprano castrati, can we infer from surviving letters, scribbles in manuscript, compositional characteristics or inherent artistic tonality/balance, which one Bach would have chosen? Dec 16, 2021 at 1:16
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    What a composer "would do" today is a fraught (though sometimes worthwhile) exercise—would Mozart just be David Bowie? This gets into some of the points that Richard Taruskin likes to make about false "authenticity": the goal of "historically-inspired performance practice" isn't to stage some re-enactment of a historical event. I always say I do baroque performance practice not because it's more "right" but because it's more fun. Dec 16, 2021 at 3:15
  • @AndyBonner "the goal...isn't to stage some re-enactment": sometimes it is, but it is indeed good to remember that it doesn't have to be. I do think that it is more right, but much of that is subjective--and accordeonist Richard Galliano's Bach album is a pleasure to listen to. That's more "right" in my view than some period instrument ensembles I've heard in recent years. Still, the movement came from a desire to get closer to the conditions under which the music was written, and the impossibility of achieving authenticity shouldn't be an excuse for ceasing to be mindful of it.
    – phoog
    Dec 16, 2021 at 8:57
  • @AndyBonner I also wonder whether you're familiar with St. Luke's output. They're one of only two orchestras I know playing on modern instruments that consistently realize stylistic performances of baroque music (in my HIP-biased opinion, of course), the other being The Knights. Modern-instrument performances have definitely been influenced by the baroque specialists (Metropolitan Opera playing Handel, for example). The "more fun" line is a great way to introduce these ideas; I have been using "sounds better," but maybe I'll switch.
    – phoog
    Dec 16, 2021 at 9:13
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    The B-minor mass was composed for the Dresden court of the king (elector) of Saxony, who was a Catholic.
    – fdb
    Jan 4, 2022 at 17:26

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