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Tune in Tenor or Treble?

The reasons for composers' and compilers' placing of the air in the tenor in the eighteenth century, and the subsequent change of fashion, may be followed in the following quotation. In 1821 James Carlisle explains the practices thus:

"In the older collections of music for public worship, the air is uniformly given to the tenor voices, obviously because it was expected that the voices of the men would predominate in congregations. Two parts were thus placed above the air, namely the 1st Treble [soprano] and Counter Tenor [alto], and the Bass below it. This arrangement was intended as well to give effect to the small proportion of voices that could be expected to sing any other part than the air, and thus to cause the harmony added to the air to be felt, where parts placed between the air and the bass would have been lost in the overpowering loudness of the former.

Modern composers of sacred music have usually reversed the order, and have arranged the parts as for a regular choir, in which the strength of every part may be kept in just proportion to the rest, and having [sic] given the air or tune to the 1st treble, thus placing all the other parts under it. But this arrangement, while it is doubtless best for a choir, is altogether unsuitable for congregations in which the whole body of the people are expected to unite in singing. ... Those musicians, therefore, who adopt this arrangement of the parts ... attempt to silence the great body of the people, and to confine the singing of the praises of God to select choirs."

We know that that the practice of quires' placing the air in the tenor continued well into the 19th century from observations such as that of G. Gay in 1827:

Being anxious to obtain some knowledge of the sciences, of which music was my chief delight, I began to study such books as Providence laid in my way, and ... was much staggered in finding that the treble was the principal part, while our choir (as did the whole county round) made the tenor the chief melody! ... I was afraid of innovation, till I met with [the composer John] Broderip, and Handel's works, when I became satisfied of the error: but still found ... much difficulty in persuading the choir that their system was wrong."


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