06 July 2014

Maybe not Richard Tauber, but I can do you a decent P. J. Proby.

Over at his blog Bobwords my friend Bob writes about the joys of joining a choir. There is a shortage of men signing up, he says, and tenors are hard to come by.

Years ago I decided to join the choir at Toowoomba Philharmonic (or it might’ve been the Choral Society). I turned up on the night they were starting to rehearse an oratorio of Handel. It was Solomon or Samson or Saul, one of those cats with the initial “S”.

At the door the book monitor said, “What are you?” This was open to interpretation, but all I could think of was Bob Hudson's Newcastle SongThis nine foot tall Hell's Angel came out of the Parthenon milk bar, looked at Norm and said Arr, what are ya?

When I looked baffled, he said, “Tenor, baritone, bass…?”

I’d always fancied myself as a tenor in the mould of Richard Tauber: I could sing along with his records, no worries. I could also do a fair impression of P.J. Proby, who is probably a baritone, but I didn't mention that. On this occasion it seemed more fitting to go for Richard Tauber.

Affecting confidence so I wouldn’t look silly, I said, “Oh, right! I’m a tenor.”

He gave me a little hardcover book, the score, and pointed me to four or five blokes sitting together: the tenors.

When we started singing, I had never heard such highly pitched adult male voices, except in recordings of countertenors or Alvin & The Chipmunks, and they weren't using falsetto. I was able to follow the score, and join in up to a point, but beyond that point I had no hope. It hurt me physically, in my head, to get anywhere close to those notes. This was nothing like Richard Tauber’s range, at least as I knew it from his hit recordings.

Someone I told about this recently suggested that, back in the day, this part might have been intended for countertenors. Forgive me, I'm not really up for researching The Voice in Baroque Choral Music in depth, so I can't expand on that. In the following days, though, when telling people about my experience, I did slip ungraciously into using the word “eunuchs”. Pejoratively. Sorry. It was my disappointment talking.

I couldn't see myself going back and confessing that I didn’t know what I was after all.

Before the next rehearsal, I took the score and skulked down our street to the house of another choir member. I was glad to find that he was out, so I was able to ask his wife to pass it on so he could take the score back to the book monitor, and that was that.

The Wikipedia article on the Tenor seems to be well put together, and it doesn't carry any warnings about Wiki-non-compliance, so I'll risk using it as my source. It agrees with Bob: one nearly ubiquitous facet of choral singing is the shortage of tenor voices, and some men are asked to sing tenor even if they lack the full range.

It also reveals that my embarrassment was based partly on a lack of research. Seven varieties of the tenor voice are listed and described (Tauber is there under Lyric tenor).

I'm reassured by this: in some styles of music, tenor parts may be taken by light baritones singing in falsetto. I reckon P.J. Proby and I could both handle that.