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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: September ::
Re: Women's Roles
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1693  Wednesday, 6 September 2000.

[1]     From:   Stuart Manger <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 5 Sep 2000 15:56:54 +0100
        Subj:   SHK 11.1692 Re: Women's Roles

[2]     From:   Geralyn Horton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 05 Sep 2000 12:41:20 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1692 Re: Women's Roles


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stuart Manger <
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Date:           Tuesday, 5 Sep 2000 15:56:54 +0100
Subject: Re: Women's Roles
Comment:        SHK 11.1692 Re: Women's Roles

When this topic came up some years ago, there was a great deal of play
made of the age of puberty / voice breaking etc etc in 'boys', and John
Briggs' comment about what we might call 'late' voice breaking is in
line with what was said then.

He, I am sure will agree, that the pitch of Tudor polyphony is
significantly different and higher than today, such that we do not
actually often enough hear Tudor polyphony sung at pitch by specifically
boy-fronted choirs today. Choristers on the top line would need to be
9-11 roughly to cope with always extendedly developing and sometimes
stratospheric tessiturae eg Mundy, Fayrfax. Such music is very tiring
for boys to sing at the age (today) of 12 / 13, even if the voice
actually stretches that far, but conversely, 9-11 year olds can't really
reach the lower lying parts with any decent tone in the same music
nowadays either, so that the drop in voice-break over the last 400 years
has made a significant difference to what can be written for that
voice.  >From time to time, one does come across boys who can still
manage a very decent trebl/alto line until late 13 / 14, but they are
generally the most professional choristers in cathedral or collegiate or
very good school choirs only. Peer pressure is such that most boys would
drop dead with embarrassment if it was revealed that they could do it
anyway!  OTOH, peer pressure in Tudor times may have been exactly the
other way round if it meant serious employment?

BUT as boys voices approach the break, they very frequently ease down /
drop in pitch to a darker / creamier sound hence more usable as a young
woman's / old man's voice, and then break. BUT some do not 'break' at
all, but slide - hence boys/ young men could go on playing standard
Tudor 'boys' roles' for longer and more seamlessly than one might
imagine. One also assumes that with this later puberty, boys retained an
androgynous look for longer, maybe maintaining a 'younger' face even if
the actual voice was drifting downwards - a mix that is surely perfect
for Tudor stage roles, and so much more economically attractive to
relevant backers / sharers etc in cash-strapped playhouses / stock
companies, who could see a viable apprenticeship lasting well beyond
11/12, and easily extending up to 17 or so - a pointy made in earlier
postings. Practically, I would imagine that this economic argument must
have been far and away the most telling factor in keeping lads on the
strength? if they acquired 'man's' voice and look (Queen shaving aside?)
by 14 (as today) they then might come into direct rivalry with
established crowd and company favourites, and no company is going to
kick a Burbage out for a Sharpe or Pavey, are they? But as John Briggs
obliquely suggests, maybe a 'boy' would  extend his 'boyhood' by using
falsetto until it became impossible. Indeed, in the midst of 'the real
break', however, wobbly boys' voices can certainly NOT manage falsetto
sufficiently controlledly to do Lady Macbeth, or Cleo (hence squeaking /
boy/ my greatness?) at all, thus making such boys both uneconomic and
vocally unpredictable in the high tragic roles?

In that circumstance, would / could contemporary documentation actually
make the distinction crystal clear about actors' ages? Surely not:
recent correspondence to this site has shown that much confusion is
caused to later centuries because the way names were actually written
down on documents seems not an infallible guide to age/status of named
actor - or am I incorrect in believing that?

Stuart Manger

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Geralyn Horton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 05 Sep 2000 12:41:20 -0400
Subject: 11.1692 Re: Women's Roles
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1692 Re: Women's Roles

> From:           John Briggs <
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>the debate over whether Bach used soloists for the soprano
> line in his major choral works.  This is exactly the same question as
> whether 'boys' would have had the experience and maturity to play the
> major Shakespearean female roles.  The present consensus among
> musicologists is that choirboys' voices didn't break until as late as 16
> or 17, as late as the eighteenth century, so that they would have had
> plenty of time to gain the necessary experience and maturity.

Would they?  If artists were mature at 17, why has there never been a 17
year old Lear?  Or a 14 year old Butterfly?  Certainly the inclination
for realism that only casts a 300 pound soprano as Butterfly if a 120
pound one just as good is unavailable would assure that the genius youth
would be greeted with delight. I'm ignorant of most of the evidence: but
I have read (translated) letters in which Bach pleaded with church
authorities to allow him nature women singers instead of boys.

Geralyn Horton, Playwright
Newton, Mass. 02460
<http://www.tiac.net/users/ghorton>
 

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