In a standard choral piece with four parts, the alto line is the second-highest – lower than the soprano line, but higher than the tenor and bass parts. The alto line is usually sung by one or more of three types of singer: mezzo-sopranos or contraltos (both female, one slightly higher and one slightly lower) or countertenors (male). Today, we tend to see and hear female altos more than male ones. The female alto voice can be many things, including gentle, motherly, dramatic, nurturing, plummy and radiant. But further back in history, choral altos were mostly men – and in cathedrals they generally still are. That may be why the word ‘alto’, meaning ‘high’ in Italian, has been used: alto is the highest adult male voice. Male alto voices too can range from comforting to heroic.
The alto line can be a fascinating and rewarding line to sing, because it often provides the colour in the musical tapestry; a change of note in the alto line can alter the music from light to dark. There are choral pieces that make a real feature of the alto sound, even though it is between other parts – Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius or Brahms’s A German Requiem, for example. The alto singers in a choir are often responsible for making the sound warm and grounded.
Female alto voices have been used in many different ways by composers of opera. The heroines are often sopranos; lower-voiced heroines, when they do appear, tend to be fairly complex or quirky characters, such as Bizet’s Carmen or Britten’s Lucretia. Otherwise, the mezzo-soprano or contralto singer plays a ‘supporting’ role as the heroine’s friend or sidekick, such as Suzuki in Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, or a ‘character’ role, such as Mother Goose in Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress. Male altos on stage, on the other hand, have tended to be heroic characters such as princes and soldiers: there are many examples of these in Handel’s operas.
Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, ‘Vespers’: 2. Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda (‘Bless the Lord, O My Soul’) (extract)
The alto solo line here infuses Rachmaninov’s hypnotic Vespers with the richness and gravitas that is at its heart. It is underpinned by the lower tenors and basses, and answered by the lighter soprano voices – like angels.
Performers: Latvian Radio Choir; Sigvards Kļava
Taken from Naxos ODE1206-5
J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248: Part III: Schliesse, mein Herze
One of the most extraordinarily tender sections of music ever written. The alto soloist meditates on the Christmas miracle, encircled by radiant stringed instruments; the effect is very warm and comforting.
Performers: Judit Nemeth; Budapest Failoni Chamber Orchestra; Géza Oberfrank
Taken from Naxos 8.550428-30
Brahms: Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53
This piece was written as a wedding gift for Julie, the daughter of composers Clara and Robert Schumann. It describes the yearning of a man, who doesn’t find it easy to make friends, for somebody special.
Performers: Ewa Wolak; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra; Antoni Wit
Taken from Naxos 8.572694
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● What is the vocal line that usually sits below the alto line?
● Which C do altos visit frequently?
● What is the term for a man who sings in the alto range?
● A ‘trouser role’ is when a male part is sung by…?
● Male altos have been employed for many centuries in…?
- A contralto called Susannah Cibber was, at the time of her death in 1766, the highest-paid woman working in English theatre.
- Many boy sopranos who will end up as tenors, baritones or basses once their voices have changed, spend some time singing alto on their way down.
- The word ‘alto’ can also be used to describe instruments; for instance, there are alto flutes, alto recorders, alto saxophones and alto trombones.
- In Cavalli’s opera La Calisto, a male alto is used to play a goat!
- Male alto voices have been used to play otherworldly characters, for instance Oberon, King of the Fairies in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Play More Music!
Here is more music featuring the alto voice. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia (‘The Barber of Seville’): Una voce poco fa
The singer here is playing a character named Rosina in a comic opera revolving around the antics of an enterprising barber in Seville, named Figaro. Rosina is singing about her love for a young man named Lindoro, and vowing that although her guardian Bartolo may object, she will marry Lindoro in the end.
Performers: Ewa Podleś, contralto; Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi
Taken from Naxos 8.553543
Georges Bizet (1838–1875)
Carmen: Act I: L’amour est un oiseau rebelle, ‘Habañera’
Carmen, this opera’s heroine, is a carefree gypsy girl. Here she is teasing her admirers by telling them that she thinks love is just like a rebellious bird – you can’t force it to be constant! The infectious rhythm comes from a Cuban popular dance called the habañera.
Performers: Graciela Alperyn, mezzo-soprano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari
Taken from Naxos 8.660005-07
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Messiah: Part III: Aria: If God be for us, who can be against us?
This aria was originally written for Susannah Cibber, the great 18th-century contralto. The words from the Bible are intended to be immensely comforting, and this effect is reinforced by the use of the alto voice.
Performers: Frances Jellard, contralto; Scholars Baroque Ensemble
Taken from Naxos 8.550667-68
Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Sea Pictures, Op. 37: I. Sea Slumber-Song
In this beautiful poem by Roden Noel, the lapping of the sea is described as a lullaby, and in Elgar’s setting the orchestra represents the waves whilst the singer’s voice brings comfort and somnolence. Yet the ‘isles in elfin light’ suggest something slightly unsettling, too.
Performers: Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Simon Wright
Taken from Naxos 8.557710
Male Altos, or Countertenors
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Messiah: Part II: Aria: He was despised
A piece of two different characters, and so a chance for the countertenor soloist to show off his dramatic range. The desolate opening is soon overtaken by violent drama, as Jesus’ enemies set about him with whips, vividly represented by the violins.
Performers: Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Academy of Ancient Music; Edward Higginbottom
Taken from Naxos 8.570131-32
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
St John Passion, BWV 245: Es ist vollbracht (‘It is fullfilled’)
Another chance for the countertenor to switch quickly from tragic, lilting inevitability to martial heroism, supported by the string instruments.
Performers: James Bowman, countertenor; Collegium Novum; Edward Higginbottom
Taken from Naxos 8.557296-97
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Dichterliebe, Op. 48: No. 7. Ich grolle nicht (‘I bear no grudge’)
The countertenor here is defiant, saying he bears no grudge against his former lover, even though his heart is breaking. Schumann originally wrote this song for a lower male voice, and this is an example of a young countertenor stretching the repertoire available to male altos.
Performers: Yaniv d’Or, countertenor; Dan Deutsch, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.573780
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30: For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour
The poet who wrote these words, Christopher Smart, felt he could see God in all living creatures, however small. Here he is telling us that the male mouse is a brave and heroic creature, because when a cat takes the female mouse, the male mouse stands up to the cat even though he stands no chance of winning.
Performers: Thomas Williams, countertenor; Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge; Iain Farrington, organ; Christopher Robinson
Taken from Naxos 8.554791
Choral Alto Lines
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Symphony of Psalms: I. Psalm 38, verses 13 and 14
This is the first movement of Stravinsky’s ‘choral symphony’, A Symphony of Psalms. After a striking, percussive start by the orchestra (which includes a piano), it is the altos of the choir that enter first at 0.34, singing ‘Exaudi orationem meam, Domine’ which means ‘Hear my prayer, oh Lord’. Their vocal line, powerful and dark, uses only two notes. It is an echo of what the high cellos have just played (0.22–0.34).
Performers: Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft
Taken from Naxos 8.557504
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Schicksalslied (‘Song of Destiny’), Op. 54
The orchestra has a long introduction here before the choir comes in, but at 2.41 comes a lovely demonstration of a long, lyrical line for the alto section. Altos enjoy singing lines like this! The words are by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, and the music is full of warmth and charm.
Performers: Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra; Antoni Wit
Taken from Naxos 8.572694
Anton Bruckner (1824–1896)
Os justi, WAB30
This piece was written to be sung in Linz Cathedral in Austria, which has a very resonant acoustic: this makes loud choral sounds ring and bounce around the building, and sound very dramatic. For this reason, Bruckner builds up the texture to sound more and more dense as the piece goes on – using a theme that is introduced by the altos at 0.55.
Performers: Choir of St Bride’s Church; Robert Jones
Taken from Naxos 8.550956
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Magnificat in D major, BWV 243: Suscepit Israel
This trio comes towards the end of Bach’s Magnificat, and is sung by two soprano parts and and one alto; the alto line comes in second, at 0.04. The words are incredibly tender with some beautiful images. Listen out for the two oboes – the oboists start later than the singers; they’re playing a very old melody that has been associated with these words for many centuries.
Performers: Oxford Schola Cantorum; Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward
Taken from Naxos 8.550763
Robert Parsons (c.1535–1571/2)
The altos are divided into two groups in this haunting and thoughtful hymn to the mother of God, and so the alto sound is very present. The texture is like a labyrinth, or a tapestry, or a shoal of fish, because the lines weave around each other.
Performers: Voces Cantabiles; Barnaby Smith
Taken from Naxos 8.570451