Soprano

The soprano line is the highest line of a standard choral texture, often carrying the tune and sometimes soaring high above the other parts. In most mainstream choral singing, sopranos are generally adult women; indeed the word normally denotes a high female voice. However, in church and cathedral music this top line has historically been taken by boys with unbroken voices, who are known as trebles. Boy trebles have long played a very important role in this part of the choral world, and they still do; however, in more recent times girls have also taken places in church and cathedral choir stalls, too, and these young girls singing the soprano line are often called girl trebles rather than sopranos.

Adult soprano voices can vary greatly. Some sopranos produce a very pure, glassy, shimmery sound, sometimes known as ‘white sound’ or ‘straight tone’ because there is very little vocal colouring or ‘wobble’ (properly called ‘vibrato’), and this purity is often in demand in very old music. Others use more vibrato to produce a richer, fuller sound.

There is even a small number of adult men – generally known as sopranists – who sing in the soprano register. However, this is very unusual. The word ‘soprano’ is used for several instruments that sit at the top of their respective registers, too – a soprano saxophone, for example, or a soprano recorder.

In opera, soprano voices are divided into different types, which suit particular types of character. A soubrette, for example, is a light voice often used for playing handmaids or young girls; a coloratura soprano is agile and able to spin lots of notes very fast – coloratura sopranos are often found playing heroines; and a dramatic soprano is a heftier voice with a lot of vocal weight and power, and is audible above a big orchestra. Sopranos, therefore, can sound bright, lyrical, creamy, serene, dignified, histrionic and many other things besides.

Play Music!

Play Music!

Allegri: Miserere (extract)

This soaring line has become one of the best-loved moments in the choral repertory. The Miserere is a plangent psalm-setting in which the singers are imploring God for mercy. This section, where the soprano line goes up very high, keeps returning through the piece.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Schola Cantorum of Oxford; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553238

Puccini: Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro (‘Oh my beloved father’)

Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is quite a short opera. This aria is one of Puccini’s best known and best loved. A young girl, Lauretta, is begging her father to reconsider his opinion of the man she wants to marry.

Performers: Maria Luigia Borsi, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra; Yves Abel

Taken from Naxos 8.573412

Stanford: 8 Partsongs, Op. 119: No. 3. The blue bird

Here, a solo soprano sings over the top of a choir. The solo voice helps to describe the flying bluebird, whose reflection we see in a lake.

Performers: Carys-Anne Lane, soprano; Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553088

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 ‘Soprano’ is based on the Latin word ‘superius’, meaning:  

a. Low
b. Highest
c. In the middle

 A boy or girl who sings a soprano line is called a:

a. Child
b. Treble
c. Sopranino

 In a Christmas carol, sopranos might sing a high extra line in the last verse. It is called a:

a. Desk
b. Descant
c. Desert

 In Romantic opera, a soprano will often play the:

a. Heroine
b. Villain
c. Postman

 In choral music, sopranos often sing the tune. This is called:

a. The harmony
b. The bassline
c. The melody


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Salisbury Cathedral was the first English cathedral to recruit girl choristers (in 1991).
  2. A composer called Alfred Schnittke wrote an opera in which the character Mephistopheles, who is a demon, is played by an adult male sopranist.
  3. Kitty Clive was one of the best-known sopranos of the 18th century. She started her career as a servant girl in the homes of wealthy Londoners and ended up as one of the best-paid women on the stage.
  4. In Tudor England, a treble whose voice ‘sat’ slightly lower than that of very high trebles was known as a ‘mean’.
  5. One of the scariest soprano roles in the operatic repertory is that of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. Her part is famously high, threatening and piercing.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Trebles (girls and boys)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Hear my prayer

Hear my prayer is an anthem, meaning that it was written to be performed within a church service. Although its composer Mendelssohn was German and wrote it in Germany, it had its first performance in London, and so it is often sung in English. About halfway through (at 5.42), the solo treble wishes for the wings of a dove, to fly far away and rest in the peace and quiet of the wilderness.

Performers: Laura Hicks, soprano; Peter Holder, organ; St Albans Abbey Girls Choir; Lay Clerks of St Albans Cathedral Choir; Tom Winpenny

Taken from Naxos 8.572836

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924)
For lo, I raise up, Op. 145

This piece was composed during the First World War when London was being bombed, and the horror of war seems to be very present in the dramatic first section. You can hear the trebles first come in at 0.28 with ‘They are terrible and dreadful…’, after the tenors and basses. At 3.39 a solo treble sings that he will wait and see what the Lord God has in store, and the piece ends optimistically as it seems that God will bring peace.

Performers: Oliver Lepage-Dean, treble; Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.555794

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Balulalow

This is a lullaby for the baby Jesus, where the beautiful words, the lilting melodies, the rocking cradle-song rhythm and the shimmering harp sound combine to rock the baby to sleep.

Performers: Alex Temmink, treble; Skaila Kanga, harp; New London Children’s Choir; Ronald Corp

Taken from Naxos 8.553183

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Messiah: I know that my Redeemer liveth

This excerpt comes from the last section of a long work about the arrival of Christ, the Messiah, and it radiates confidence and serenity, because the singer is sure of eternal life.

Performers: Henry Jenkinson, treble; Academy of Ancient Music; Edward Higginbottom

Taken from Naxos 8.570131-32

Jean-François Lallouette (1651–1728),
O mysterium ineffabile

The Latin text expresses rapture at the mystery of God’s presence whilst the elegant French composition makes this simple yet devout piece sound sleek. Listen out for the word ‘jucunditas’ in the middle, which means ‘joyful’; the composer has reflected this meaning in a gently bouncy rhythm.

Performers: Oliver Lepage-Dean, treble; Christopher Whitton, organ; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.557129

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Messiah: Part I. For unto us a son is born

This very popular, sprightly chorus from Handel’s Messiah opens with the sopranos – here, boy trebles – on their own, introducing the theme that is then sung by the other four parts (alto, tenor and bass). It is suitably cheerful, celebrating the birth of Jesus.

Performers: Oxford New College Choir; Academy of Ancient Music; Edward Higginbottom

Taken from Naxos 8.570131-32

Lighter, shimmering solo sopranos

Gabriel Fauré (1835–1921)
Requiem, Op. 48: Pie Jesu

This is part of a very beautiful setting of the Requiem, a service for the dead. Many settings of these words are very sombre and desperate, but Fauré’s is far more optimistic and calm. The singer is imploring ‘sweet’ Jesus, pie Jesu, to give rest to the departed.

Performers: Lisa Beckley, soprano; Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550765

Henry Purcell (1659–1695)
The Fairy Queen: ‘See, even Night herself is here’

The Fairy Queen is a masque, a kind of semi-opera that was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. This particular masque is loosely related to, and has some characters in common with, Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This song, mysterious and still, comes at the beginning of the work as night falls and the intrigues begin.

Performers: Diane Atherton, soprano; The Scholars Baroque Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.550660-61

Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848)
L’elisir d’amore (‘The Elixir of Love’): Benedette queste carte … Della crudele Isotta

In Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore (‘The Elixir of Love’), Adina is a wealthy farm-owner, and is reading by herself when she comes across a chapter that makes her laugh so much she has to share it with her friends: it’s the story of a potion that makes the drinker’s object of desire fall in love with him or her.

Performers: Alessandra Ruffini, soprano; Hungarian State Opera Choir & Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi

Taken from Naxos 8.554704

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Frauenliebe und -leben, Op. 42: No. 1. Seit ich ihn gesehen

Songs in the German language, especially those dating from the 19th century, are called Lieder. This Schumann song-cycle (or group of songs) tells a single story – about a woman in love.

Performers: Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Uta Hielscher, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557078

Léo Delibes (1815–1910)
Lakmé: Viens, Mallika… Dôme épais (‘Flower Duet’)

You might have heard this beautiful duet before, since it’s been used in TV commercials many times. It is for a soprano and a mezzo-soprano (lower in pitch than a soprano). Delibes knew exactly how to show off the soprano voice, and this piece is deservedly popular.

Performers: Adriana Kohútková, soprano; Denisa Slepkovska, mezzo-soprano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Johannes Wildner

Taken from Naxos 8.553168

Dramatic, rich solo sopranos

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Le nozze di Figaro (‘The Marriage of Figaro’): Act III Scene 8: Aria ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’ (‘Where are those happy moments’)

The countess Rosina suspects her husband the Count of being unfaithful to her, not without reason. She is a proud countess and remains very dignified, but is nonetheless heartbroken as she looks back at the happy times of their early love.

Performers: Maria Pia, soprano; Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi

Taken from Naxos 8.554172

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Die Zauberflöte, K. 620: Act II: Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen

The Queen of the Night, in a terrible rage, places a knife in the hand of her daughter Pamina and instructs her to assassinate her rival Sarastro, singing that ‘Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart’. This is fast, dark and deeply menacing in its high register and spiky reiterated notes.

Performers: Hellen Kwon, soprano; Failoni Orchestra, Budapest; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.553438

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
La traviata: Sempre libera…

Violetta is highly strung and intense, and here she is torn between the freedom of the rather turbulent life she enjoys at present, and a more stable existence with Alfredo, whose passionate love she is beginning to return.

Performers: Monika Krause, soprano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.553041

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem (‘A German Requiem’), Op. 45: Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (‘And ye now therefore have sorrow’)

Brahms’s A German Requiem is not a requiem setting in the usual sense – it’s not in Latin, but in German, and its words are a selection of poetry and Biblical texts specially chosen by Brahms. This soprano solo passage conveys the message that those who are sorrowful now will find comfort later.

Performers: Christiane Libor, soprano; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.573061

Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Vier letzte Lieder (‘Four Last Songs’), Op. posth., TrV 296: No. 4. Im Abendrot (‘In twilight’)

Meaning ‘In twilight’, this song deals with dying, but in a calm and accepting way – the melodic line is comforting and content, the words involving two larks soaring upwards, dreamily into the haze.

Performers: Ricarda Merbeth, soprano; Weimar Staatskapelle; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.570283

Alfredo Catalani (1854–1893)
La Wally: Act I. Ebben? Ne andrò lontana (‘Well then? I’ll go far away’)

Wally, short for Walburga, is the heroine of this opera and she sings this aria when she decides to leave her home forever. She dies in the end by throwing herself into an avalanche. Very operatic! The opera is not performed very often, and Catalani is not so well known today – but this aria has become famous and is often sung on its own, without the rest of the opera.

Performers: Miriam Gauci, soprano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.554575

Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)
Herzgewächse, Op. 20

This is another song with a really difficult and high vocal part – just listen to the notes the soloist sings at 1.40 and 2.21, for example. When this piece was composed, Schoenberg was experimenting with the idea of writing music in no key – called ‘atonal’ – so there is no obvious harmony or melody. This song is entirely atonal, which is very unusual for a song at this time (1911).

Performers: Eileen Hulse, soprano; Tim Carey, celesta; Sioned Williams, harp; John Alley, harmonium; Robert Craft

Taken from Naxos 8.557523

Choral Soprano Lines

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem (‘A German Requiem’), Op. 45: VII. Selig sind die Toten (‘Blessed are the dead’) (extract)

This, the beginning of the final movement of Brahms’s A German Requiem, shines with the positive message that the composer wanted to convey about life and death. It is the soprano section of the choir that launches into it, with a long, high note on the first word, ‘Selig’ (‘Blessed’), like an outburst of conviction and joy.

Performers: Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.573061

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Messiah: Part I. For unto us a child is born

This same music appears also in the playlist for treble voices: here, it is sung by female soprano singers, so you can compare the two. It is taken at a slightly slower speed, and the pitch is higher: the recording in the section for trebles is at ‘Baroque pitch’, which is lower by a semitone. It can be interesting to hear how the same piece of music can sound very different depending on how it is performed!

Performers: The Scholars Baroque Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.550667-68

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Chichester Psalms: II. Psalm 23, Psalm 2 vs. 1–4

After a solo for a boy treble, the soprano section comes in at 1.39 with a hushed version of what the boy has just sung. It is all a setting of Psalm 23: The Lord is My Shepherd, in Hebrew, as part of the American composer Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms for boy treble (or countertenor), choir and orchestra.

Performers: Thomas Kelly, treble; Bournemouth Symphony Chorus; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559177

Gabriel Fauré (1835–1921)
Requiem, Op. 48: In paradisum (‘In Paradise’)

Sopranos play a very prominent role in the final movement of Fauré’s Requiem. He uses their angelic, floating sound to suggest Paradise. This recording has boy trebles singing the soprano line, but the effect is the same!

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Oxford Schola Cantorum; Colm Carey, organ; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550765