The tenor voice is a high male voice – not as high as the countertenor (who sings in the alto register), but above the baritone and the bass voices. The part known as the ‘lead’ in barbershop, bluegrass and many other types of popular singing is a high tenor line.
Tenors often sing the leading roles in opera, as well as in musical theatre where they may adopt a technique known as ‘belting’. Indeed, when operatic tenor voices are divided into their many subcategories, ‘heroic’ tenors have their own title of Heldentenors, a German word. Wagner’s character Siegfried is one of the best-known heroic tenor roles. Operatic leading tenors often play characters who are young and in love, such as Alfredo in Verdi’s opera La traviata.
You might also hear soaring tenor voices taking a leading role in male-voice choral music such as in the Welsh choral tradition. Here, they might be impassioned, rich choral voices, whereas in earlier English cathedral music they might be lighter voices delivering a pure and slender sound. Either way, it is likely that they will be capable of cutting through the choral texture, clearly or perhaps plangently, and making themselves heard. Choral tenors are less common than sopranos, altos and basses, and so good ones are heavily in demand. Very occasionally, a female choral singer will sing in the tenor range.
There is a long-standing joke amongst musicians that tenor singers are arrogant – probably because they so often play leading characters in opera. The composer Handel once had an argument with one of his tenor soloists, Alexander Gordon, who threatened to jump on Handel’s harpsichord. Handel replied, ‘Oh! Let me know when you will do that and I will advertise it. For I am sure more people will pay to see you jump than to hear you sing!’
Magnificat in D major, BWV 243: Deposuit potentes
‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek’, sings the tenor, telling of God’s ferocity and strength. The forceful musical gestures by the violins help to illustrate the mood.
Performers: Timothy Robinson, tenor; Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward
Taken from Naxos 8.550763
Turandot: Act III Scene 1. Nessun dorma (‘None shall sleep’)
This is possibly the most famous tenor aria in all of opera, partly because the famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti sang it for the World Cup in 1990. It comes from the final act of Puccini’s opera Turandot, and it is the character Calaf singing of his assurance that he will win the princess.
Performers: Thomas Harper, tenor (Calaf); Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász
Taken from Naxos 8.554065
Oliver Cromwell was considered a hero by many when he overthrew Charles I in the English Civil War and set up a Commonwealth, but when he died people turned on him very quickly. In this lively arrangement of a Suffolk folksong Oliver Cromwell is a sort of bogeyman figure, scaring the woman who steals his apples. Here it is sung by a tenor with an orchestra; in the ‘Bass’ section of Voices, you can find it sung at a lower pitch with a piano by a baritone.
Performers: Philip Langridge, tenor; Northern Sinfonia; Steuart Bedford
Taken from Naxos 8.557222
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● Tenors need to know how to read music in two different clefs, because their music could use either of them. One is the bass clef; the other is:
● One of the best-known line-ups of the 20th century was The Three Tenors: José Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Their recording of ‘Nessun dorma’ was used as the theme tune of:
● The English tenor is a specific type of choral voice. The cor anglais, on the other hand, is a type of tenor…
● In terms of pitch, where does the tenor voice lie?
● A tenor will have begun life as a:
- The word ‘tenor’ comes from the Latin ‘tenere’ meaning ‘to hold’, because early tenor parts proceeded in long note values whilst the other parts weaved around them.
- The Muslim call to prayer, or ‘azan’, is chanted by a muezzin who sings in the tenor range. This high vocal quality would have helped the call to prayer to be heard across long distances in pre-amplification times.
- There’s a particular type of voice found in French and sometimes in English Baroque music known as an ‘haut-contre’, which is not a countertenor but a very high tenor.
- The English composer Benjamin Britten wrote a great deal of music for his partner Peter Pears, who was a superb tenor. His music remains one of the most rewarding areas of repertoire for tenor singers.
- The comedy operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan all have a leading tenor (such as Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance) whose abilities to communicate text clearly are used in a type of writing called ‘patter song’ – it involves delivering lots of amusing words very quickly.
Play More Music!
Here is more music featuring tenors. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Messiah: Part II, Aria. Thou shalt break them
The text that the tenor is singing is from the Psalms of David and tells how those who will not submit to God shall be broken and crushed by his mighty power.
Performers: Toby Spence, tenor; Academy of Ancient Music; Edward Higginbottom
Taken from Naxos 8.570131-32
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Rigoletto: La donna è mobile (‘Woman is fickle’)
This aria is very well-known as a showcase for tenor singers. The character singing it in Verdi’s opera is the Duke of Mantua, and he is singing about how fickle he believes women are.
Performers: Thomas Harper, tenor (Duke of Mantua); Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász
Taken from Naxos 8.550497
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Die Zauberflöte (‘The Magic Flute’): Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (‘This image is enchantingly lovely’)
Tamino has just been saved from a deadly serpent by three mysterious ladies. They then give him orders from their mistress, the Queen of the Night, to rescue her daughter Pamina, who has been kidnapped; when they show Tamino her picture, he cannot believe how beautiful she is.
Performers: John Dickie, tenor (Tamino); Capella Istropolitana; Johannes Wildner
Taken from Naxos 8.550383
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
‘Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!’, from Fidelio Op. 72
Florestan has been thrown in prison by his enemies for threatening to expose their corruption. In this aria (which has a long orchestral introduction – the singing starts at 3.48), he wakes up in his cell and at first feels completely dejected and alone; then he places his trust in God, and has a vision of his wife, Leonore, praying that they will be together in heaven.
Performers: Gösta Windbergh, tenor; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Michael Halász
Taken from Naxos 8.557892
Solo tenor with piano
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Die schöne Müllerin (‘The Beautiful Maid of the Mill’), D. 795: No. 18. Trockne Blumen (‘Withered Flowers’)
Die schöne Müllerin is a song-cycle that tells of a young man trying to win the heart of a miller’s daughter. When she chooses a hunter over him, the young man goes into despair and imagines himself in his grave, surrounded by the flowers she once gave him; only then will she realise how much he loved her.
Performers: Christian Elsner, tenor; Ulrich Eisenlohr, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.554664
Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835)
3 Ariette: No. 3. Vaga luna, che inargenti (‘Lovely moon that sheds silver light’)
A man sings to the moon, begging it to communicate his love and sorrow to his beloved, who is far, far away; tell her, he says, that he spends every day and every night counting down the hours until they are together again.
Performers: Dennis O’Neill, tenor; Ingrid Surgenor, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.557779
Henri Duparc (1848–1933)
On a summer morning, a man calls to his beloved (in French) to lie next to him under a shady tree, as the day heats up and the perfumes from the plants start to rise into the air. The rich harmonies create a dreamy atmosphere that conjure up the sultriness of the day.
Performers: Paul Groves, tenor; Roger Vignoles, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.557219
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
‘Dans un bois solitaire’, K. 308
This is a song by the Austrian Mozart, setting text in French. A man discovers Cupid asleep in the woods, and accidentally wakes him up; in revenge, Cupid fires one of his arrows to make the man fall hopelessly in love with Sylvie, who has just rejected him.
Performers: Lothar Odinius, tenor; Ulrich Eisenlohr, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.557900-01
Choral tenor parts
Gabriel Fauré (1835–1921)
Requiem, Op. 48: Agnus Dei
‘Agnus Dei’ means ‘Lamb of God’. Fauré’s setting of these words here in his Requiem is among the most tender, comforting and beautiful that exist. After a gentle introduction by the string instruments, it is the tenors of the choir who begin the movement, with a rich and irresistible line that flows like honey: ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi’ (‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’).
Performers: Oxford Camerata; Oxford Schola Cantorum; Colm Carey, organ; Jeremy Summerly
Taken from Naxos 8.550765
Edgar Bainton (1880–1956)
And I saw a new Heaven
The sopranos begin this four-part choral piece. Towards the end (at 4.30) the choir’s tenors introduce a soaring and beautiful melodic section with the comforting words ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away’.
Performers: Choir of St John’s, Elora; Noel Edison
Taken from Naxos 8.557493
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Vespers, Op. 37: Song of Simeon
In this serene movement of Rachmaninov’s Vespers a solo tenor from the choir sings the words of Simeon, an old priest who was promised by God that he would be allowed to see the Messiah before he died; when Jesus is brought to the temple to be blessed, Simeon recognises him and sings this hymn of thanks to God.
Performers: Latvian Radio Choir; Sigvards Kļava
Taken from Naxos ODE1206-5
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (‘A mighty fortress is our God’), BWV 80 (opening chorus)
The tenor section has the important job of declaiming the vigorous theme at the very start of this piece, followed by altos, then sopranos and finally basses. The words were written by Martin Luther, whom many people believe started the movement called the Reformation that led to many Christian churches breaking away from the Catholic church.
Performers: Hungarian Radio Chorus; Failoni Chamber Orchestra, Budapest; Mátyás Antál
Taken from Naxos 8.550642
Josquin Desprez (d. 1521)
Missa L’homme armé: Kyrie
This beautiful section comes from near the beginning of a Catholic Mass service, and it is a plea to God for mercy. But Josquin’s composition is weaved around the melody of a popular tune called ‘The Armed Man’, which would easily have been recognised by the congregation. It is the tenors singing the very first ‘Kyrie’ – see if you can continue to hear them inside the other voices.
Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly
Taken from Naxos 8.553428