. . . naming of parts . . .
Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass (and Mezzo-soprano and Baritone), aka SATB (Ms, Bar). Isn’t that how it’s always been? Well, actually, no! Or, at least, only with any consistency since the Baroque period. By then the various labels brought with them notions of range and tone colour but in the earliest days of multi-part vocal music the part designations had more to do with musical function. We might describe Robert Wylkynson’s Salve Regina (from the Eton Choirbook c.1510) as SSATTBarBarBB, but he wrote Quatruplex, Triplex, Medius, Primus Contratenor, Secundus Contratenor, Tenor, Inferior(!) Contratenor, Secundus Bassus and Primus Bassus. So what did he mean?
In the medieval period music in parts was composed one part at a time. The first and principal melody might be an original effort by the composer or borrowed by him from someone or somewhere else. The part that sang this line was called the Tenor because it ‘held’ the tune (think tenacious). In our Wylkynson piece the Tenor is a plainchant melody – Assumpta est Maria.
The parts that went against the tenor were initially labelled, quite logically, Contratenor. When there was only one this was fine, but more parts needed clarification, such as contratenor altus (a high part against and above the tenor) and contratenor bassus (low). So now we can see how, via translation and abbreviation/contraction, we arrived at our modern (contr)alto, tenor and bass. (Soprano arrived later, derived from superius, a term used later in the 16th century to mean the highest.)
Some consistency and simplification arrived with (and was a necessity for) the earliest forms of music printing technology (c1520 in England) but Wylkynson was before this and writing out his music by hand, so let’s get back to him – Quatruplex, Triplex, Medius, Primus Contratenor, Secundus Contratenor, Tenor, Inferior Contratenor, Secundus Bassus and Primus Bassus.
The meaning and reason for the last six of these should now be clear – inferior (an endless source of amusement in rehearsals) in this context means lower – not less good! Medius was the name often given to a part that would be comfortable for any boy to sing in the middle of his range – a range of about 10 notes up from just below Middle C. Triplex (whence our modern treble) was the third distinct vocal range to be added above the tenor (after contratenor and medius) and Quatruplex the fourth.
Inevitably, there was no absolute consistency about this even within a single collection such as the Eton Choirbook. In John Browne’s Stabat Mater the medius part is much lower in range than Wylkynson’s, though the label still denotes a part ‘in the middle’ – between the tenor and the triplex in that case. And, just to spice things up, each of Wylkynson’s parts is also designated as being one of the nine Orders of Angels http://seraphsandcherubs.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/nine-orders-of-angels.html but any exploration of that notion can wait until the programme note for 21st March!