With very few exceptions, Bach’s vocal music was written for boy sopranos, not female sopranos. In those days, women did not sing in German churches. Sopranos were supposed to be boys, and altos were supposed to be sung by boys or counter-tenors (although doubts remain about counter-tenors). Today, most concerts and CD recordings are sung by women, but this is actually a mistake. It is akin to having a woman play the female role in Kabuki, which can be called a destruction of tradition.
The complete Bach cantatas have been recorded by Helmuth Rilling, Ton Koopman, John Eliot Gardiner, Masaaki Suzuki, and others. I own the complete CD collection of Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt(Das Kantatenwerk). This was recorded by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt on the Telefunken label over a period of 18 years, from 1970 to 1988, sharing the music. The complete works were originally released on LP records, and all the pieces were accompanied by scores (of the old Bach Complete Works Edition). At the time, I had two rich friends who were both doctors, and I used to envy them when I went to their homes and saw all the volumes of this series lined up on their shelves.
As far as I know, this is the only complete Bach cantata series recorded by a boy soprano, both solo and choral. Leonhardt uses the “Tölzer Knabenchor”, and Harnoncourt uses the “Vienna Boys Choir”. Leonhardt also recorded the “Matthew Passion” with boy soprano only, which is a must listen.
The appeal of the boy soprano lies in its fragility. The life of a boy soprano begins at the age of six or eight and ends suddenly at the age of twelve or three. Therefore, both Harnoncourt and Leonhardt selected as many boy soloists as possible from each choir and assigned them songs suitable for their voices. They must have given each of them a small number of pieces and trained them intensively. There is always the possibility of a sudden change of voice during the recording. That’s why many boy sopranos were replaced during the recording period of almost 18 years. The “angelic voice” would suddenly return to heaven one day. In other words, recording a boy soprano is a “race against time”. In the case of recordings using women as soloists, there is no such difficulty at all. She could probably sing the entire collection by herself.
In addition to this series, there are other recordings of Bach cantatas performed on original instruments by Ton Koopman, Masaaki Suzuki, and John Eliot Gardiner, but only the Leonhardt/Harnoncourt recording can be called an “original” performance in the true sense of the word. As for the orchestral performances themselves, Koopman’s Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan are probably far superior. In particular, Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien is quite inferior in terms of the skill of its woodwind players. The Leonhardt ensemble, with Frans Brüggen and other virtuosos, is absolutely impeccable, but even if you take that out of the equation, the use of a boy soprano in this series is truly a milestone. It should be called a “monumental tower” in the recordings of the twentieth century.
Many people don’t seem to understand my expression “the fragility of boy sopranos”. It may be natural. But this is a self-evident truth for many Japanese people. In the latter part of my article, I say “The life of a boy soprano begins at the age of six or eight and ends suddenly at the age of twelve or three.” Without fear of being misunderstood, this is the reason why Japanese people love cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms bloom en masse but are destined to fall within a few days. We Japanese find the same beauty in the boy soprano.
And as I stated in “Use of original instruments in Bach performances” my argument is not that of a “misogynist”. But as expected, there is no shortage of people who call me a “misogynist”. Please don’t read my one and only posting and jump to conclusions. I would like them to read my other articles as well.
Others make a fuss about boy sopranos as a matter of “human rights”. In other words, it is “unjust child labor” imposed on boys in the Baroque era. I can refute this in one word. One can ask one of the members of the Wiener Sangerknaben or the Tölzer Knabenchor, “Do you sing in the choir of your own free will or are you forced by your parents to do so?”
Others say that the conditions are different today than they were in Bach’s time, when boys did not change their voices until they were 17 or 18 years old. They conclude that this is why female sopranos should be used in the modern age. But is this really so? I want to listen to Bach’s musics played exactly as he described it. That is why I want to to listen to a boy soprano in church cantatas and a female soprano in secular cantatas.
One last thing must be said. I think it is extremely unfair and nonsensical to compare the “technique” of a female soprano with that of a boy soprano. Because she has plenty of time to practice and our angels do not have that time. They may go to heaven at any moment. But even with all of this, there are times when the charm of the boy soprano prevails. For example, Now I am comparing Cantata No. 84 (First Aria) between Masaaki Suzuki version and Nikolaus Harnoncourt version on CD, and the Harnoncourt version sung by Wilheim Wiedl is, to my eyes, more charming as music. Of course, it is a matter of personal preference. #boysoprano #treble #片山俊幸