Alfred Deller

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Alfred Deller

Alfred George Deller

(1912-05-31)31 May 1912 [1]
Margate, Kent, England [1]
Died16 July 1979(1979-07-16) (aged 67) [1]
Bologna, Italy
Resting place All Saints' Church, Boughton Aluph, Kent, England
Years active1940–1979
Alfred Deller's grave at All Saints' Church, Boughton Aluph Alfred Deller grave All Saints' Church, Boughton Aluph.JPG
Alfred Deller's grave at All Saints' Church, Boughton Aluph

Alfred George Deller, CBE (31 May 1912 – 16 July 1979), was an English singer and one of the main figures in popularising the return of the countertenor voice in Renaissance and Baroque music during the 20th century.

A countertenor (also contra tenor) is a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of the female contralto or mezzo-soprano voice types, generally extending from around G3 to D5 or E5, although a sopranist (a specific kind of countertenor) may match the soprano's range of around C4 to C6. Countertenors often are baritones or tenors at core, but on rare occasions use this vocal range in performance.

Renaissance music

Renaissance music is vocal and instrumental music written and performed in Europe during the Renaissance era. Consensus among music historians has been to start the era around 1400, with the end of the medieval era, and to close it around 1600, with the beginning of the Baroque period, therefore commencing the musical Renaissance about a hundred years after the beginning of the Renaissance as it is understood in other disciplines. As in the other arts, the music of the period was significantly influenced by the developments which define the Early Modern period: the rise of humanistic thought; the recovery of the literary and artistic heritage of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome; increased innovation and discovery; the growth of commercial enterprises; the rise of a bourgeois class; and the Protestant Reformation. From this changing society emerged a common, unifying musical language, in particular, the polyphonic style of the Franco-Flemish school, whose greatest master was Josquin des Prez.

Baroque music style of Western art music

Baroque music is a period or style of Western art music composed from approximately 1600 to 1750. This era followed the Renaissance music era, and was followed in turn by the Classical era. Baroque music forms a major portion of the "classical music" canon, and is now widely studied, performed, and listened to. Key composers of the Baroque era include Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Claudio Monteverdi, Domenico Scarlatti, Alessandro Scarlatti, Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Arcangelo Corelli, Tomaso Albinoni, François Couperin, Giuseppe Tartini, Heinrich Schütz, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Dieterich Buxtehude, and Johann Pachelbel.


He is sometimes referred to as the "godfather of the countertenor". [1] His style in singing lute song, with extensive use of rubato and extemporised ornamentation, was seen as radical and controversial in his day but is now considered the norm.

The term Lute song is given to a music style from the late 16th century to early 17th century, late Renaissance to early Baroque, that was predominantly in England and France. Lute songs were generally in strophic form or verse repeating with a homophonic texture. The composition was written for a solo voice with an accompaniment, usually the Lute. It was not uncommon for other forms of accompaniments such as; bass viol, or other string instruments and could also be written for more voices. The composition could be performed either solo or with a small group of instruments. The basic style of lute songs are light and serious, with poetic lyrics that usually followed word-setting to composed music. In England, the songs tended to range from extended contrapuntal compositions to short harmonized tunes. The text could be written by the composer or most often borrowed from a poem, set in verse form.These songs were composed for professional and amateur performers, which had variations for solo and ensemble. The lute song was popular among the Royalty and nobility. King Louis XIII was believed to be fond of the simple songs, which led to a volume of work during his reign. Composers of the lute song usually composed other forms of music as well such as; madrigals, chansons, and consort songs. The consort song, popular in England, is considered to be closely related to the lute song. This was an earlier strophic form of music that was for a solo voice accompanied by a small group of string instruments. In France, the chanson, is a precursor to the lute song or air de cour. Collections of “air de cour” were used in other countries, besides England and France. Collections of the French airs were published in England, Germany and Holland. Italy had forms of song that were much like the lute song, such as monody and the frottola, but the lute song seemed more prominent in England and France.

Deller was an influential figure in the renaissance of early music: an early proponent of "original instrument performance" and one of the first to bring this form to the popular consciousness through his broadcasts on the BBC. He also founded the Stour Music Festival in 1962, [1] one of the first and most important early music festivals in the world.

Early music music until the baroque

Early music generally comprises Medieval music (500–1400) and Renaissance music (1400–1600), but can also include Baroque music (1600–1760). Early music is a broad musical era in the history of Western art music.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a British public service broadcaster. Its headquarters are at Broadcasting House in Westminster, London, and it is the world's oldest national broadcasting organisation and the largest broadcaster in the world by number of employees. It employs over 20,950 staff in total, 16,672 of whom are in public sector broadcasting. The total number of staff is 35,402 when part-time, flexible, and fixed-contract staff are included.

The Stour Music Festival is a festival of early music held in the Stour valley, Kent, England. It was founded by the countertenor Alfred Deller in 1962. The principal venue is a medieval church, All Saints' Church, Boughton Aluph.

Life and career

Church music

Deller was born in Margate, a seaside resort in Kent. As a boy, he sang in his local church choir. When his voice broke, he continued singing in his high register, eventually settling as a countertenor. [2] Deller was initially employed as a lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral from 1940 to 1947, before joining the choir of St. Paul's Cathedral (1947–62).

Margate town in East Kent, England

Margate is a seaside town in Thanet, Kent, England, 15 miles (24.1 km) north-east of Canterbury, which includes Cliftonville, Garlinge, Palm Bay and Westbrook.

Kent County of England

Kent is a county in South East England and one of the home counties. It borders Greater London to the north west, Surrey to the west and East Sussex to the south west. The county also shares borders with Essex along the estuary of the River Thames, and with the French department of Pas-de-Calais through the Channel Tunnel. The county town is Maidstone.

A lay clerk, also known as a lay vicar, song man or a vicar choral, is a professional adult singer in an Anglican cathedral and often Roman Catholic Cathedrals in the UK, or (occasionally) collegiate choir in Britain and Ireland. The vicars choral were substitutes for the canons. They are not in holy orders; the term "vicar" is derived from the Latin adjective vicarius ("substituted") and in this context simply means a deputy. The majority of lay clerks are male; however, female altos are nowadays becoming increasingly common.

Solo career

From this choral tradition, Deller emerged as a soloist, largely as a result of the admiration of the composer Michael Tippett, who heard him while at Canterbury and recognised the unique beauty of his voice. Tippett introduced him to the public as a countertenor, rather than a male alto. He also became better known with a radio broadcast of Henry Purcell's Come ye Sons of Art on the BBC's Third Programme when this station was launched in 1946. He concentrated on popularising and recording the music of English Baroque and Renaissance music by composers such as John Dowland and Purcell. [3]

Michael Tippett English composer

Sir Michael Kemp Tippett was an English composer who rose to prominence during and immediately after the Second World War. In his lifetime he was sometimes ranked with his contemporary Benjamin Britten as one of the leading British composers of the 20th century. Among his best-known works are the oratorio A Child of Our Time, the orchestral Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and the opera The Midsummer Marriage.

The musical term alto, meaning "high" in Italian, refers to the second highest part of a contrapuntal musical texture and is also applied to its associated vocal range, especially in choral music. It is also the root word of contralto, the lowest standard female voice type. When designating instruments, "alto" likewise can refer either to the corresponding vocal range or to musical role. The term "alto" is also used to designate a specific kind of musical clef; see alto clef.

Henry Purcell English composer

Henry Purcell was an English composer. Although incorporating Italian and French stylistic elements into his compositions, Purcell's legacy was a uniquely English form of Baroque music. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest English composers; no later native-born English composer approached his fame until Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and Benjamin Britten in the 20th century.


Throughout the 19th century, it was only in the tradition of all-male cathedral choirs that the countertenor voice had survived. [2] Deller's voice sounded remarkably high. Misconceptions about the countertenor voice were common at the time Deller was first gaining significant notice as a singer, which was only a matter of decades after the last castrati had died; Michael Chance tells the story that once, a French woman, upon hearing Deller sing, exclaimed "Monsieur, vous êtes eunuque"—to which Deller replied, "I think you mean 'unique,' madam." [4]

Michael Chance CBE is an English countertenor and the founder and Artistic Director of The Grange Festival.

Deller Consort

In 1948, Deller formed the ''Deller Consort'', [1] a group dedicated to historically informed performance. The group recorded music from as early as the 13th century and significantly expanded popular notions of the Baroque repertoire, producing high-quality authentic period performances of the works of Bach, Handel, Purcell, Dowland, and even folk songs.

Membership of the Deller Consort changed over the years. It included various baritones (especially Maurice Bevan) and tenors, as well as sopranos April Cantelo, Honor Sheppard and Mary Thomas. From 1964, Alfred Deller's son Mark was also a member. [5] In 1972, the Deller Consort performed for the Peabody Mason Concert series in Boston. [6]

As well as directing the Consort, Deller also conducted some performances with chamber orchestras, although his technical ability as a conductor attracted some adverse comment. [7]


In 1960, Deller sang the role of Oberon in the first production of Benjamin Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream . [1] Britten wrote this role with Deller specifically in mind, although he was dropped from staged revivals of the work against the composer's wishes, largely because of poor acting technique. The smallness of his voice was also a negative factor in the casting process at Covent Garden. [3] He did record the opera, with the composer conducting in 1967. The 1960 premiere, broadcast by the BBC, is now commercially available and finds Deller in fresher voice; Myfawny Piper described his singing of Oberon as "unearthly".

Lutenist Desmond Dupré performed with him, initially as a guitarist; other accompanists included harpsichordist and musicologist Walter Bergmann. In later years, he worked with lutenist Robert Spencer and harpsichordists Harold Lester and William Christie. His recordings include the lute songs of Dowland, operas by Handel, Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, songs and semioperas by Purcell (such as The Fairy Queen ), traditional English folk songs, works by Thomas Tallis, and the Bach alto repertoire. He recorded for HMV, Vanguard Classics, and Harmonia Mundi.

Deller also sang John Blow and Henry Purcell Odes like “Sound the trumpet” from Come Ye Sons of Art with the other great male alto of the day, John Whitworth (1921-2013), who is favoured by critic Richard Lawrence for his magnificent voice. [8]


On 16 July 1979, Deller died whilst working in Bologna, Italy after a heart attack. Deller and his wife are buried in the churchyard of All Saints' Church, Boughton Aluph, Kent.


Deller married Kathleen Margaret ('Peggy') Lowe (1913–2006) in 1937. [9] They had three children; the eldest, Mark Deller, became an accomplished singer in his own right and frequently performed with his father, for example on the 1972 album Folksongs . Another son, Simon, trained as a music teacher during the 1960s and taught at Guildford Cathedral choir school, eventually becoming its headmaster.


Deller was a Commander of the Order of the British Empire .

In Canterbury Cathedral, a tablet in the south quire aisle commemorates Deller and his work.

On 31 May 2012, All Saints' Church, Boughton Aluph held a concert to celebrate Deller's 100th birthday. There was also an exhibition of paintings and drawings by John Ward, who illustrated many of the early programmes for the music festival. [1] After the concert, the countertenor James Bowman planted a tree in memory of Deller in the churchyard where he is buried.

Selected discography

Deller made at least 136 recordings from 1949 to his death in 1979. [10] His first were for HMV - His Master's Voice Recordings 1949-1954. Then followed 13 years with Vanguard Records 1954-1967, under the labels The Bach Guild in Europe and Amadeo in the US. Then following a concert in Avignon in 1967 where Deller met Bernard Coutaz, founder of Harmonia Mundi France, spent his remaining years with the French label.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Chrissie Daniels (22 June 2012). "Stour Music Festival celebrates Alfred Deller's 100th birthday". KOS Media. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 8 July 2012.
  2. 1 2 Giles and Steane
  3. 1 2 Steane
  4. Michael Chance interviewed in a documentary entitled 'Countertenors,' originally shown on The South Bank Show .
  5. "Alfred Deller" . Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  6. Boston Herald, 3 November 1972, David Noble, "16th century music approachable"
  7. "Purcell Odes". Gramophone. Retrieved 2017-11-20.
  8. Charlotte Smith: Obituary: John Whitworth, countertenor. Gramophone, 5th Sep 2013
  9. My Heritage: Alfred Deller
  10. EMFAQ

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