Mechanics of a Male Voice Choir

Gerald Barry (Giraldus Cambrensis), a Bishop of St. David’s (Pembroke) in the 12th century noted, “The Britons (Welsh) do not sing their tunes in unison, like the inhabitants in other countries, but in different parts. So that when a company of singers meet to sing….as many different parts are heard as there are singers who all finally unite in consonance and organic melody”

This tradition of four part singing was strengthened later through such developments as the ‘plethyn’, where individual family groups performed their particular version of a hymn or folk tune during religious services, the expansion of bardic eisteddfods, enhanced by competition and local rivalry, and the increased popularity of Gymanfa Ganu. The latter were festivals of community hymn singing when small village groups would come together to sing all day in a large assembly. Eisteddfodau and Gymanfa Ganu continue today.

Between 1840 and 1914 there was a musical renaissance in Wales encouraged by the promotion of reformed local and regional eisteddfods, the growth of nonconformist chapel society and the spread of an active Temperance movement. It was during this period that Welsh male voice choral singing really emerged, especially after 1877, and the formation of the popular Rhondda Glee Society, helped considerably by the tonic solfa method of learning songs introduced by Eliza Roberts in 1860.

The Cantorion continue this tradition. The choir is made up of four sections. There are two groups of tenors known respectively as the TOP and 2nd TENOR sections and two groups of basses known either as 1st and 2nd BASS or BARITONE and BOTTOM BASS. Choirs line up in different ways but John, chooses to arrange his choir, when conducting, with the 2nd Tenors to his left, the Top Tenors standing inside them, then the 1st Bass and finally the 2nd Bass to his very right.

The Top Tenors sing the highest notes and you hear them leading the melody and singing descant. Choirs often ‘brag’ about the quality of their top tenors or top line but the section in Cantorion, can justly be proud of its reputation. For those readers more musically minded the typical tenor range extends roughly from the C an octave below middle C to the A above middle C. The ‘trick’ in choral singing is to reduce the tendency for individual voices to stand out and to sound ‘open’ and harsh when under strain attempting the top notes.

The 2nd Tenors are the least understood but non- the- less are such an important element in the choir. You can hear the 2nd tenor line filling in the sound between the top tenors and the baritones lending support to both sections. 2nd Tenors usually sing those difficult parts which the other sections would rather leave !

Baritones (1st Bass). Most would be choristers will join this section of the choir as it is considered the natural voice for men and it seems that few of them wish to leave the section once they have started singing ! An important section it contributes heavily to the rich fullness of sound the choir generates and the overall harmonies produced. The Baritone vocal range falls somewhere between Bass and tenor with a typical range from around A to a 1/10th below middle C to the F above middle C.

The Bottom Bass section provides the essential platform above which the other voices can weave their respective melodies. This choir is renowned for its excellent Bass section and the volume and quality of sound it makes.

Each performance, however, is a team effort and there is a three way partnership between the four voice sections, the accompanist and the conductor for the enjoyment of all participants and the audience.

‘The great beauty of Welsh song is that it needs no occasion and it beautifully, plaintively or playfully accompanies every moment in welsh life, like a natural soundtrack for reality’ (Revelations-The Initial Journey-Through the Ages)