Monday, April 15, 2013

ALFRED DELLER 1912- 1979

The wonderful English counter-tenor Alfred Deller, occupies a unique place in music of the 20th century.  He not only was an exquisite musician with a beautiful and expressive instrument, but he was a major figure in the early years of bringing attention to early music performance practice and was largely responsible for its growth and popularization in the 50's, 60's and beyond.

He was largely self taught and in 1950, he formed his own vocal and instrumental ensemble, the Deller Consort.  He sang the premiere in Britten's A Mid Summer Night's Dream at the Alderborough Festival.

Listen to this brilliant musician's technique, the imagination of sound and colors, phrasing, diction and extraordinary ability to communicate!

Text by Ben Johnson 1572-1637

Have you seen but a white lily grow before rude hands have touched it?
Have you marked  but the fall of the snow
Before the soil hath smutched it?
Have you felt the wool of beaver, 
Or swans' down ever?
Or have smelt o' the bud o' the brier,
Or the nard of the fire?
Or have tasted the bag of the bee?
O so white, O so soft, O so sweet is she!

Below are snippets of a performance of MUSIC FOR A WHILE (Purcell) with a wonderful interview with Michael Tippett who helped launch Deller's career.  




The Three Ravens:  This is one of my most favorite performances of a strophic song!


  1. White Lily - Although the style and time period are completely different, I noticed a similarity between Deller and Mark Reizen (from the previous post on Russian music). Both were so connected to the music that I couldn't help but be drawn completely in with them. This connection made an exquisite performance with a passionate yet easy sound.

    From Rosy Bowers - Beautiful! But I couldn't help but notice that he was conducting throughout much of the performance. Also, there were many times he sounded as if he was going to run out of breath but then sang the remainder of the phrase. It was an interesting sound and I wonder if it was a choice or just how he sounds in particular parts of his range.

    Sweeter than Roses - Such extraordinary freedom in the voice! Not only the quick melismatic portions, but also the legato and slower passages.

    Love's Sickness - I love the way he begins each new verse so beautifully and with new intention. It totally refreshes the listener!

    Music for a While - I could't get the video to work! :-(

  2. Have You Seen But A White Lily Grow was one of the first pieces I ever sang. Hearing Deller perform it was something of an epiphany - so that's what it's supposed to sound like! The way he changes affect for a new phrase or musical idea, or even a single word, is wonderful. His expression never sounds measured or practiced, but spontaneous, emerging from the text and the moment.

  3. Music For a While was extremely interesting. Hearing how each "drop" was unique yet led perfectly into the next one was lovely.

    From Rosy Bowers - I enjoyed the contrast between sections, from the flexibility in the opening to the liveliness of the more dance-like portions.

    Sweeter than Roses - The clarity of tone strikes me here, almost like bells in places.

    Love's Sickness - Each time, his approach to "fly" is different, yet it always tapers at the end, as though it cannot quite get off the ground - rather like the poem. Lovely.

  4. HAVE YOU SEEN THE WHITE LILY GROW is such a beautiful song. The turns are so graceful and Deller gives each emotional purpose.

    FROM ROSY BOWERS this song is reminiscent of Purcell's operatic writing with dramatic contrast. Deller handles the mood changes very well.

    SWEETER THAN ROSES The ensemble between voice, harpsichord, and continuo is seamless. Deller manages the melismas beautifully.

    I ATTEMPT FROM LOVE'S SICKNESS TO FLY I sang this song as a college freshman and didn't then understand the musical possiblities therein. Deller sings it with such flexiblity of tempo to allow for expression of the text. He varies each of melismas for "fly" so that each takes on a new feeling.

  5. I like how Deller says that his countertenor voice type might be considered "pansy" to some. Just from my short musical career, I have only encountered singing with one counter tenor, which tells me this voice type is either rare or disesteemed among men. In listening, I feel that he gives Purcell's music new purpose and recreates, so eloquently, the intimate pairing of the lute and singer.

  6. I love the flexibility the performers bring to these Purcell songs. Not only Deller, but also the harpsichordists, lutenists, etc.

    For example, I really enjoyed how in Sweeter than Roses the Harpsichordist (so sad I could not find his name!) gave to the word "trembling" an ornament on the lower register, obviously to enhance the meaning of the text. I believe those songs are great opportunities for the performers themselves to find ways to create text-painting, a skill that could be very useful to find these same features on the romantic/modern lieder/songs.

  7. It’s strange how the early British music sounds so natural in the voice of a countertenor. Perhaps I am desensitized to the countertenor voice or sound as one of my close friends from undergrad was a spectacular countertenor, but to me it is NOT “feminine” in the least and actually lends itself to this repertoire better than any other voice type.

    White Lilly: Whew, was a suggestive text! Deller’s sound is so fitting for this repertoire. I don’t find it offputting or strange, instead his voice fits like a glove for these early lute songs. To be honest, this is not a genre where I feel completely at home—but Deller makes it seem easy and noncontrived. Natural. The bright sound makes the text very clear and his expressive ability brings this song to life almost as if it’s the first time I’ve heard it.

    Music For Awhile: I like his flexibility in the ‘drops’ part.

    From the Rosy Bowers: The clarity of text here is fantastic. I can understand every word. I enjoy the ease of the moving notes, runs, and ornaments. He makes it seem natural and as if he is thinking up the music as he goes. Also, the variance of dynamics and weight (especially in the moving notes) really makes this song come alive dramatically like I’ve not heard before.

    Sweeter than Roses: I think it’s Deller’s use of style and color that really set him apart as a great artist. He sings no note the same, but weaves a mesmerizing line full of contrast and interest. Of course, the timbre and range at which he sing really adds to the clarity of this material, but instead, I appreciate his attention to artistry and story-telling more than his unusual sound.

    Love Sickness: Again, the flexibility here is great. This song is not nearly as rhythmically driven as I have previously heard. The flexibility is not only interesting to the ear, but fits the context of the text a lot better than adhering to metronome beats and making everything crisp and precise (which can make this song sound almost jovial).

  8. I've heard David Daniels on Youtube but Alfred Deller is so fun to listen to! In White Lily, the interaction between the text and the lute accompaniment stands out.

    Music for a While - This song made me think about Handel's arias from Semele.

    From Rosy Bowers - I agree with Emily. The contrast between the sections is a great touch and perhaps inspired by the text.

    Sweeter than Roses - wow! this is such a virtuosic piece. (I think) Purcell showcases the voice in this song more so than the previous three.

    I attempt from Love's Sickness - I want to sing this song sometime. This song is different from all the other Purcell that I commented above. The simplicity of the song reminds one of pure genuine young love.

  9. In regards to countertenor voices in general, I have to confess that I don't think I have yet acquired the ability to enjoy their sound. I noticed in Deller's voice, however, a somewhat warmer quality in timbre than I have heard in other countertenors that I've heard. I also appreciate his expressiveness and use of color. His voice and way of interpreting texts seems very fitting for Purcell.

    From Rosy Bowers - I enjoyed watching Deller's facial expressions in this video recording and admire his emotional commitment to the music in this regard

    Sweeter than roses - I was really taken aback by some of the dissonances in this song!

    The Three Ravens - This particular recording made me very aware of the ensemble between singer and accompaniment. The two were tightly bound in a very intimate way that I appreciated.

  10. I am completely captivated by these performances! In From Rosy Bowers: his transitions have so much clarity of rhythm. That in combination with the incredibly perfect balance, timbre and support on his high notes and crisp text kept me paying attention throughout the whole song. I did find his movements at times a little distracting but when I was not looking at him, it was a perfect performance even with the somewhat muddy melismas scattered here and there.

    I attempt from love's sickness: What an interesting choice of rubato throughout. The unexpected movement on "fly" in the first phrase brought me to edge of my seat where I remained, engaged in experiencing what else he would choose to do with the tempi.

    The Three Ravens: I love the incredibly subtle contrast between the opening phrase and the "down a down.." refrains. Even more than in the other selections, I just have the sense of his instrument being perfectly balanced throughout his range. It allows for such a clarity of sound and that purity so suits the music of Purcell, especially in this song.

  11. From Rosy Bowers - Deller is very engaged in the music. I really enjoy watching his facial expressions and gestures!

    Sweeter Than Roses - This is such a dramatic song and I think Deller expresses the contrasts very well! Especially the first section, it's very solemn and dark that I actually feel uncomfortable emotionally as I'm listening to the performance...

    I Attempt from Love's Sickness - I played this song long time and I played it in a very steady and square way... It's so nice to hear this song with rubato because it makes the song a lot more expressive!

    The Three Ravens - I always struggle to hear the lyrics/text in vocal music, even in my native language. Yet, Deller's diction is very clear in this recording that I can actually hear quite many words in the text! That's so amazing!

  12. These performances are exquisite. I have liked Alfred Deller for quite a time but have recently been distracted by swooning over Andreas Scholl. Listening again, I must say that I truly love how he interprets these works. There is something of depth and controll to Deller's voice that I find quite appealing and I think it is amazing how many upper partials that he carries, when listening in contrast to Scholl's recordings.

    The Three Ravens was wonderful, just so clear and beautifully told. When we sang these lute songs in Collegium during winter term, it was a struggle to really sing the many verses with a strophic setting and have them feel spontaneous and honest. The way that Deller sings this piece really seems to stop time, even listening to this audio recording.

    'Music for a While' might be one of my favorite songs of all time. I love that you can hear this long climbing bass line that seems to loop through the piece, returning back to the bottom once it reaches the height of the line. I find this play with the bass line very indicative of this time period in English music.

  13. These performances are so beautiful! Alfred Deller is one of my favorites, so these were such a pleasure to watch! Sarah, I think you make an excellent point in saying that he has such control over his instrument! It is so incredible to hear such detail and specificity!

    'I attempt from Love's sickness' is one of my favorite songs of all time. The poetry is exquisite and Deller's execution of it is just beautiful! Maya, I noticed the rubato too! I was so surprised by this choice, since it isn't done very often, but it was a nice, different touch to the piece! Deller's attention to detail in strophic pieces is just out of this world.

    'The Three Ravens' is another piece that Deller's specificity and attention really shines through. He is so conscious of telling the story through the strophic text, which can be very challenging, especially with so many verses. He executes so well though and we're all on the edge of our seats!

  14. I wasn't familiar with Alfred Deller until watching and listening to these performances. The interview with Michael Tippett put into perspective how brave and true a musician Deller was, following his own musical path without fear of how he might be received at a time when singing as a counter-tenor was not as accepted as it is today.

    I'm particularly drawn to "The Three Ravens" because of the guitar/lute accompaniment. Deller's voice is so light, floating above the quiet guitar figurations. The performance is so transportive. I can imagine listening to this piece in a 17th century tavern with a cup of hot mead!

  15. Alfred Deller was a name I was familiar with only in passing from working recently with counter-tenors. I really enjoyed finally hearing, and seeing, some of his past performances. His artistry is quite amazing; his diction is wonderfully poetic and he takes liberties with tempi and ornaments phrases in ways that are perfectly suited to the text. I am familiar with the English history of boy sopranos and counter-tenors in cathedral choir settings, but must plead ignorance when it comes to the origins of the modern counter-tenor genre. Most of Purcell's music seems to come from opera or the stage. Is there a historical precedent for female roles to be sung by boys or what we now call counter-tenors? The interview with Michael Tippett seems to indicate that Deller was not very well received in many places. In any case, Deller was a wonderful musician and a master at his craft.

  16. What an extraordinary singer! I think there is something to be said in the expressive and technical capability of a singer as largely self taught as Alfred Deller was; while technique is a set a skills that can be taught from instructor to pupil, expression is something that must be found from within and must be inherent and ingrained into one's DNA as a performer. It is the job of every singer, trained and untrained alike, to be able to learn to access their individual expressive abilities that is found to be so ingrained in Deller. Deller's musical expression is heard most clearly (for me) in his performance of "Have you seen the white lily grow?" His color and use of various timbres to express the various ideas expressed in the text is exquisite, and his use of ornamentation comes from a very natural place, but is pristine and presented with a clarity and ease that is impeccable. I noticed that the piece is noted as being Anonymous, but I thought I recall the melody belonging to John Dowland (my memory may be deceiving me, though)? I also found his natural and pure expression of the text through use of color and timbre to be prevalent in the pieces "From Rosy Bow'rs" and "I attempt from loves sickness." A truly remarkable singer!

  17. From Rosy Bowers: I really enjoyed this piece. I agree with Maya. I thought his conducting himself was a little distracting, but the voice is wonderful and the transitions were well maneuvered.

    Sweeter than Roses: The melismatic phrases in this piece were more crisp than the piece before it. I felt there was more energy in them than in the previous piece.

    I Attempt from Love's Sickness: I have never heard a version quite like this with this amount of rubato. It was very interesting to hear it done like this. It was fun to hear it done in a new way.

    The Three Ravens: He really brought new excitement to each strophe he sang to keep me wanting to listening to more. I enjoyed how much he put into the story telling aspect of this piece. It kept my interest and I wanted to know what would happen next.

  18. Omg these are soooo good! He is such an artist. Have you Seen but a White Lily Grow is my favorite--I just watched it three times in a row. I love how he paces the song, based on his emotional response to the text. The way he handles dissonances and the how he motivates the melismas is brilliant. I am curious about what the score looks like versus what I think he may have interpolated. Wonderful!
    Very cool that he was discovered by Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. I adore his Oberon.
    He makes very compelling choices in the Purcell songs--rubato I have not typically heard but I buy it--he makes it work, and I am having a hard time determining how/what exactly he is doing that works so well. His phrases are planned and motivated, his breaths are expressive, his tone persuasive.
    I respect that Deller paved his own way and found music and text with which he so authentically connected.

  19. Wow, this was a real treat to discover. He is such a naturally expressive person, and the way he brings across the text on the line is really remarkable. I love how odd and unique his timbre is--especially in his runs/relades in White Lily, and in his ornamentation--he is singing modally in certain sections in a way that I have never heard before, and it's like I'm hearing what modes should sound like for the first time ever.. He is obviously working with very little self-consciousness --he's just being a creative and exploring the music using his incredible natural instrument without having the added layer of "technique" through which he filters his
    performances. I love his interpretation of the Purcell and the liberties he takes in timing. His phrasing is fluid and natural and completely motivated by the text.