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  • Voce BiancaPurity and Whiteness in British Early Music Vocality
  • Melanie L. Marshall (bio)

Critics, promoters, recording companies, and even some performers tout the purity of early music vocality. That singers of early music have pure, clear voices has become a cliché; countertenors, choirboys, and women singers of early music find themselves subject to such rhetoric. Indeed, “pure” women’s vocal styles became so successful that it is now expected that women singing early music will sound like Emma Kirkby or members of the Tallis Scholars, a British ensemble that has done much to disseminate a particular sound through performances and summer schools in Australia, the United States, and England.1 Commentators often fondly compare women’s early music voices to those of prepubescent choirboys. Yet, even ensembles that deliberately develop a different female sound are described as sounding pure: as Kirsten Yri has noted, the full-bodied, vibrato-warmed sound of Sequentia’s Vox Feminae is just as likely to be described as pure as the head-voice blend of Anonymous 4.2 While in Donald Grieg’s words early music “singing is often ‘impure’, works towards distinction and difference, is ‘unclear’, and, crucially, employs vibrato,” purity is a discursive construct used to reject some singers and the approaches to early music that they embody; it implicitly classifies those who do not belong as impure and sees lack of purity as undesirable.3 This ideology sits at the intersection of many axes of difference, including age and generation, gender, sexuality, innocence, nation, and race.4 [End Page 36]

Concerns over the purity of vocal sound might seem entirely separate from discourses of racial and sexual purity. However, as Dana Berthold argues, “purity rhetoric gets its power” by “mobiliz[ing] a genealogy of racialized associations” that “have helped produce white identity and dominance.” Berthold’s focus is purity in relation to hygiene in the United States, but lovers of purity are everywhere.5 The logic of purity, as Maria Lugones articulates, is behind categorization, fragmentation, separation; it is a way that the “modern subject . . . produc[es] and maintain[s] . . . himself as unified.”6 Berthold suggests that it is not only the beneficiary of privilege who is a lover of purity: “Physical and moral purity ideals form popular discursive practices that help reproduce white identity, which is formulated to reinforce white dominance. . . . In a culture preoccupied with purity, we are all conditioned to some extent to be ‘lovers of purity’—we are shaped by purity ideals, but also we are the agents responsible for analyzing and redeploying or undoing them.”7

Voice training is a prime tool for shaping subjectivity and for producing an illusory sound of purified unity. British Victorian voice culture of the mid-nineteenth century, for example, was a tool for assimilating various groups of others into bourgeois sound worlds and by extension to bourgeois moral values.8 Uncouth outsiders who learned to sing using then new techniques sounded refined. British schools used choral singing to train working-class boys out of coarseness, while in the early twentieth century elite black South Africans participated in Victorian voice culture to assume a white voice that could then be raised against colonizers: resistance from as close as black people could get to the inside.9 Importantly, those who were thus enculturated sounded like—but were not quite—white, bourgeois, Christian subjects. Assimilation was a tantalizing but nonetheless impossible goal.

Similar forces of middle-class whiteness appear in the British early music revival, despite its countercultural, even revolutionary, aspects.10 Early music singers in Britain come from a narrow demographic; most came through a small number of conservative institutions—Anglican cathedral choirs and Cambridge or Oxford University. This is not only a class and gender issue: most early music [End Page 37] performers in Britain are white or can be read as white.11 The predominant racial makeup of British early music ensembles is an outcome of exclusionary policies or practices at different levels.12 Oxbridge or cathedral choir training, as Grieg notes, provides distinct advantages: most importantly, valued forms of embodied cultural capital (e.g., sight-singing, excellent tuning, ability to balance and blend in particular ways, familiarity with the...


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