Early Music and Late Puberty

Eighteen seems for Shakespeare to have been the outer age limit for a woman’s part, and many a famous heroin is definitely written on a much younger boy. In fact, boys like Condell should be ruled out at the first attempt to determine the age of Juliet’s original performer. The same for Twelfth-Night’s Viola, and Portia from The Merchant of Venice. And if parts like those are written for boys of sixteen and younger, which heroin needs a more mature performer?

Yet, Shakespeare Studies has, after careful assessment of the required skills, dismissed such young performers as unrealistic. This limits the choice for Shakespeare’s heroins to almost mature adolescents. Speaking falsetto (counter-tenor), a young man can get away with a woman’s apparel. However, attempts to perform Shakespeare with falsetto’s in the woman’s parts turn invariably out to be disastrous ; they are just not credible enough. Not anymore at least, now women have taken over from boys.

In 1978 a fourteen year old Rebecca Saire  proved the part within reach of a treble boy. But that was in a BBC production, which allowed the director to reshoot fragments until he had enough takes to paste a perfect scene together. The play’s shooting sessions took a full week : for young mrs. Saire an average of two scenes a day. On stage she would have had no second chances, but ‘one take’-action for almost three hours.

Taste may have changed, yet, in the performance of ancient music authenticity is an asset instead. Even if imposing on professional soprano’s the necessity to imitate a boy’s restricted singing technique. So why does the original sound not work for a  Shakespeare play ?

The failure lured Shakespeare Studies into adopting the theory that in Shakespeare’s days a boy of eighteen with a treble voice was no exception. This ‘late puberty’ is a widely accepted fact in research on the original performance practice of early music, and based on contemporary reports of almost adult treble singers :

‘The point (measured in age) when a boy’s voice changes, from its piping treble to something else, has not always been the same.  In fact, over the centuries it has changed dramatically.  De Bacilly (‘Remarques curieuses sur l’art de bien chanter’, 1668) describes, among other voice types, the boy soprano.  He concludes by regretting its passing between the ages of 15 to 20!  Bach routinely used boy sopranos (and altos) into their late teens.  The song ‘Sweet Polly Oliver’ (current in the 18th century, if not before) describes a girl’s enlisting in the army, and passing herself off as a young man.  How could that be?  Not so far-fetched as you might think, since all those raw male teenage recruits would still have had their piping trebles,  not a hair on their chins.’

Should we be anxious about the shelf-life of the modern treble?
Blog on website Choir of New College, Oxford 14/12/2012
Edward Higginbottom, Director of Music

This expert witness has the backing of both the ever earlier voice mutations within his own choir, and of Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), the forerunner of modern science, in the portrait by Nicholas Hilliard. Judged by the miniature’s date (1578) and Bacon’s age (18) as given by the artist, the portrait seems to have been painted for the occasion of Bacon’s eighteenth birthday, which is a highly precise indication of the sitter’s age.  Hilliard is also highly precise in depicting details : small as the portrait is (60 x 47 mm), it clearly shows the down on the boy’s upper lip. The smoothness of cheeks and chin is therefore painted to nature, and indicates Bacon to have been portrayed more than a few weeks previous to his first ever shave.

The current free fall in the average age for voice mutation started in the late twentieth century, when children got exposed to some novelties in food and/or feeding patterns. Science hasn’t identified the trigger yet, but has its suspicions about the hormone-like molecules in plastics. The increased consumption of meat (rich in natural hormones) is another option, but one that can only strike in strong economies. The same for the First Law of Genetic Survival : procreation accelerates (by all possible means), whenever there is food in excess. The same law dictates a slowing down in time of want.
Whatever cause has so far been suggested, it is of recent origins. And it is indeed only in the past few decades that the average first menstruation began to come earlier than it used to be : as a rule between 12 and 14 since the dawn of civilization. And because statistics always show extremes, even the eighteenth century has a mother of eight on record.  No late puberty for girls then, which makes its widespread occurrence in boys something of an anomaly. And whatever caused its demise somewhere between the Elizabethan era and the 1950s, it must have been something that had an hormonal effect on boys only.
Or boys came first, as they always do : while their statistical down curve leveled in the 1930s, balance was restored with a peak in young mothers : 5 years and seven months (1934), girls aged 6 on positions two (1934) and three (1932), a mother of 8 and two months in fourth place (1936), and two more rankings in the all times top ten for just this single decade.

Even when taking for granted that boys of eighteen are without exception mature enough to have daily shave, the miniature can only be used as evidence of late puberty on the assumption that Hilliard painted an average youth. Bacon, however, grew up in delicate health, which is not exactly a requirement for keeping up with the average. And only by painting Bacon’s voice, Hilliard would have made a reliable source anyway on his precise stage of voice mutation in 1578. The ancient sources on the existence of eighteen year old trebles, do not include voice samples either, so, how reliable are they?

Citing the research of David Wulstan and others, Richard Rastall has argued independently that males in sixteenth-century Europe often did not reach puberty until age seventeen or eighteen. While some boys’ voices undoubtedly started to break earlier than that, some boys probably retained the ability to sing or speak in a treble voice until the age of twenty.’
David Kathman ; How Old Were Shakespeare’s Boy Players ?
Shakespeare Survey 58 pp. 221 – 222
Professor David Wulstan is specialized in early English church music
Richard Rastall is a professor in historical musicology

Having no access to original documents, like the (preserved) notes by one of Bach’s senior choirboys, the only way to judge whether the trust that is put in them is justified, is by circumnavigating the necessity to look at them. A dangerous approach as it turns out, because the evidence is supposed to be irrefutable. The detour, however…

Like Shakespeare’s female leads, the treble part of a renaissance anthem leaves a boy of fourteen or fifteen out of his depths. What better evidence of ‘late puberty’ is to be found? But even in science a cobbler must stick to his last, in which respect musical historians rarely qualify for research in the field of ‘Natural History’. And, by taking their sources on ‘late puberty’ at face value, science may have created its own urban legend. As even a side-step from musicology into Shakespeare Studies would have revealed : Viola (Twelfth-Night), Julia (Two Gentlemen) and Rosalind (As You Like It) spring immediately to mind as Shakespeare-variations on Sweet Pollyver. And, to prove his point, the musicologist will point out how immature they look :

  • Viola : ‘Cesario’ is in scene 1 ; 4 for his boyish appearance (voice included) compared with Diana herself. This while her twin brother Sebastian is both identical (voice included) and convincing as the raw male teenage swordsman, who takes on (and out) two aggressive knights (5 ; 1).
  • Julia : describes herself in scene 4 ; 4 as depending on make-up for looking feminine : without it, she truly is ‘Sebastian’. Not such a good example after all perhaps, but, fortunately, the boy completes his description by turning the disguise inside out : in Julia’s attire he truly is Julia. Voice included, that goes without saying.
  • Rosalind : As Ganymede as infatuating as ever to her unknowing lover. Yet, the disguise is masculine enough to make a shepherdess swoon.

These ladies, however, change into a boy‘s outfit at the first opportunity. As if they avoid being on stage as a woman. No ! then have a look at the three heroins from The Merchant of Venice. No volunteers for cross-dressing there, and when forced into it, not a minute longer than the situation demands. Which is just as good, because more Polly-like ‘Olivers’ are hard to come by.

Take for instance Jessica, who reluctantly shows herself to her lover when eloping in a boy’s disguise that reveals more femininity than it hides (her gown did at least masque the pregnancy). Nerissa, on the other hand, manages to keep a low profile when in disguise. But no thanks to her own : the very moment she enters the stage as a lawyer’s clerk, Shylock diverts attention to his knife. After which incident she has the better part of her posing as this clerk offstage, where this ‘little, scrubbed boy’ manages to part her unknowing husband from his wedding ring. Only Portia is prepared to be at the centre of attention as ‘Balthasar’ : a doctor of law by profession, a pre-pubescent boy by looks, or he would never have been judged feminine enough (by the presiding judge) to ask for her hand (to kiss). A second Daniel, as Shylock has it ; which may be perceived as an advantage when on stage as a leading lady.

Shylock : A Daniell come to iudgement: yea a Daniell.
O wise young Iudge how I doe honour thee.
The greatest of Israel’s judges were Eli and Samuel. Daniel (‘God is my Judge’), on the other hand, was a seer. But he at least resembles ‘Balthasar’ :
Daniel 1 ; verses 3 – 7
3   And the King spake unto Ashpenaz the master of his Eunuchs, that he should bring certain of the children of Israel, of the King’s seed, and of the princes :   4   Children in whom was no blemish, but well favored, and instruct in all wisdom, and well seen in knowledge, and able to utter knowledge, and such as were able to stand in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the learning, and the tongue of the Chaldeans.    (5 – 6)    7   Unto whom the chief of the Eunuchs gave other names: for he called Daniel, Belteshazzar, and Hananiah, Shadrach, and Mishael, Meshach, and Azariah, Abednego.  
Portia is high-born, well favored, educated, and wise. And at this court not just a Daniel in the modern version of his Chaldean name ; it may be a little between the lines, but a king has his reasons for placing the young heirs of an assimilated nation’s ruling class into the care of his Master of Eunuchs.
Now look at this curious passage from The Merchant’s scene 5 ; 1 for a taste of Shakespeare’s more subtle comedy (Q1 only) : ‘Gaue it a Iudges Clarke: no Gods my Iudge the Clarke will nere weare haire ons face that had it.’

Yet, in the carefully mentioned pitch-dark of a moonless night (scene 5 ; 1), Portia is not recognized by a Daniel’s clear treble, but by her own distinctive ‘bad’ voice : hoarse like a crow. In the dark it apparently stands out against the ‘good’ voices of the play’s two other women, and we now have Shakespeare’s own word for it : the boys who played his heroins were not credible as male youths until their voice cracked. And still credible as women despite it. As if he had never heard of ‘those raw male teenage recruits’ with their piping trebles. A difference of opinion with Higginbottom that has scholars to cling on to their sources by the fingernails, when adapting the evidence on their existence to Shakespeare Studies :

‘… we recognize that puberty, and thus the changing of boys’ voices, could extend several years later in Shakespeare’s time than it typically does today.
There are numerous references to fourteen as the traditional starting age of puberty in boys; for example, The Problemes of Aristotle (1595) asks, ‘Why are boyes apt to chaunge their voyce about 14. yeares of age?’ , and The Office of Christian Parents (1616) says that childhood extends to age fourteen in boys and twelve in girls, ‘because at that yeeres they beginne the flower of youth, preparing it selfe to the state of manhood or marriage’. Yet there is also evidence that male puberty commonly lasted into the late teens. Henry Cuffe’s The Differences of the Ages of Man’s Life (1607) says that following infancy and boyhood comes ‘our budding and blossoming age, when our cheekes and other hidden parts begin to be clothed with that mossie excrement of haire. which is prorogued vntill the eighteenth year.’

David Kathman ; How Old Were Shakespeare’s Boy Players ?
Shakespeare Survey 58 pp. 221 – 222

When two contradicting sources disagree to such extent on an observation as basic as the common age of puberty to set in, at least one of these sources must have it wrong. How to make such a mistake is another matter. And that is good reason to question Kathman’s interpretation of the more suspect source rather than the source itself : ‘Is prorogued until’ is within context something like ‘takes until’. And the ‘eighteenth year’ of life begins on the
seventeenth birthday. Even with puberty on average coming earlier than before, not every boy of sixteen needs a daily shave, and the Cuffe version of ‘late puberty’ is apparently still as common as it used to be. Kathman, on the other hand, seems to have been a little unfortunate in his choice of supportive evidence. Or is this what one can expect from research that doesn’t stick to its last?

In which case this attack is no good either ; I should better stick to text analysis myself. But no better way of stirring real experts into action than a healthy kick in the apparent weak spot of never questioned conclusions : what is the pediatric view on the once common delay in male puberty?

Being exposed to doubt, the ‘late puberty’-theory has proven itself a legitimate target for Occam’s Razor : the – in itself correct – observation of treble choristers to last not as long as their ancient predecessors, can be explained equally well by the ‘quality standards balance’. In this charmingly simple theory, raising the standard on choral sound by removing bad voices equals lowering the standard on performing capabilities by removing good singers. And vice versa by allowing bad voices.

Such a shift in balance seems to have occurred during the recorded drop in the age of treble choristers in the first decades of the twentieth century. In theatre, however, quality of acting has at any time priority over quality of sound. And youths of 17 or 18 provide the level of performance that Shakespeare requires for his heroins, even if they have to speak falsetto.

Not being an expert : The current standard in choral music is perfect clarity of sound, and audible signs of voice mutation are no longer acceptable. Modern, homophonic, choral music is specifically written on this clear sound, but the polyphony of the Tudor age never was.
Like Shakespeare’s heroins it is out of depths for young, clear sounding trebles, and the choirs at the time had to keep experienced seniors in place as long as possible to guide the juniors through such complexity.
After audible voice mutation sets in, a falsetto voice makes an agreeable treble for another twelve months. A practice that ‘at times was part of the English chorister tradition’ (Deirdre Trundle : Early Voice Change and the Dangers of Falsetto), and seems to account for trebles of sixteen as late as 1900. If the treble section can’t do without highly experienced singers, as in Renaissance polyphony, it may be considered tolerable for some more months after voice mutation.
While the technical challenges of Renaissance polyphony gradually disappeared from the choral repertoire, the need for experienced voices was gradually replaced by the need for agreeable ones. And when, during the nineteenth century, harmony finally took over as music’s principal concern, treble choristers of sixteen-up were no longer in demand. And the sharp drop in maximum age in the first decades after 1900 happens to co-incede with the ascent of the current standard of clarity.

Still, why would Shakespeare dismiss a treble as unfit for playing a credible youth, and at the same time accept a ‘bad’ voice as credible for a woman? It seems a paradox, but Shakespeare in fact opts for natural acting : Portia is hoarse, but at least not speaking falsetto, which a more mature actor would have done. In combination even with a convincingly deep sound for Balthasar. How credible would such a Portia have been?

‘Late puberty’ no longer explains woman’s parts that are clearly out of depths for treble boys. This forces to reconsider the evidence, and because Shakespeare wrote specific parts on specific performers, there are three options to explore :

  • Trebles of fourteen were much better actors than ever imagined
  • Shakespeare wrote them parts that are less difficult than they seem
  • The changing voice is obligate for cross-dressing only : an exclusive female woman’s part of the same calibre is still written for a mature falsetto.

The first option is unlikely, because, regardless of training, treble choristers are as much out of their depths in renaissance choir music as treble boy players seem to be in Shakespeare’s great heroins. And its only proof is in ruling all other options out. Which can’t be done : the reconstruction of Romeo and Julia’s first night demonstrates how to perform Julia with a reasonably good treble of fourteen. The third option isn’t ruled out either, and this reconstruction is on firm ground, when presenting Gabriel Spenser (ca. 16) and Henry Condell (17) as the company’s leading ladies :

Speaking falsetto is theatre’s shortcut to laughter. No problem in a farce, But Shakespeare writes more subtle comedy too. And, if the occasion arises, even tragedy. Can a matured youth do that to Shakespeare’s satisfaction? Or formulated in line with the specifications of The Merchant of Venice : could Shakespeare have written Juliet for Condell or Spenser?

The boy should have been exceptionally small for his age, to begin with, because Shakespeare deliberately presents Juliet as close to her fourteenth birthday. This while nothing in Juliet’s degree of maturity disagrees with the sixteen years of Brooke’s original. And if this boy’s voice is to match Juliet’s age, he is no countertenor obviously, as such a symptom of maturity would ruin all credibility. But one never knows ; if a falsetto made in Shakespeare’s days a credible woman’s voice, why should it not have been perceived as credible for a young girl’s voice? We can leave it at that. However, it never satisfies to end up on an unresolved question : why does the original sound not work for a Shakespeare play, when it is such an asset to music ?

For the sake of argument, this line of thought therefore continues on the assumption that Shakespeare never intended his plays to be performed by modern countertenors in the first place. The identification of Condell and Spenser as the 1594 season’s leading ladies is now tantamount to accepting ‘late puberty’ as a fact after all. Unless, that is, if there is another way to guide a maturing voice towards still available heights.

Despite expectations, these heights do not really vanish with growing age. When trained, a man’s voice spans an impressive range, as a professional singer once demonstrated in my presence by singing scales from deep down his own bass, through tenor and alto registers straight into soprano. At the instant followed by an apologizing : “The sound is not really good, that high.”

‘That high’ included everything beyond his natural bass range. Yet, falsetto is the key to a good altus (male alto singing voice). By leaving that option out, the singer made a difference between his gradual ascent from ‘breast’- to ‘head’-register and a switch to falsetto. Vocal coaches occasionally do make that difference. And ‘head’-register of a sixteenth century countertenor is not necessarily identical to modern falsetto : it perhaps even is the key to turn an adolescent man’s voice towards a reasonably natural woman’s sound. In which respect it is interesting to listen to the winner of the 2014 Eurovision song contest : despite his audibly masculine vocal cords, he gets his part’s feminine sound exactly right. And not a hint of falsetto.

Because this singer has not been the first one to discover the technique, many a happy marriage has through the ages gone to pieces on the belated discovery of a transgender’s true sex. After plenty a blissful night, that is. And a Shakespeare boy who really convinced in a woman’s dress was Richard Robinson :

In Ben Jonson’s 1616 comedy The Devil is an Ass two confidential tricksters discuss boy actor ‘Dick Robinson’ as the perfect woman for their next con : ‘a very pretty fellow’. In slapstick comedy, the very least credible of disguises does the trick, but to prefer a certain boy actor over the gang’s available female assistents is beyond ridicule : it is a tribute. Dick Robinson makes obviously a far better woman than his fellow actors. But he is never recruited, and in the end the ‘gallant youth’ Wittipol does the trick.

It would have been a brilliant joke to discuss Robinson as a con’s bait, when he has already been noted on stage as the con’s target ; the play’s leading lady. In which capacity he can hardly have spoken with a high-pitched male voice, because even in the private universe of all-male theatre, the audience compares the proposed substitute with the real thing. And the subtler type of comedy demands Robinson to live up to expectations.

A tribute, however, suggests a farewell : in which scenario the audience recognizes the bait’s female disguise at the instant as a much applauded Robinson creation. And this tribute, of course, would have triggered a laugh if the audience hadn’t already recognized young Richard in young Wittipol. But the first observation alone is sufficient to recognize this 1616 comedy as written for the occasion of Richard Robinson’s debut in a man’s part. And, simultaneously, as his farewell from playing females : he most likely turned eighteen in February. (David Kathman ; How Old Were Shakespeare’s Boy Players ? Shakespeare Survey 58 pp. 221 – 222) In the process Wittipol’s apparent physical maturity (in his male capacity he courts the con’s target lady) delivers the final blow to the ‘late puberty’-theory.