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The ALTO Outbreak
Problem... and Promise

 In the latter part of the twelfth century the Black Death was at its awful work, aggravated by a disastrous decline in water quality. We can only conjecture a linkage to another new phenomenon... the first outbreak of the contralto female voice.

 Its deeper range must have seemed bizarre to an unsophisticated peasantry long-used to the characteristic high-pitched squeaking of its womenfolk. Pleasant as it may have seemed in conversation, the "new" tessitura certainly challenged composers who searched long thereafter for any substantive musical value.

 We smile today, as we peruse this musical sequence, which illustrates so poignantly the conflict which must have raged within musical circles of the era. Mere possession of a "nice" voice does not instantly confer upon one any special ability to carry a tune. Experts still don't know whether this "retrofitted" alto line was the work of the original composer, a reluctant church scribe or perhaps a singer herself, attempting to provide a raison d'etre to a dubious choir director at rehearsal.


 We hear echoes of that remote era even now, in the alto parts for many of the Sacred Harp tunes. But time heals. It is not an overstatement to remark with pride that the Alto is currently tolerated to an unprecedented degree.