Music Makers

Alfred Deller: Celebrating A High-Flying Singer

Countertenor Alfred Deller, c. 1960. i i

hide captionCountertenor Alfred Deller, c. 1960.

Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Countertenor Alfred Deller, c. 1960.

Countertenor Alfred Deller, c. 1960.

Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of pioneering singer Alfred Deller. Unless you're an early music devotee, his name might not be familiar. But it's not to too much to say that Deller almost single-handedly resurrected a voice type, the countertenor, which had faded from popularity since Handel's days and vanished completely outside of church choirs (before the arrival of falsetto in doo-wop and Motown).

Born in the English seaside town of Kent, Deller grew up singing in his local church choir before joining the choirs of Canterbury and St. Paul's Cathedrals. Composer Michael Tippett said that when he heard Deller sing at Canterbury, he experienced the sensation of "the centuries rolling back." By the late 1940s, Deller had appeared on the BBC and was starting to record treasures like the songs of John Dowland and Henry Purcell.

In 1948, he formed his own Deller Consort — one of the first groups dedicated to the idea of historically informed performance of early and Baroque music. But his work was not restricted to pre-1750 material: Benjamin Britten wrote the role of Oberon in his opera A Midsummer Night's Dream specifically for Deller. Though he died in 1979, even today's countertenors, including superstars like Andreas Scholl, still cite him as a primary influence on their own work.

Though there aren't many videos of Deller available, here are a few performances to whet your appetite.

Alfred Deller: Celebrating A High-Flying Singer

Cover for Portrait of a Legend

Purcell, 'Sound The Trumpet'

  • Artist: Alfred Deller
  • Album: Portrait of a Legend
  • Song:

Deller performs Purcell in duet with one of his sons, fellow countertenor Mark Deller.

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Purchase Featured Music

  • "Portrait of a Legend"
  • Album: Portrait of a Legend
  • Artist: Alfred Deller
  • Label: Harmonia Mundi
  • Released: 2004
YouTube
 
Cover for The Three Ravens: Elizabethan Folk and Minstrel Songs

'Have You Seen The White Lily Grow?'

  • Artist: Alfred Deller
  • Album: The Three Ravens: Elizabethan Folk and Minstrel Songs
  • Song:

Deller sings this anonymous ballad accompanied by lutenist Desmond Dupré in a performance recorded in Paris in December 1972.

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Purchase Featured Music

  • "The Three Ravens: Elizabethan Folk and Minstrel Songs"
  • Album: The Three Ravens: Elizabethan Folk and Minstrel Songs
  • Artist: Alfred Deller
  • Label: Vanguard
  • Released: 2003
YouTube
 
Cover for Portrait of a Legend

Alfred Deller: Portrait Of A Voice

  • Artist: Alfred Deller
  • Album: Portrait of a Legend
  • Song:

Three years before his death, Deller was the subject of a French documentary film by Benoît Jacquot.

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Purchase Featured Music

  • "Portrait of a Legend"
  • Album: Portrait of a Legend
  • Artist: Alfred Deller
  • Label: Harmonia Mundi
  • Released: 2004
Harmonia Mundi/YouTube
 

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