Voce bianca: Purity and Whiteness in British Early Music Vocal Performance

Critics, promoters, recording companies, and even some performers tout the purity of early music vocality. Indeed, 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. “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. 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. This suggests purity is operating as 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. This ideology sits at the intersection of many axes of difference, including age and generation, gender, sexuality, innocence, nation, and race.

The discourse over purity in early music was one way in which anxieties over belonging were worked through in cultural production. The Immigration Act (1968) and the Nationality Act (1981) bookend a period of overlapping approaches to women’s early music singing, one a “noisy” approach using folk-singing techniques, the other a “pure” one associated, correctly or otherwise, with Anglican institutions. The “pure” sound of women’s early music singing that subsequently dominated is akin to a sound of white Britishness.

In: Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 19 (2015), 34–44. This is a special issue edited by Emily Wilbourne and dedicated to Suzanne Cusick.