31 May 1916
Margate, Kent, England, United Kingdom
16 July 1979 (aged 63)
Alfred Deller (31 May 1912 – 16 July 1979) was an English singer, one of the main figures in popularising the use of the countertenor voice in renaissance and baroque music.
Deller was born in Margate, and as a boy sang in his local church choir. When his voice broke, he continued singing in his high register, eventually settling as a countertenor. Throughout the 19th century, it was only in the tradition of all-male cathedral choirs that the countertenor voice had survived. Deller was himself successively a member of the choirs of Canterbury and St Paul's Cathedrals. He emerged as a soloist from this choral tradition largely due to the admiration of the composer Michael Tippett, who heard him while at Canterbury, and the unique purity and beauty of his voice. Having come to attention of the public with a BBC broadcast of Purcell's Come ye sons of Art, he concentrated on popularizing and recording the music of English baroque and renaissance music by composers such as John Dowland and Henry Purcell. He formed the Deller Consort in 1948, a group dedicated to historically accurate performances of that kind of music. The group significantly expanded popular notions of the baroque repertoire, producing high-quality authentic "period performances" of the works of Bach, Handel, Purcell, Dowland, and even John Blow. Later Deller's son, Mark Deller, joined the consort, with whom Deller later recorded a CD of English folk songs.
In 1960, Deller sang the role of Oberon in Benjamin Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream. Britten wrote this role with Deller specifically in mind, although he was later dropped, against the composer's wishes. Later he recorded the opera, with the composer conducting and Peter Pears taking the role of Lysander.
Deller's vocal qualities have been the subject of both adoration and criticism. Relatively weak in the upper register of the alto voice later in his career, but always strong in the lower register (a part of the range frequently neglected by modern countertenors), he would typically float high notes; while his tone, perhaps harsh-sounding by today's standards, has been labelled both metallic and menacingly masculine. This light, lyrical quality to his voice was the reason as to why he performed the Handel castrati roles (which require considerable vocal weight) considerably less often than the English countertenor roles, which were written originally for the countertenor voice (as opposed to countertenors acting as castrati replacements), and which call for a lighter voice than the Handel roles.
The noted lutenist Desmond Dupré recorded and performed with him; in later years he also worked with the harpsichordist Harold Lester. His recordings (as both a performer and conductor) include the lute songs of Dowland, Handel operas, Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Purcell songs and semi-operas (such as The Fairy-Queen), traditional English folk songs, the works of Thomas Tallis, and the Bach alto repertoire. He recorded for HMV, Vanguard Classics and, predominantly in his later years, for Harmonia Mundi.
Deller died while working in Bologna, Italy.
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