Culture Magazine

Did You Know the Tenor Was the ‘holding’ Voice?

By Galegirl

did you know the tenor was the ‘holding’ voice?As a word person, I’m forever curious about the origin of words. (I really should have taken Latin instead of German classes in high school. Latin would have been a stronger springboard to support my lifelong interest in etymology.)

Since we are featuring tenors all month on Operatoonity, I simply had to find out where the word came from.

Did you know “tenor” derives from the Latin word tenere, which means “to hold”? Like so many other words now in use, it came to mean something quite different over the centuries.

Apparently, between about 1250 and 1500, during the time of medieval polyphony (music with two or more independent lines), the tenor was the structurally fundamental (or holding) voice–vocal or instrumental. All other voices were normally calculated in relation to the tenor.

Until the late 15th century, the tenor was usually the lowest voice, in order to provide a harmonic foundation. It was also in the 15th century that “tenor” came to signify the male voice that sang such parts. For earlier repertoire, a line marked ‘tenor’ indicated the part’s role and not the required voice type. Indeed, even as late as the eighteenth century, partbooks for ‘tenor’ might contain parts for a range of voice types.

So when did the word tenor as we know it come to mean the highest male vocal part or one who sings that part?

According to Yale Press’s “The Prehistory of the Voice,” the notion of the modern tenor voice “accelerated rapidly from the eighteenth century onward” until it became the voice part we know it as today–the voice of princes and dukes, of lovers and their beloved, of martyrs and heroes.

Bravi, tenori!


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