Composers kill sopranos (is that a man thing?)

Composers kill sopranos (is that a man thing?)


norman lebrecht

January 17, 2016

There’s a thoughtful piece on NewMusicBox by Mari Valverde on how composers and conductors, overwhelmingly male expect too much from sopranos, universally female. Sample:

Soprano and composer Victoria Fraser, a friend of mine who makes a living as a choral musician, recently referenced her experience at a summer music festival in Germany. They prepared one movement from a new major work by James MacMillan, commissioned for the following summer, and she said it “killed” the sopranos. To which I responded, “Well, MacMillan is not a soprano.”

james macmillan no

I fondly recall singing the popular Scottish composer’s The Gallant Weaver under Simon Carrington as a member of the Texas All-State Choir. It is a sublime example of a work for advanced adult mixed voices requiring vocal flexibility, endurance, and wide ranges. The alto, tenor, and bass parts remain low and the sopranos are high and exposed. In fact, there are three soprano parts, creating a melody that echoes in heterophony with many sustained highs and repeated leaps to A5.

Yes, it makes beautiful music, but it is what I call an “expensive piece.” It is demanding, to say the least. This model for vocal beauty has been popularized, and, much like society’s standards for feminine beauty, it is lofty, grossly impractical, and often, manufactured.

Mari has a point. Read on here.



  • Robert von Bahr says:

    A5 would be a sixth higher than the highest tone on a piano.

    Comments superfluous.

    Robert von Bahr

    • May says:

      Robert, A5 is the same as a2 (zweigestrichenes a). In the UK and US, the following system is used to classify pitch level:
      C1 = Kontra C
      C2 = C (großes C)
      C3 = c (kleines C)
      C4 = c1 (eingestrichenes)
      C5 = c2
      C6 = c3

  • James MacMillan says:

    Oops! This looks like a “trigger warning!” Perhaps l’ll now get ‘no-platformed’ in American university choral departments for ‘discriminatory composing’… If you think my high sop lines are misogynistic you should see my tenor lines!?It’s what I do…

  • Lorena says:

    I don’t get it. I have the score of the gallant weaver right here ,and the highest note is a high A, an A an octave above A=440. Is it really that hard for sopranos to sing that note? because there are many, many compositions with high As, and even higher, like high B flats and naturals.