A tenor is a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range is one of the highest of the male voice types. The tessitura of the tenor voice lies above the baritone voice and below the countertenor voice. The leggero tenor has the highest tessitura of all the tenor subtypes.
Tenors are often divided into different subcategories based on range, vocal color or timbre, the weight of the voice, and dexterity of the voice. Famous tenors include Enrico Caruso, Juan Diego Flórez, Alfredo Kraus, and Luciano Pavarotti.
The following video shows a piece from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata.
Within the tenor voice-type category are seven generally recognized subcategories: leggero tenor, lyric tenor, spinto tenor, dramatic tenor, heldentenor, Mozart tenor, and tenor buffo or spieltenor. There is considerable overlap between the various categories of role and of voice type; some tenor singers have begun with lyric voices but have transformed with time into spinto or even dramatic tenors.
- Leggero—Also known as the tenore di grazia, the leggero tenor is essentially the male equivalent of a lyric coloratura. This voice is light, agile, and capable of executing difficult passages of fioritura.
- Lyric—The lyric tenor is a warm graceful voice with a bright, full timbre that is strong but not heavy and can be heard over an orchestra.
- Spinto—The spinto tenor has the brightness and height of a lyric tenor, but with a heavier vocal weight enabling the voice to be “pushed” to dramatic climaxes with less strain than the lighter-voice counterparts. Spinto tenors have a darker timbre than a lyric tenor, without having a vocal color as dark as many (not all) dramatic tenors.
- Dramatic—Also “tenore di forza” or “robusto,” the dramatic tenor has an emotive, ringing and very powerful, clarion, heroic tenor sound.
- Heldentenor—The heldentenor (English: heroic tenor) has a rich, dark, powerful and dramatic voice. As its name implies, the heldentenor vocal fach features in the German romantic operatic repertoire.
- Mozart—A Mozart tenor is yet another distinct tenor type. In Mozart singing, the most important element is the instrumental approach of the vocal sound, which conveys flawless and slender emission of sound, perfect intonation, legato, diction and phrasing, capability to cope with the dynamic requirements of the score, beauty of timbre, secure line of singing through perfect support and absolute breath control, musical intelligence, body discipline, elegance, nobility, agility and, most important, ability for dramatic expressiveness within the narrow boundaries imposed by the strict Mozartian style.
- Tenor buffo or spieltenor—A tenor buffo or spieltenor is a tenor with good acting ability and the ability to create distinct voices for his characters. This voice specializes in smaller comic roles.
The Tenor in Choral Music
In a SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) four-part mixed chorus, the tenor is the second-lowest vocal range, above the bass and below the soprano and alto. A men’s chorus usually denotes an ensemble of TTBB in which the first tenor is the highest voice.
The requirements of the tenor voice in choral music are also tied to the style of music most often performed by a given choir. Orchestra choruses require tenors with fully resonant voices, but chamber or a cappella choral music (sung with no instrumental accompaniment) can sometimes rely on light baritones singing in falsetto.
Even so, one nearly ubiquitous facet of choral singing is the shortage of tenor voices.Most men tend to have baritone voices and for this reason the majority of men tend to prefer singing in the bass section of a choir (however, true basses are even rarer than tenors). Some men are asked to sing tenor even if they lack the full range, and sometimes low altos are asked to sing the tenor part.