“Altos are great. They turn up on time, they know their music, they always have a pencil, and they’ll buy you a beer after choir”. This comment by an organist friend sums up the popular image of choral altos, and the way that we’re characterised in choral jokes and memes follows much the same pattern. Apparently, we’re solid, dependable and a bit dull, rather like our line in the music. Even worse, we’re just “failed sopranos”...

If you share this popular view of altos and if you’re already thinking “well of course they know their music, they only have to sing two notes”, I’m here to put you right. My name is Jane, and I’m an “altoholic”. Over many years of singing alto, I’ve discovered that when we’re treated well, life in the alto line can be immensely fun. So composers and musical directors: just follow these simple guidelines to keeping your altos happy.

Rule one: understand our multiple personalities

We altos are a pretty versatile bunch. The history of Western church music means that we female altos have to adopt multiple personalities and styles, perhaps more than any other voice part. Very often, we’re singing music that was written for male voices: in renaissance music that’s been shunted around to fit into the standard modern choral configuration, we could end up singing something that was originally a countertenor or tenor line, and in later church music, particularly in the great English cathedral tradition, we are very definitely singing music written for male countertenors, which can be particularly good fun when we get asked to come steaming through the texture. Charles Stanford does this a lot in his church music and his motet Justorum animae is particularly fine because it follows several of my other rules for alto parts too. Look out for the alto lead on the word “malitiae” at 1’33 (you can’t miss it).

On the other hand, when composers are writing for female altos, we get to be rich, round and fruity, and unlike the sopranos, we’re always grown-ups, we never have to pretend that we’re angelic children. To complete our multiple personalities, we do also enjoy being naughty and playing with the sopranos on Christmas descant lines, although only when we think the conductor isn’t looking.

Rule two: give us suspensions

In my experience, the myth of dull alto lines comes largely from hymn tunes, or easy church music by composers who follow the basic rule of writing the tune first, then the bass line and then filling in the tenor and alto lines with whichever notes in the chord are left. Composers, don’t do this! One of the joys of being an alto is that we often get to partake in some of the really juicy bits of harmony; such as squeezing up against the sopranos in suspensions (when one note is held over into the next chord, clashing against the parts that have moved on, before resolving the harmonic tension that it creates). Altos love suspensions.

On the subject of hymn tunes, they don’t all have dull alto lines. Vaughan Williams’s tune Down Ampney (usually sung to the words “Come down O Love Divine”) has one of my favourite alto lines, but the master here of course is J.S. Bach. He takes simple Lutheran tunes and enriches them immeasurably with harmonistations that express every nuance of the text. There are so many to choose from, but I’m picking one that I’ve loved ever since I was promoted to the alto part in the church choir. The alto part to O Jesulein Süß is so gorgeous, and so deeply lodged in my brain, that I’m not even sure I am even capable of singing the ‘melody’ line.

Rule three: let us sing good counterpoint

This is an extension of rule two. Put simply, counterpoint is the compositional technique of weaving together multiple melodic lines into a single piece of music, and so by its very definition, it means every part should have something interesting to do. Renaissance polyphony is the most obvious example, and the most famous piece of choral counterpoint is Thomas Tallis’s monumental 40-part motet Spem in Alium. I’ve picked a smaller piece of Tallis as my example. Sancte Deus is one of my favourite pieces of choral music, and I happen to be rehearsing it at the moment. It’s dark and brooding, and the parts weave obsessively around each other, with no single line dominating. Look out for the juicy false relations (where one part sings the natural against or near another part’s sharp), such as the cadence in bar 38 (1’36), The most scrumptious moment of all comes, when the altos get an F-natural against the tenors C-sharp before resolving onto an E to complete an A-major chord (bar 82, 3’36). Listen to this, and tell me again whether alto parts are boring.

Of course counterpoint isn’t confined to early music, and good composers have used the technique ever since. I’ve already given the example of Stanford’s Justorum Animae, and Herbert Howells is another favourite of mine for writing exquisite counterpoint with alto-lines to die for. Among contemporary composers writing good counterpoint, Julian Anderson, Francis Pott, Philip Moore and Charlotte Bray all come to mind, and this is just based on repertoire that I happen to have sung, so this isn’t an exhaustive list.

Rule four: Indulge us in our moments of glory

We altos have a special list of our glory moments, when we get to take centre stage and show off all the womanly richness that we can muster. The Offertorium from Fauré’s Requiem is a classic, although Fauré spoils things later in the Sanctus, where we’re completely silent until the last note. I often moan about Britten giving us a hard time in Hymn to St Cecilia – too much painful quiet high stuff, and a lot of hanging around being wallflowers while the sopranos and tenors have a party. We know where Britten’s interests lay, and it wasn’t with us, But he makes up for this in the Recordare movement of his War Requiem, a movement for women’s voices that builds up from a sumptuous low-D in the second altos.

There’s a special place at the alto table in the pub for Handel too, and I suspect he’d be very happy to join us for a beer. He gives us the first choral entry in Messiah - “And the Glory of the Lord”, and we kick off “Behold the lamb of God” at the beginning of the second part, and for a moment of sheer countertenor exuberance, listen to the start of the “Thou hast prevented him” section of his coronation anthem “The King Shall Rejoice”. 0’33

One of my top alto-glory moments though is Parry’s “At the round earth’s imagined corners”, from his Songs of Farewell – a set of pieces which, incidentally also strictly adhere to Rule Three. Altos like Parry. This movement has two alto parts, and both get moments of sheer indulgence – the first altos coming sublimely out of some frantic tenor and bass music on “but you whose eyes have beheld God” at 2’06 (a terrifying entry to pitch, but worth the pain), and a few pages later (3’23) the seconds rise up on “But let them sleep”. We live for moments like this.

Rule five: give us Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil

Where do I start? Quite simply, this is alto heaven. Programme this, and you’ll never have to buy your own beer again. Throughout, Rachmaninov gives us the most powerful lines, and we frequently get to enjoy singing sumptuous tunes, all of it written very sympathetically, so it just rolls out effortlessly. Meanwhile, the sopranos are left to provide filigree decoration on the top. They’re the delicately wrought gold icon cover, but we are the sacred picture underneath, and the heart of everything.

The All-Night Vigil was first performed by the all-male Moscow Synodal Choir, but it really feels like music written for women, especially as the focus is on us at some of the most essentially feminine moments of the text. Take the best known movement, the “Bogoroditse”, which is often sung at Christmas: listen from 1’04, when divided altos sing a richly flowing quaver motif on the words “blessed art thou among women”, with a massive crescendo through “blessed is the fruit of thy womb”.

It gets better though. Movement 9 is the story of the women visiting Christ’s empty tomb on Easter morning, and an immensely powerful alto line begins the narrative as a chorus of angels, and I haven’t even mentioned the massive alto solo in movement 2, but I’ll leave you with what I think is the best alto music ever written, the Great Doxology (Gloria) where everything is built around our passionate chant melodies.

PS: The bit about beer is true.