Alfred George Deller, CBE (31 May 1912 – 16 July 1979) was one of the most prominent figures in twentieth century music. Deller both popularized the return of the countertenor voice in Renaissance and Baroque music and utilized historically informed performance practice in the concert hall and recording studio. His style in singing lute song, with extensive use of rubato and extemporised ornamentation, was seen as radical and controversial in his day but is now considered the norm.
Deller was born in Margate, a seaside resort in Kent. As a boy, he sang in his local church choir. When his voice broke, he continued singing in his high register, eventually settling as a countertenor. Deller was initially employed as a lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral from 1940 to 1947, before joining the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral (1947–62). From this choral tradition, Deller emerged as a soloist, largely as a result of the admiration of the composer Michael Tippett, who heard him while at Canterbury and recognised the unique beauty of his voice. Tippett introduced him to the public as a countertenor, rather than a male alto. He also became better known with a radio broadcast of Henry Purcell’s Come ye Sons of Art on the BBC’s Third Programme when the classical music station was launched in 1946. Deller’s repertoire was wide, encompassing major works of the Renaissance and Baroque, and his focus on the music of English Baroque and Renaissance music by composers such as John Dowland and Purcell is credited with raising the profile of both composers. Deller’s voice was in the remarkably high range throughout his career. Misconceptions about the countertenor voice were common at the time Deller was first gaining significant notice as a singer, which was only a few decades after Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrati, had died. Michael Chance tells the story that once, a French woman, upon hearing Deller sing, exclaimed “Monsieur, vous êtes eunuque” — to which Deller replied, “I think you mean ‘unique’, Madam!”