The word “tenor” is from the Latin tenere, “to hold”…and in medieval and Renaissance vocal music, from about 1250 to 1500, the tenor voice was the “holding voice.” It was the voice that held the principal melody, often with long held-out notes, and the voice around which the other voices were composed. The tenor voice, always a male voice, was not necessarily a high voice—or at least not originally.
And in fact the meaning of “tenor” actually varied from place to place. But it seems that by the 1400's and 1500's the term “tenor” did generally mean a high male voice, and it was the voice that was usually featured in popular songs and early opera. By the mid-1600's, though, the castrati had become the unchallenged stars of opera, and it wasn’t until the late 1700's and early 1800's that the brilliant operatic tenor as we know him today came into his own.
This has been A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.