Berkshire Boy Choir
1968
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HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

 "There is not any Musicke of Instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voyces of Men, where the voyces are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.

Since singing is so good a thing,
I wish all men would learn to singe."

So wrote William Byrd, the great choral composer, in the preface to his Psalmes, Sonets, and songs of Sadnes and pietie in 1588, during the golden age of English music under Queen Elizabeth I.

Singing must have been one of the first art forms, and the male choir goes back far into Jewish history. Women were excluded from liturgical functions, so that a choir of men and boys provided the music for worship. The early Christian church retained this custom, and we know that in the fourth century, under Popes Celestine I and Sylvester, a choir school was established. Pope Gregory the Great reorganised this "Schola cantorum" three centuries later, and founded the basis of the Roman musical tradition. The school's influence spread throughout Europe as the years passed, and in 596 the Benedictine Augustine established the Roman order at Canterbury in England, where a "song school" soon grew up, the model on which Wearmouth and York first, and then other towns, founded schools of their own.

In the eleventh century the cathedrals took over teaching responsibilities from the monasteries, and in their choir schools boys studied not only music but all other subjects of formal education. Inevitably a close link was established between the universities and the cathedrals.

Music itself developed: there grew from the unison of the Gregorian chant a new style, which culminated in the complex and extraordinarily lovely polyphonic masterpieces of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Reformation in Europe created a vast gap in the church's musical literature, especially in England and Germany, with its demand for music in the vernacular. Music for solo voices was introduced, and the cathedral choir was divided into two halves as antiphonal singing became more customary.

Meanwhile, the cultural influence of the church began to decline in the humanistic atmosphere of the Renaissance, and a new secular school of music began to flourish. Patronage came first from the ruling aristocracy, later composers became more independent, and during the last two hundred years two choral traditions have continued side by side.

The European tradition is a great one, and it was the intention of the founders of The Berkshire Boy Choir that a male choir of boys and men be established in the United States to draw on this historic background. It would combine the best of the past in the context of the present day, to create a unique American institution. The members of the Choir assembled for their first season in June, 1967, at their home in the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts, a mile from Tanglewood. Eight weeks of intensive training, study, and rehearsal led to appearances on concert stages and in churches, and the performances fully justified the sponsors' original hopes. Now in their second season, The Berkshire Boy Choir continues to make great music, and to give their members an exacting schooling in choral technique at its best, while bringing to their audiences the rare opportunity of hearing the great choral literature of the last four hundred years.

Andrew Raeburn

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This page was last modified on 01 September 2004