By Frederic Dean1
Contributed by Douglas Neslund
the days of King Solomon, when worship music was seemingly
raised to the very highest point of perfection, and the large
choral bodies of adult male singers were augmented from time to
time with hundreds of women "and boys," the boy
chorister flitted in and out of view, until the dawn of the
Christian era, since when he has held almost undisputed and
unbroken sway in the choir-loft and chancel. True, his services
were dispensed with in the Sistine Chapel choir at Rome during
the fifteenth century, but, at about the same date, boys were
singing in the Chapel Royal in London, and they continue there
to this day. The first recorded praise of any English singer was
that paid to the choristers in the time of Henry VIII, when his
royal Viennese visitor was so enchanted that he wrote home that
their voices were more heavenly than human, and that they did
not chant like men, but gave praise like angels. Haydn sobbed
when he heard "the beautiful voices of the boys" in
St. Paul’s, and one of the best performances of "The
Messiah" given in Handel’s day was sung by a body of
choristers, "boys and men fifty-five in number."
reason for the churchly bent of most of the modern British
composers is that they were brought up as choir-boys. From the
time of the Restoration, when Captain Henry Cooke was appointed
"master of the children," the list of English
musicians is virtually the list of the Chapel Royal and St. Paul
boys grown to manhood.
Sullivan, standing; John Henry Barnett, seated. The
earliest known portrait of Sullivan, a photograph made
just after entrance to Chapel Royal.
Purcell, the father of English opera, and Thomas Tallis, the
father of English cathedral music, both were graduates from the
Chapel Royal choir. Richard Farrant, William Byrd, Orlando
Gibbons, Thomas Morley, and all the rest of the anthem and song
writers of Merrie England down to Joseph Barnaby and Arthur
Sullivan, studied their musical a-b-c’s in cassock and cotta.
Barnaby and Sullivan, both knighted for their distinction in
music, the one for his work for the chancel, the other for work
for the stage, were noted for their voices as youngsters.
Barnaby charmed the listeners at York Minster by his solos, and
Arthur Sullivan so captivated Thomas Helmore, the Chapel Royal
choir-master, with his singing of "With Verdure Clad,"
that he was admitted to the choir when he was eleven years of
it may well be understood that it is not only in England that famous
musicians have begun their musical careers as choristers.
history tells us that [Johann]2
Sebastian Bach when a lad had so beautiful a soprano voice that
his singing in the choir gave him his schooling free. [Joseph]
Haydn says: "At the time I was six I stood up like a man
and sang the masses in the church," and that nothing in his
whole career was so heartbreaking as the giving up of his choir
work, when his brother Michael sang the Salve Regina in his
place. [Christoph Willibald] Gluck maintained himself as a boy
chorister. [Franz] Schubert was the first soprano in the
Lichtenthal [Austria] choir before he was eleven years old, and
was noted for the beauty of his voice and the appropriate
expression he gave to the music. [Gioacchino] Rossini sang solos
in church, at three pauls (thirty cents) a service, when he was
nine years of age, and [Felix]Mendelssohn[-Bartholdy] took his
place among the grown people in the Singakademie [Vienna] when
he was in his eleventh year, and "thrust his hands into the
slanting pockets of his trousers as he rocked to and fro,
singing a clear and true alto."
struggle between the Germans and Italians for musical supremacy
showed itself in the formation of a body of German choristers as
a rival to the Sistine Chapel choir at Rome. Under orders of
Frederick IV of Prussia the Cathedral choir was formed,
consisting of over fifty carefully selected voices of boys and
men. Its members were most rigidly drilled in everything
pertaining to their music, and the most delightful effects were
produced by the perfect balance of tone and the harmonious
blending of the voices.
is nearly one hundred and fifty years ago that one William
Dickey, an English school-teacher, came to this country and
advertised to teach the Te Deum to those who would sing in his
(old Trinity) choir; and among his choristers were "lads of
ten years and upwards."
Henry S. Cutler came to Trinity Church, New York, from the
Church of the Advent in Boston (1860) he dismissed all the women
singers from his choir, and substituted boys in their place,
appointing as leaders of the two sides two boys who have since
grown to fame in the musical world, and are known today as Henry
Eyre Brown, of Brooklyn, and Caryll Florio, organist and
composer, and at the present music director of Mr.
Vanderbilt’s country home, "Biltmore," at Asheville,
North Carolina. There was also a Master James Little, who sang
the solos in Trinity Church, New York, with a "voice of
extra power and splendor," and a Master Hopkins, who was
not far behind in beauty of tone and brilliancy of execution.
G. Rockwood as 69-year-old chorister.
G. Rockwood as 9-year-old chorister.
first choral service in this country was sung in the Church of
the Holy Cross, in the city of Troy, New York, fifty-five years
ago, under Dr. John Ireland Tucker; and the oldest living
American boy chorister is Mr. George G. Rockwood, who sang in
this choir as a boy sixty years ago, and who is singing yet. The
first choir-dress worn in this country was worn in this same
church. The boys wore a uniform - the girls, poke-bonnets and
purple capes. Master Rockwood sang his first concert solo when
he was nine years old. His uncle, Warren B. Rockwood (the first
American countertenor), had written for the lad the words and
music of an aria entitled, "Look Aloft and Be Firm,"
and it was this solo that launched young George upon his concert
career. He sang it everywhere, and it always aroused his
auditors to pronounced demonstrations of approval.
1867 there came to New York City an organization known as
"Wood’s Minstrels," and one of the features of the
musical part of the entertainment was the singing of the
"boy wonder," Master Richard Coker. His gift was too
great to allow him to remain long upon the minstrel stage,
however, and he was soon tempted away from his theatrical
friends, and sent to England and the Continent on a concert
tour. In London he had the pleasure of singing duets and trios
with Sims Reeves and Mme. [Charlotte Helen] Sainton-Dolby. The
price for his services was twenty guineas an evening, and he was
féted by royalty and petted by the common people. At a private
concert given by him at Marlborough House before the royal
family he was commanded to sit by Princess Mary of Cambridge
while he was not singing, and he received every mark of favor
that even royalty could bestow upon its favorite. The souvenir
programmes of this occasion were of white satin edged with gold
lace. In Birmingham he sang "Hear Ye, Israel" before
an audience of four thousand people, and captivated his hearers
by his modest demeanor as well as his superb voice. On his
return to America young Coker sang in New York, Philadelphia,
and other large cities with renewed success, and was secured by
Dr. Cutler for Trinity choir, New York, at the then fabulous
salary of a thousand dollars a year.
Toedt is the name of another remarkable boy chorister who was a
graduate of Trinity choir. There is a programme in existence
that records his singing at a concert in the Brooklyn Academy of
Music in 1871, his principal number being "Robert, toi que
j’aime," which was given with "the fire and spirit
of an accomplished prima donna." Master Toedt was naturally
a fine musician, could read anything at sight, and played the
piano exceptionally well. When he grew to manhood he was for
many years a prominent solo tenor, and was in constant demand at
oratorio and other concerts, and was soloist at St.
Bartholomew’s, New York, for many years.
Gilbert Bourne, better known in the musical world a few years
ago as the barytone soloist in the choir of the Church of St.
Mary the Virgin, New York, was still a third soloist at Trinity
at about the same time. At a special musical service given in
the church these three boys sang the angels’ trio from
"Elijah," "Lift Thine Eyes," and the
celebrated tenor Leslie sang "Sound the Alarm."
Kavanaugh came from Chicago, and owed his start in the musical
world to the drill he received in Grace Church choir of that
city. His voices was of wonderful range, extending from low G to
high C, and had the peculiar vibrant quality of the voice of a
mature woman, with the purity of a child’s. He swayed his
audience at will, from smiles to tears, and from tears to
amazement at his daring virtuosity. It was he whom Mme. [Adelina]
Patti went to hear in San Francisco, and after calling
"bravos" to him from her seat in the audience, hurried
to the stage and, embracing him, welcomed him as a "brother
William H. Lee, the handsome barytone of the American Opera
Company, made his bow at the Academy of Music, New York, fifteen
years ago, with Pauline L’Allemand, Charlotte Walker, and the
others in the American Opera Company, it was supposed by many
that this was his first operatic appearance. But there are
historic "Bills of the Play" of the Boston Museum,
under date of 1879, where a certain "Juvenile Pinafore
Company" gave performances of Sullivan’s opera with this
cast: Ralph Rackstraw, William H. Lee; Josephine, Ida Mulle;
Buttercup, Little Corinne; Hebe, Ida Conquest; Sir Joseph, Fritz
Williams; Dick Deadeye, Ben Lodge. This organization gave one
hundred and six performances at the Boston Museum.
Lee had been heard in concert and oratorio here and in Boston,
and had sung in various other cities. His voice was high and
clear, and he was always a good reader. At the performances of
"Pinafore" he sang not only his own music but much of
the Captain’s as well, as the lad cast for that part was a
better actor than singer. It has always been claimed that this
was the "youngest operatic cast in the history of the
stage." Little Corinne was only five, and sang and spoke
every word in her part; and neither Lee nor Williams was yet in
is over a dozen years ago that Master Harry Brandon was the
favorite singer among the worshipers at the Church of the Holy
Spirit. "Never shall I forget," said a music-lover,
"the first time I heard this wonderful boy. He was
announced to sing the aria ‘Jerusalem’ from ‘St. Paul,’
and I expected the usual vain attempts of a boy to get the notes
- let alone the meaning - of the music. The prelude was over,
and suddenly I heard a sweet, full voice singing in most
reverential tones. There was more than mere music in it - there
was devotion. I looked at the singer in amazement. There he
stood with eyes and face turned heavenward, and finished the
aria without once glancing at the notes. Mendelssohn’s music
was illumined by the boy’s soul."
Cyril Tyler inherited his remarkable voice from his father,
Signor Tagliere. He was born in Naples, and grew up to boyhood
with the beautiful Southern speech ever about him. He heard the
best music, and knew no other. The boy had many things in his
favor: a handsome face, a beautifully modeled head, and a
charming stage-manner. He was possessed of great magnetic power,
and to a voice of exquisite quality he brought rare execution.
His singing of the "Shadow Song" from "Dinorah,"
and the "Carnival of Venice," the Schubert
"Serenade," and [Charles] Gounod’s "Ave
Maria" showed his versatility to the greatest advantage.
French, German, Italian, English - all were familiar to him, and
he sang in each language as naturally as if it were his own. His
phrasing was good, his staccatos and runs clear and well
accented, and his memory remarkable. His vogue was at its height
eight years ago, when he was in his twelfth year. He was heard
in concerts in all of the large cities at that time. It was
always a pleasure for him to sing, and he made his audience
share his pleasure.
Meehan has traveled extensively in England, France, Germany,
Spain, and Portugal, and everywhere received the plaudits of the
lovers of song. He was for several years the soprano soloist of
St. George’s Episcopal Church. It was Mr. John Francis
Gilder’s song, "To Be Near Thee," that won for
Master Meehan his most marked successes wherever he went. It
mattered little of what nationality his audience was composed,
this simple American ballad went to their hearts as none of his
more pretentious arias did, and although they knew not the
words, they guessed at their meaning, and applauded the vocal
beauties and the artistic finish of the singer.
of the best advertised boy choristers of the day is Master Earl
Gulick, whose singing won the warmest encomiums from President
McKinley and other dignitaries. [Mme. Helena] Modjeska calls him
"my dear little friend with the angel voice." "He
sings like an angel," says Emma Thursby; and Franklin W.
Hooper, of the Brooklyn Institute, goes so far as to say,
"I know of no voice that so touches the heart." He has
been known for the past few years as the "American
Nightingale," and has honestly won his title. As a lad he
was found to have that rare gift, absolute pitch. He very early
exhibited keen musical perception and intelligence.
years ago there came to New York from Detroit a boy soprano by
the name of Witter Peabody. He appeared in New York, and in
Boston and Providence, as a professional singer. "His trill
is equal to [Dame Nellie] Melba’s," said one critic.
"His voice is as beautiful as Emma Eames’s," said
George Bagdasarian is a young Armenian who has delighted the
parishioners of Grace Church, New York, with his beautiful
voice. To hear him sing the simple, old-fashioned setting of
Hursley to the hymn "Sun of My Soul" was a pleasure
not to be missed.
was brought to this country from Armenia when he was two years
old. At the age of seven he was singing in a choir; when he was
eight he sang in three choirs in Cambridge, Massachusetts - St.
John’s, Christ Church, and Appleton Chapel at Harvard; and
when he was eleven he came to Grace Church, New York, and sang
by the side of the noted Harold Yale and Harry Smith, and when
Master Smith’s voice changed, he took his place.
Smith is one of the "thousand-dollar boys," having
received that sum per annum for his services in Grace Church
choir, New York. He went from All Angels Church, New York, with
Mr. Helfenstein to Grace Church, where he sang for five years.
Harold Yale came from Minnesota, and was one of Mr.
Helfenstein’s famous Grace Church boys.
brothers, Harold and Leonard, are from the Garden City Cathedral
choir, where they have been noted for the purity of their voices
and their good musicianly work.
of the youngest boy choristers singing in New York today is
Master Allen Fenno, the soloist at All Angels Church. Master
Fenno has just passed his twelfth birthday. He comes from New
Haven [Connecticut], and is a pupil of Mr. William H. Lee’s.
When he applied for the position at All Angels and had sung his
own solo, he was asked if he could read. For answer he sang an
aria which he had never seen before with such sureness of attack
and intuitive expression that he was engaged on the spot. At his
first service he sang the Handel aria "Angels Ever Bright
and Fair" with remarkable power for one so young.
"With Verdure Clad" and "There is a Green
Hill" are other favorite sacred solos of his, while his
secular songs range from the popular solos of [Francesco Paolo]
Tosti to those, less frequently sung, of Liza Lehmann. For two
years he was soloist in his home church, Holy Trinity of New
Haven, under Mr. Harry J. Read, and to Mr. Read’s careful
training he is indebted for his schooling in the church service.
is still a younger chorister in New York, Charles Arthur
Bradley, who was a member of Calvary Church (New York) choir
when he was eight years old, but who has been taken out of
active work for special voice training. He has not yet arrived
at the dignity of his tenth birthday, but sings many of the
familiar sacred arias and all of the service with wonderful
sureness and beauty of tone. He has already sung ballads at
private musicales, and objects to the restraint from his choir
work; but his teacher will permit no public appearance until he
has reached a more mature age.
of the prominent singers of the present generation began as boy
choristers, the three English tenors Edward Lloyd, Sims Reeves,
and Joseph Maas being notable examples. George Sweet was first
heard of as a boy chorister in Brooklyn, and Signor Novara, of
the Mapleson operatic reign at the Academy of Music, and the
great [Luigi] Lablache of a preceding era, were both choristers
as boys. In fact, it would be difficult to go into any assembly
of musical men and not find among the best musicians (if not the
best vocalists) many who had had their early training as
Reprinted from the April, 1902 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine,
Vol. XXIX, No. 6; contributed by Douglas Neslund
Bracketed information added by Douglas Neslund.
Footnote to pages 542-3 of the article “Boy Choristers”
by Frederic Dean in “St Nicholas. An Illustrated Magazine for
Young Folks” (XXIX/6) April 1902.
Dean makes a few errors in his paragraphs on Henry Stephen Cutler
and Richard Coker. Wood’s Minstrels came to New York City in 1862
(not 1867) and Richard Coker appeared with them (as “Master Wood,
The Musical Prodigy”) almost daily for eight months from July 1863
until March 1864. His European concert tour took place in 1866 and
it was before then, not upon his return to America, that he was a
member of the Trinity Church Choir under Dr Henry Stephen Cutler,
who had been appointed organist and choirmaster in November 1858
(not 1860). Coker was in the choir from May 1864 to April 1865 and
gave concerts in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc. between
February 1865 and February 1866.
Brian J. Pearson