"A boy sings ... a beautiful thing."
   

 

Boys Singing Togther: A Brief History

by Andrew Marr, OSB

 It seems a fair assumption that boys have sung together and singly for as long as there have been boys in the world. But how many people have really heard boys singing and taken note of the particular quality of sound that they produce? The numerous boychoirs scattered throughout the world and the many recordings these choirs have made show that many people today do take notice of boys’ singing. Such people might think that boychoirs have existed at all times and places. They have not. There are many boys who, if potentially interested in singing in a boychoir, would have no such choir to join in their town, sometimes not even in their state and, in some instances, not even in their own nation. Even in our time and place, there are is surprising number of professional musicians and critics who seem unaware of what well-trained boys can accomplish vocally. I recently heard of a boy who, seeking voice training, was turned down by several teachers because they did not think it was worth while to train a male before his voice changed! And yet, just a few months before this quest took place, a thirteen-year-old boy named Lorin Wey had made a breathtaking recording of Handel’s Gloria. Taking sufficient notice of boys’ voices to cultivate their sound and channel it into high quality performances and recordings takes huge expenditures of effort and resources, not to speak of a great willingness to nourish the young and an overpowering love of music. When we add the traumas of war, social injustice and gender issues, we can see that the boychoir as in institution is highly fragile.

 

Before Christianity

 An institution such as a boychoir can only occur in a society with a fairly complex level of social differentiation. For all of the singing and dancing that takes place in tribal societies, there is little opportunity for specialized performers to emerge. Even when a society does evolve to a high level of complexity, it does not necessarily come to include boychoirs. Ancient China, for example, developed a musical culture so sophisticated that they had 300-piece orchestras, but they did not cultivate boychoirs. The record is no different for the ancient civilizations of Egypt, India or Japan. The Jerusalem Temple Cult in Judaism lead to the development of specialized musicians, but this was restricted to men from the tribe of Levi. The Talmud does make a reference to the adding of a few boys’ voices to that of the men “to add sweetness.” This practice hardly amounts to a choir of men and boys as we know it today, but it does hint at some appreciation of boys’ voices in ancient Jewish culture.

The Classical Culture of Greece and Rome did cultivate choirs of boys for their worship, especially on festive occasions. A choir of boys was often considered necessary at sacrificial ceremonies and were also employed to sing the peoples’ entreaties to the gods in supplicatory processions. Many singing schools were founded to train the boys in these duties. Lucian of Samosata surely spoke for many in his own time as he speaks for many today when he said that a boy’s voice is “perfectly delicate, not so deep as to be called masculine nor so fine as to be effeminate and lacking power, but falling soft, mild and lovely upon the ear.”

 

Early Christian Centuries

 Christian worship in the first three centuries was highly congregational and differentiated choirs did not normally occur. The hymns were almost always sung in unison on the grounds that unison singing embodied the unity of the Church in Christ. It is noteworthy that the active participation of children was explicitly called for by many early Christian writers. The great fourth century theologian Gregory Nazianzus noted that the singing of children “excites compassion and is most worthy of the divine mercy.” Gregory’s colleague, Basil of Caesarea, commended the fervent singing of the children and contrasted their enthusiasm to the lukewarm participation of their elders.

When the Emperor Constantine transformed Christianity from a persecuted sect to the established religion of the Roman Empire in 325, the organization of the church became more elaborate and hierarchical structures were solidified. This is also the time that when women were eventually disenfranchised not only from active ministry, but also from singing in church, contrary to much church practice up to that time. One of the last holdouts of earlier ways was at Edessa where Ephraim the Syrian wrote hundreds of hymns that were sung by a women’s choir of virgins and a choir of boys. It became the practice to train boys as lectors, usually as part of their formation as future priests and bishops. Singing was part of a lector’s job and so these boys became choirs that played an important role in the Church’s liturgy. The Schola Cantorum in Rome was first formed late in the seventh century to train their boys in reading and singing, and this became the model for similar institutions throughout Europe. Monasteries, an institution that had its beginnings in the fourth century, often accepted boys among their ranks to educate them to be the monks of the future. As part of their monastic formation, these boys sang the Divine Office with the monks.

By the sixth century, the Roman Empire had disintegrated in Europe and the resulting social chaos was not conducive to cultural activities of any kind. For several centuries, the monasteries were the prime cultivators of culture and most of the education that occurred took place in their houses. It was primarily in this milieu that boys continued to sing the church liturgy with the monks and priests as part of their education. The many convents that were also established during these years took in girls and educated them in much the same way as boys were educated in the monasteries. Although the nuns were in a marginal position in the Church, they developed an impressive subculture that reached its greatest height in the writings and music of St. Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth century.

 

Middle Ages and Renaissance

 As Europe’s slow recovery of social structures finally gained momentum starting with the tenth century, urban cathedrals became more important places for education than the monasteries. This meant that boys’ involvement in sung liturgy also shifted to the cathedrals. One of the earlier instances of this shift occurred in 957 when Bishop Wolfgang separated his diocese from the Abbey of St. Emmeran Abbey and moved the choir to his cathedral in the center of the city. This date is the basis on which the Regensburger Domspatzen (“Cathedral Sparrows”), as they boys are called, base their claim to be the oldest continuing choir of boys and men in the world. Other examples of this trend nearly two centuries later are the first choir school founded at old St. Paul’s Cathedral, London in1127, and a choir established at St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig in 1212. A boarding school for choristers at the Kreuzkirche (Church of the Holy Cross) in Dresden is first mentioned in 1300. This choir is known today as the Dresdner Kreuzchor. These schools were among very few alternatives these boys had to being trained for the noble profession of warfare.

The two basic services in both monasteries and cathedrals that the boys participated in were the Eucharist and the Divine Office. The Eucharist is centered on a ritual re-enactment of Jesus’ Last Supper in which the bread and wine are consecrated at the altar. The texts that make up the Ordinary of the Mass which are the basis of numerous musical settings are mostly peripheral to this main action of the Mass, but when the Ordinary is sung, it provides a recurring musical thread for the liturgy. The Divine Office derives primarily out of the monastic tradition and is comprised mostly of the Psalms plus Biblical canticles, of which the Magnificat and Benedictus taken from Luke’s Gospel are the most important. (In his Rule, St. Benedict required his monks to chant all 150 psalms at least once in the course of each week.)

The music sung by the boys all this time was plainsong, commonly called Gregorian Chant, named after Pope Gregory I. Contrary to popular belief, the pope did not compose the music himself; he used his position to order other people to collect and collate the available liturgical materials, including the music, during his pontificate of 590-603. Gregorian Chant is meant to be sung in unison in a fluid manner where the rhythm is governed by the text rather than musical considerations. The boys in monasteries and cathedrals would normally have sung in unison with the men, and so did not really function as a choir of boys and men as understood today. However, the boys were also assigned certain appropriate texts to sing by themselves, usually texts that mention children, such as the Palm Sunday antiphon: “the children of the Hebrews spread their cloaks in the road and cried: Hosanna to the Son of David.” An increasing devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fifteenth century lead to the creation of Lady chapels where boys from the local almonry school were trained to sing at the masses. In 1429, when the boy singers at the Cathedral in Augsburg are referred to for the first time, they are called the “Marianer.”

Monophonic chant had ruled the Church for over a thousand years by the time polyphony broke out in the music of composers such as Léonin and Pérotin in the twelfth century. They still based their music closely on plainsong. Usually they would take a traditional chant melody and add first one independent voice singing a descant, and later, a second and sometimes even a third. The effect was startling. Then, as now, there were some who complained bitterly of this modern music, but it became too popular for even the most powerful bishops to squelch it. In the 1360's, Guillaume Machaut wrote his Messe de Notre Dame, the first integrated polyphonic setting of the Ordinary of the Mass. This new-fangled music flowered in the fifteenth century in the works of Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockegem and Josquin Desprez.

These exciting developments had little or no effect on the Church’s singing boys for about three centuries. These “Ars Nova” works, as they were called, were mostly pitched in the range of men’s voices, and even works such as those of Josquin Desprez that are sometimes sung by boychoirs today are in range for counter-tenors to sing the top parts. That is to say, although boys trained in singing and liturgy were at hand in the cathedrals and other central churches, music masters were slow to take the time to teach the boys the new, difficult skills this music required. In England, the first polyphonic works involving the use of boys were written during the 1450's and 60's. By 1469, Canterbury Cathedral had a small group of boys and monks who were called “singers of this church.” A splendid Magnificat by Canterbury’s choirmaster John Nesbett survives as an example of a monumental repertoire that has since been mostly lost. Once the boys were given the chance to join this musical movement, they rewarded the world with their singing of John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Orlando di Lassus and the incomparable Palestrina. The sound typically produced by boys’ voices proved highly suitable to the increasingly complicated threads of polyphonic music where each voice-part needs to be heard. Once the boys were invited in to the Polyphony Club, they responded in enough spades to fill the cathedrals in Europe. Otherwise, many great choral works would not have been written as they were. This episode suggests that boychoirs today, too, can rise to this sort of challenge when it is offered them.

This musical explosion resulted in the founding of many important choral foundations for boys and men that retain their importance to the present day. In 1446, King Henry VI laid the cornerstone for the chapel of King’s College in Cambridge. The choral foundation for Magdalen College in Oxford was established in 1480, and Cardinal Wolsey founded there Christchurch College in 1526 with an endowed chapel choir. The first documentary evidence of boys singing at Westminster Abbey in London comes in the job description for William Cornyshe when he assumed duties there as choirmaster in 1479. In Vienna, the Emperor Maximilian established his Hofmusikkappelle in 1498 with a choir of twelve boys and eight men trained to sing in the “Brabantine” Style made popular by contemporary Flemish composers. This is normally considered the beginning of the present-day Vienna Boys’ Choir. High quality choirs of men and boys also spread to Russia where rich settings of the Orthodox liturgy were composed.

 

The Reformation

 Many things changed in Europe after Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on October 31, 1517, and these changes had huge effects on choristers throughout the continent. Some of the effects were destructive but, over all, European music culture became much richer for the tumult, and boy sopranos were among the major actors of this resurgence.

Of the three major branches of the Reformation, the Reformed Church founded by John Calvin had much the most destructive effect on church music. Musical instruments and choirs were abolished and only simple congregational singing, mostly of metrical psalms, was left. Choristers in the affected areas had to stop singing or go elsewhere. It needs to be said, however, that Calvinists were not necessarily philistines and many of them had a high appreciation of music. They just didn’t want to mix artistic music with worship. Instead, they cultivated music in their homes and other places in the community. Although the English Puritan Oliver Cromwell abolished choirs in England for a time in the 17th century, he included two choirboys in his entourage to entertain him after dinner. So it is that the Calvinists laid the social groundwork for civic music ensembles that were to dominate the musical scene a couple of centuries later.

Martin Luther had a huge respect for and knowledge of music, and he made sure that music would continue to play a major role in the church that bears his name. In his reforms, he redirected the use of music in major ways that greatly enriched ecclesiastical music. Although Martin Luther retained a good deal of the traditional Catholic liturgy in his new orders of worship, these liturgical texts played a small part in the Lutheran Church music. The return to the Gospel in Luther’s theological outlook lead to settings of many Biblical texts that caught the drama of these passages of scripture. We can see these qualities in the multi-choral settings of psalms by Heinrich Schütz as well as in his small-scale Geistliche Konzerte for small ensembles of solo voices, where he demonstrated his ability to pack a wallop in a small space. For many years, Schütz had no alternatives to using small vocal forces because the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) disrupted much more than church choirs. Dramatic settings of the Passion narratives became popular, culminating in the monumental St. Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. Luther’s belief that faith in Christ overcomes one’s bondage to sin was dramatized time and again in the cantatas of J.S. Bach that were the heart of worship in Leipzig. With women still not allowed to perform in church (Martin Luther was not famous for his pro-feminist views), men and boys assumed the heavy duties of these musical programs in places such as the Dresdner Kreuzkirche and St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, as well as in the court chapels of the Lutheran nobility.

The English Reformation was launched by Henry VIII when Pope Clement VII would not annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and allow him to marry Ann Boleyn. The king had little interest in changing either the structures or theological outlook of the church except to close all of the monasteries for the sake of material gain rather than any pious disposition. In most cases, cathedral and collegiate choirs remained intact at this time. Sympathy with both Lutheranism and Calvinism was high in England and Henry’s death in 1547 opened the door to religious culture wars that convulsed the island for over a century. Under the brief rule of the young Edward VI, the Calvinistic outlook gained the upper hand. This threat to England’s musical heritage was prevented by Edward’s early death in 1553. Queen Mary, a Catholic, returned England to the Papal fold, but her death in 1558 prevented a consolidation of that aim. Queen Elizabeth I presided over the Elizabethan Settlement that established the Church of England as a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Calvinism under the headship of the Crown. Neither hardened Calvinists nor devoted Catholics accepted this settlement, but it provided enough stability for the Church of England to flourish.

Thomas Cranmer was assigned the task of compiling a new prayer book for the new English Church by Henry VIII and, with some modifications, his work was enshrined in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer of the Elizabethan Settlement. Cranmer was very Protestant in his theological outlook but, as a great liturgical scholar, he had a strong respect for the structure of Christian worship over the centuries. As a result, the Book of Common Prayer features an Order of Holy Communion that retains the Ordinary of the Mass except for moving the Gloria to the end, and daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer influenced by the monastic offices. Up to the late 19th century, Communion services were too rare to inspire any musical settings, but the canticles for the offices, especially the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis of Evening Prayer have received so many settings that all the manuscripts could sink the royal yacht. Cranmer also allowed for the singing of an anthem towards the end of each office, with the result that enough English anthems have been written to sink the Queen Mary. Queen Elizabeth’s appreciation of music ensured a high level of quality in England’s church choirs.

The influence of the new theology in the English Reformation brought about a major change in the style of church music. The reformers’ concern that the Christian message be clearly proclaimed in worship lead to the jettisoning of complex polyphony for a much plainer style that would have “a plain and distinct note for every syllable,” in the words of the Lincoln Cathedral injunctions of 1548. Although Thomas Tallis and William Byrd remained tenacious Catholics and continued to write in the older style, they also lent their talents to the new Anglican music, with Byrd’s Great Service being a particularly fine example. Over the next eighty years, composers such as Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins and Thomas Weelkes provided an array of masterpieces in a dignified style where, indeed, the words are clear and distinct, and the music fits itself to the emotional content of the words in a restrained style. Some “full anthems” were written where the full choir sang throughout in a polyphonic texture, but much more popular were “verse anthems” where solos and solo groups alternated with responses by the full choir. These verse anthems gave the more outstanding boys and men in these choirs the chance to show off their vocal skills.

All this time, the culture war between the Calvinistic Puritans and the Anglicans that had been smouldering for about a century exploded in Oliver Cromwell’s revolt in 1641 and the establishment of his Commonwealth in 1649. True to the Calvinistic form of the day, the church choirs were disbanded and the organs were destroyed along with much church fabric. The biggest and most permanent loss was the pillaging of church music libraries and the subsequent destruction of many precious manuscripts. Thankfully, the sumptuous and dynamic Euge Bone Mass of Christopher Tye survived, but its survival signals the loss of many masterpieces and the subsequent obscurity of a great composer.

After the death of Cromwell, most English people had had enough of Puritan rule and the monarchy was restored in 1662. The Elizabethan Settlement was reestablished and the choirs were reassembled. In the midst of this revival, a chapel choir was established at St. John’s College in Cambridge in 1670. Restarting boys’ choirs was quite a challenge, but England was blessed with choristers of the caliber of John Blow, Pelham Humfrey, and the incomparable Henry Purcell to furnish much-needed leadership for their generation. While the new generation of boys were being trained, the verse anthem evolved with much longer verses and shorter choral responses, almost always with men singing the solos. Understandable as this development was, it retarded the development of choral music and the use of boys’ voices as a “star” system took over where individual singers, especially counter-tenors, were showcased and the bit parts for the full choir became smaller. Like other kinds of human beings, boys are encouraged when they are given something significant to sing.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church underwent a widespread reform of its own. Much of this reform was a retrenchment of its tradition, but it was also a revitalization of the Church’s spirituality. Palestrina, Victoria, and William Byrd gave powerful musical expression to this renewed passionate faith. Church leaders also devoted much attention to correcting many practices called into question by the Protestant Reformers. They called polyphonic music into question in Rome for the same reasons that the Reformers questioned it, most particularly the tendency of such music to obscure the text. Out of this tension comes the now-discredited story that Cardinal Borromeo threatened to ban all polyphonic music from Catholic worship unless somebody a polyphonic mass was presented to him in which all the words could be heard. Palestrina rose to the occasion with the Missa Papae Marcelli and saved the day. Historical myth aside, A decree of the Council of Trent in 1562 did call for clarity of text in liturgical music and Palestrina took these decrees quite seriously as we can see in his majestic Missa Papae Marcelli where each word of the Latin text comes through with full clarity.

The fervor of the Catholic Reformation drove missionary outreach that extended to all the corners of the earth. Of particular interest here are the reductions set up by the Jesuit missionaries in the Amazon Forest in the 17th century. These reductions were formed as autonomous settlements for the Guaraní tribes so as the shield them from the depredations of the Conquistadors. The Jesuits, highly competent in the fine arts, taught the native boys to sing the intricate church music being sung in Europe at the time. Accounts say that the boys were quick learners who became so proficient that their singing astonished Spanish visitors. Unfortunately, “political realities” lead to the demise of the reducions as anyone who has seen the movie Mission knows.

 

Church Choirs in Modern Times

 Starting with the late eighteenth century, a new concert culture flowered throughout Europe. Symphony orchestras and community choirs comprised of men and women were organized and, more often than not, they displaced the churches as civic centers for music. Adult choirs of women and men were clearly much more suited for the large-scale choral works composed during this era such as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Verdi’s Requiem. Boys, however, did not participate in this new movement at the time, although some still sang in churches. It was at this time that the belated admittance of women into church choirs took place. This act of justice helped diminish boys’ opportunities to sing, but the growing indifference to religion was a much bigger factor. Not only did church attendance drop significantly during the Enlightenment, but those who did go to church usually wanted less of it than before. By the time J.S. Bach became the cantor at St. Thomas in Leipzig in 1723, the extensive liturgical and musical life in that city was already exceptional, and it did not long outlive him.

In its anti-clerical backlash, the French Revolution abolished the cathedral choirs in its country. Napoleon’s subsequent tour of Europe caused further irreparable damage to church institutions elsewhere. The recent brave revival of the Maîtrise de Caen is one of only a few attempts of recovery from this loss in France. Both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches allowed their boychoirs to dissolve and only a few such choirs remain today. The sound of boys ceased at the Augsburg Cathedral in 1865, not to be reinstated until 1976. After having sung in the Riga Dom in Latvia since 1240, the boys there were disbanded, and did not return until 1990. Among Lutherans, St. Thomas Church in Leipzig still holds up the heritage of J.S. Bach and, thanks to the strong leadership of Rudolf Mauersberger during forty years of totalitarian rule, the Dresdner Kreuzkirche is a thriving institution. The choir’s biggest trauma occurred in February, 1945 when allied bombers attacked Dresden. The church was destroyed and eleven choristers were killed. A bomb that struck the chorister’s dormitory at Westminster Abbey would likewise have killed many choristers if the boys had not been evacuated during the Blitz. Besides the revived choir in Augsburg, the age-long traditions of the Regensburger Domspatzen and the choir school at the Spanish monastery of Montserrat are among the few remains in Europe of that Church’s former glory. In Vienna, the Empress Maria Teresa lacked enough interest in music to be willing to pay for it. Because of the stinginess of her purse, the boys who sang in the Hofmusikkappelle during her time, among them Josef and Michael Haydn, were on loan from St. Stephen’s Church. The building of Westminster Cathedral in London at the turn of the twentieth century is a different story. Thanks to the vision of Cardinal Herbert Vaughan and the musical sense of its first master of music Richard Runciman Terry, this cathedral became the home of a choir of men and boys that has since become a world-class ensemble under the extraordinary leadership of George Malcolm, David Hill, James O’Donnell, and Martin Baker.

The heavy lassitude that overcame the Church of England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries all but gutted that church’s glorious choral tradition. With ministers seriously derelict in their duties, it was no wonder that there was little life in the choirs. Only a tiny repertoire of simple music was in use. In 1849, Sebastian Wesley summed up the situation: “No cathedral in this country possesses, at this day, a musical force competent to embody and give effect to the evident intentions of the Church with regard to music.” Wesley put his money where his mouth was and he dedicated his life to improving the salaries and working conditions of organists and choirmasters. Meanwhile, Maria Hackett devoted fifty years to inspecting the choir schools where the boys suffered neglect and abuse. She harassed bishops and deans about these conditions until improvements were made, and she visited each school time and again to make sure that her standards were maintained. A return of religious fervor in the Church of England and a renewal of liturgy through the Anglo-Catholic revival also increased interest in fostering high-quality choirs throughout the Church. John Stainer, choirmaster at St. Paul’s in London starting from 1872, enlarged and improved the choir there and set a new standard for choir schools throughout England with the organization and discipline of his own school. It is unfortunate for John Stainer, then, that he is mostly remembered for almost drowning the nascent choral revival in the molasses of the music he and other contemporaries composed. It fell to Charles Stanford and Charles Wood to raise the standards of music for the Anglican liturgies. The wealth of their compositions and that of their numerous students, such as Herbert Howells, created an abundance of church music which, if not at the cutting of the music world as a whole, provided high quality music well-fitted to its liturgical context.

The twentieth century saw Anglican choirs of boys and men raised to new heights. Cathedral choirs such as St. Paul’s, London and Winchester and the collegiate choirs of Oxbridge have filled the naves of churches with their voices and provided a wealth of sterling recordings. Even at the time of this writing, this flowering of quality continues unabated, in spite of the small numbers of people currently involved in the Church of England, and the nearly total demise of boys’ choirs at the parish level. King’s College Choir in Cambridge is one of the most famous choirs in the world, and at least a dozen other British choirs deserve to be at least as famous. The Church of England has enriched the world with an array of commissions from the country’s leading composers written for her choristers that have made their tradition more vibrant than ever. The fragility of the present glory and the need for constantly renewed commitment is illustrated, however, by the story of St. John’s College Choir in Cambridge. In 1955, the college came very close to a decision to close the choir school rather than incur the expense of buying a nearby building that was needed to continue the choral foundation. This catastrophe was averted because a multitude of letters were sent from all over the world in the choir’s defense, crowned by a telegram from Ralph Vaughan Williams. The legacy of George Guest, Christopher Robinson and now David Hill shows us what great treasures we almost missed.

The frontier conditions in North America were hardly conducive to the formation of church choirs of any kind. Most churches resorted to hiring quartets to furnish music over and above congregational singing. Most of the Protestant churches in America had no tradition of boychoirs and neither the Catholics nor the Lutherans had enough left of that tradition to bring with them across the ocean. William Augustus Mulhlenberg began what became a modest rise of boys’ and men’s choirs in the Episcopal Church of the United States when he organized such a choir in Long Island in 1828. Sadly, this rise waned after World War II and very few Episcopal churches have such choirs today. There are a few bright spots here, however. The National Cathedral in Washington formed a men and boys’ choir on the British model in 1909 and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco did the same in 1913. St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York assembled a boys’ choir in 1902. Under the tenure of T. Tertius Noble, a choir school was opened in 1919, with the result that this choir has become one of the most accomplished church choirs in the country.

 

The Rise of Concert Boychoirs

 At the end of World War 1, the Habsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire came to an end. A much bigger loss was looming: the Hofmusikkappelle which had depended on imperial support. Austria’s Ministry of Education took responsibility for the choir, but it had no money to support it. Josef Schnitt became the rector of the Imperial Chapel in 1921 and re- organized the boys' choir at his own expense. By September 1924, Schnitt had a choir of thirteen and the Wiener Sängerknaben (Vienna Boys’ Choir) as we know them today were born. With funding still scarce except for Schnitt's generous pocket, the choir started to give concerts outside the chapel, performing motets and secular pieces, and—at the boys' request, short operettas. Within a year, the boys were performing in Berlin and soon after, all over the world. The choir’s highly acclaimed activities nearly ground to a halt after the Nazis annexed Austria. They arrested Father Schnitt for refusing to allow the choir to be used for propagandistic purposes, and Schnitt’s colleague, Ferdinand Grossmann took charge the of the choir. He did what he could to shield the boys from Nazi ideology, but he could not spare them from having to wear the swastikas on their uniforms. After 1945, Schnitt and Grossmann picked up the pieces and built the choir back to its pre-war standards of excellence. In the early 1960's, Hans Gillesberger became the director and maintained this height with many performances of the world’s choral masterpieces. Today, with four touring choirs, the Vienna Boys’ Choir is the best-known of all boychoirs.

In 1937, Herbert Huffman, a young graduate of Westminster Choir College chose to pursue his dream of creating a boychoir in Columbus, Ohio. Over a dozen boys responded to his first call for tryouts and the choir was born. Only two years later, a day choir school was formed to maximize the potential of the boys’ musical talent. With the popular Vienna Boys’ Choir unavailable to America in 1943, the Columbus Boychoir stepped into the breach with its first trip to New York where they sang at the Town Hall. The CBS, realizing the importance of raising the country’s spirits with the sound of the boys’ voices, broadcasted their singing to the whole nation. In 1946, the choir made their first tour and they have been touring ever since. In 1950, they moved the choir school to Princeton, New Jersey, a location more fitting for what had become a national organization. They completed their transition to being a national choir in 1981 when they changed their name to the American Boychoir.

In 1939, Eduardo Caso, a singer who was called “the tenor of the American airwaves,” moved to Tucson, Arizona in the hope of recovering from tuberculosis. When he recovered, he rewarded the city and its climate by fulfilling his dream of creating a boys’ choir. The result was the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, an ensemble that has maintained its high standards for over sixty-five years. Another pioneering effort in America began in 1946 when George Bragg founded the Denton Civic Boys Choir, which moved to Fort Worth in 1956 and became famous as the Texas Boys Choir. Among their past glories are a set of blockbuster albums of Gabrielli’s music made with Organist E. Power Biggs at St. Mark’s in Venice. Since his retirement, George Bragg has been a mentor to countless choirmasters throughout the country.

The founding of concert choirs gained more momentum after the second World War. The Petits Chanteurs de Versailles were founded in 1946, and they continue to offer excellent performances of French baroque music. Also in 1946, Hans Thamm, a former member of the Dresdner Kreuzchor, founded a boys’ choir in the small town of Windsbach in southern Germany. Today, under the high-strung direction of Karl-Friedrich Beringer, the Windsbacher Boys’ Choir gives electrifying performances of both baroque and modern music, including jazz. Soon after, in 1950, Heinz Hennig founded the Hannover Boys’ Choir and formed a world class choir out of his boys. Most impressive is the Tölzer Boys’ Choir, founded in 1956 by Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden in Bad Tölz, a small town in the middle of High Bavaria. Remarkably, without benefit of a choir school, Schmidt-Gaden has created one of the best vocal ensembles in the world for baroque and classical music, an ensemble just as capable of singing modern works as well. Not only does the choir sing with an excellence most choirs only dream about, but it has produced many outstanding soprano and alto soloists who have shown the world that boys today can accomplish vocally much more than many had thought possible. They were central participants in the Bach Cantata Project under the direction of Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt, a responsibility shared with the Hannover Boys’ Choir and the Wiener Sängerknaben, among others. Not only did the Tölzer Boys’ Choir sing many of the choral movements, but they furnished a large number of the soprano soloists to the project as well.

In the years following, concert boychoirs have been formed in many places in the world, many of them in the United States. There is not the space to mention them all. The Maryland Boys’ Choir, The Singing Boys of Florida, the North Carolina Boys Choir, and the Keystone State Boychoir (Pennsylvania) are named after their states. Cities such as Chattanooga and Phoenix have leant their names to their concert boychoirs. Close to where I live, the Battle Creek Boychoir in Michigan is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. Since 1969, the Boys Choir of Harlem has given new hope to countless youths in that part of Manhattan. The Pacific Boychoir, founded as recently as 1998, gave the first U.S. performance of a full Bach Cantata (#150) using boys both for choruses and treble solos in 2004. Let us hope this will be the beginning of more and greater things for this choir and many others.

Elsewhere in the world, the Australian Boys Choral Institute was founded in 1939. In addition to repertoire from their British heritage, they have enriched the musical world with performances of many Australian composers who deserve to be better known than they are. In 1967, John Tungay opened the doors of the Drakensburg Boys’ Choir School with twenty carefully selected boys from all over South Africa. To form a choir representing all the ethnic groups in a country that was still under Apartheid rule was surely as bold a move as it was socially and musically significant. It is unlikely that any choir in the world sings in more languages than these boys do. Not only are they proficient in European classical repertoire, but they also specialize in Anglo-American pop music and, more important of all, music from the heart of Africa. Boychoirs have recently become exceedingly popular in Japan, a popularity that lead to the creation of the Boys Air Choir, centered around the singing and now the conducting talents of Connor Burrowes, formerly a head chorister of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. With just eight boys at a time, this group has concocted many inventive performances and recordings. It is hoped that this interest in Japan will flower into the creation of native boychoirs alongside the notable Hiroshima Boychoir that was founded in 1960. Among the few boychoirs to exist under Communist rule in Easter Europe, the Moscow Boys’ Choir and Moscow Choral College in the Moscow Academy of Music under the direction of Viktor Popov have kept alive Russia’s musical heritage. The latter institution was reorganized as part of the Academy of Choral Arts, of which the boys’ choir is a separate part. The Boni Pueri of the Czech Republic, formed in 1982, has achieved much international recognition. Until its tragic demise in 2003, the Polskie Slovicki (The Polish Nightingales of Poznan) had achieved exceptional excellence in the most challenging of choral works.

These concert choirs are, for the most part, non-sectarian, and they do not have regular liturgical responsibilities, although most of them accept invitations to sing at church services. Traditional sacred music, however, is a significant part of just about every concert choir’s repertoire, which is not surprising, given the richness of this tradition. In addition, most of these choirs include lighter fare in their programs, such as show tunes and folk songs in ingenious arrangements. More often than not, some of their numbers are choreographed in ingenious ways that add to the charm of their concerts. There’s nothing like a boy who can twirl a lasso while singing “Riders in the Sky.”

Many of the ecclesiastical choirs mentioned earlier take time out of their liturgical responsibilities to bring the sound of their voices to the far corners of the world. Much of what these choirs perform in their concerts is music they sing in their own churches, although Barry Rose, retired choirmaster of St. Alban’s Cathedral Choir, was not above adding light music to his concerts that presumably were not used as church anthems. The choir of St. Philip’s in London, one of few surviving boys’ choirs at the parish level in England, has embarked on one of the most intriguing musical ventures in recent years. Although they normally sing traditional Anglican fare in church, their concerts, under the name of Libera, are devoted to the lush and haunting compositions and arrangements of the director Robert Prizeman. Their unique and sophisticated religious pop style can have an overpowering effect on the heartstrings.

The early music movement offers many opportunities for boychoirs who are willing to do the work that boys did in earlier centuries, even if we grant that attempts to restore early music practice do not exhaust the legitimate possibilities of their performance. The Bach Cantata project mentioned above is one sterling example. Another impressive accomplishment is the set of the complete anthems and service music of Henry Purcell sung by specially chosen boys with the King’s Consort under Robert King. Much music composed in the twentieth century has turned away from the opulent style of romanticism and returned to a leaner style more typical of earlier music. As a result, much twentieth-century choral music is suitable for boys’ voices, if not exclusively so. Igor Stravinsky stated a clear preference for boys’ voices in his Mass and Symphony of Psalms. Leonard Bernstein asked the same for his Chichester Psalms, as did Francis Poulenc for his Seven Tenebrae Responses, his last work. Many composers have made use of the distinctive timbre of boys’ voices as a contrasting sound to that of a large mixed chorus. The eighth symphony of Gustav Mahler comes to mind here, as do the Spring Symphony and War Requiem of Benjamin Britten and Stravinsky’s Persephone. This recognition by some of the last century’s greatest composers should be all the apologia that boychoirs need for their continued existence.

But will we listen to these composers and listen to boys sing in the future? At a time when thousands of children starve to death needlessly every day, it is not surprising that children are starved of music and much else as well. And yet, the resources for feeding everybody are available, and surely resources are also available to provide choirs for those who can thrive in that kind of environment. In fact, with the professional polish which boychoirs are capable of achieving, the investment of time and money leads to the almost instant gratification of hearing top-drawer performances of works such as Schubert’s G Major Mass. Liturgical renewal that has affected just about every church has emphasized congregational participation with the result that choirs, regardless of the makeup, are rarely asked to furnish very much service music except in historic cathedrals and choral-oriented parishes such as St. Thomas Fifth Avenue. This makes concert venues all the more important for the preservation of this music. These days, many civic boychoirs have sister choirs where girls, too, are given the opportunity to gain choral skills. Some English cathedrals have added a girls’ choir to their programs, a move that is threatening to some. Taking such belated notice of girls’ talents doubles the effort and expense that it takes to offer training to all children in a way that makes space for their differing qualities. Mixed children’s choirs are not a substitute for boys’ choirs; they are a niche with its own gifts. The only substitute for a boys’ choir is a boys’ choir. We will have to make some sacrifices if we are going to provide for our children physically and artistically. One such sacrifice we can make is to cut down on our production of bombs. The hurt experienced by females from centuries of exclusion from the music and ministry of the church and from the wider society is sometimes directed at the boychoirs that exist today, especially those which hold notoriety and prestige. Considering, however, the very low percentage of choirs today where boys alone sing the treble lines, one could argue that if there is any oppression now, it’s in the other direction. Moreover, one could argue that an institution that brings boys together in a cooperative venture, one that does not seek to defeat an opponent, is one means among many of creating the kind of reconstructed masculinity the world needs. One of the most important concerns of feminism is to give women their voices and allow their voices to be heard. Surely this concern needs to be part of a broader project of giving voices to all people and learning to listen to them, among them the voices of singing boys.

Copyright © 2005 Andrew Marr, OSB

 


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This page was last modified on 06 February 2006