The George Bragg Library

The Boy Singer vs. Boychoir:
An Historical Article
By George Bragg


There has been considerable speculation as to how old the art of boy choir is. Chartres had a boychoir school around 435 A.D., but there is evidence that on the Carthagian Peninsula on the North African coast, there was a song school established as early as the First Century A.D. There comes a time in research when one can no longer go backward in time looking for boy choirs; one must begin to look for boy singers.

The earliest historical evidence which I have found of the use of a boy singer occurred in Egypt in the Necropolis of Thebes, around 1500 B.C., in the New Empire. There, singing was done by soloists or in choral groups, either antiphonally by alternating choral groups, or responsively, one soloist starting, the choir responding with a ritornello (Hickmann, "Musikgeschichte in Bildern," Vol. 2; Leipzig, 1961).

Dancing was enthusiastically and dedicatedly cultivated along with singing and playing of instruments. It was an essential ingredient in the religious ritual of the Egyptian temple ceremonies (Hickmann, ibid.) The Dances of Ilia, performed by maidens and boys were immensely popular. Dances by boys alone were accompanied by girls clapping rhythmically.

Plato, who traveled in Egypt as an oil merchant between 398 and 385 B.C. highly praised the melody and rhythm of the strictly organized choir singing at certain festivals (Plato, "Laws II, 138"). He records that the youth of Egypt were instructed in choral singing. Of 24 books on the subject of astronomy, sacred measures, and rites, "Two Books of the Singer" contain hymns, exclamations and doxologies; songs of praise to the gods and kings (Wiedemann, "Die Religion der alten Ägypter," Münster, 1880).

The courts of Egypt had royal music directors as far back as the Old Empire (2778-2160 B.C.) In the Dynasty VI (2563-2423 B.C.) there is, among others, the name of a court musician and inspector of vocal music, and a royal music teacher.

Babylonian-Assyrian psalms of repentance and religious hymns strongly suggest that they were performed by one or by several half-choirs, or by a priest (precentor) and the responding choir antiphonally. Musical practice of Babylonia was the almost literal continuation of that of Sumeria (K. Neefe, p. 6). In Babylonia are formed the origins of those fascinating legends which, passing through Jewish spirituality, become the basis of Christianity, and eventually, of European civilization.

What was popular and practiced in Egypt became a matter of imitation with some variance in the adjacent nations according to the conditions, patterns, needs and appetites. In Babylonia, Assyria, Judea and eventually, Greece, the boy singer, either individually or corporately, was brought into the life of the courts of the royal personages of each nation, and woven into the patterns of religious worship.

The Old Testament refers to children’s songs only indirectly. However, early rabbinical literature contains definite references to them. Thus the presence of boys participating in the Levitical Choir at an early epoch, possibly even in the First Temple, if we consider the manner in which a Levitical singer was brought up to achieve professional mastery (Sandreys, "Music in the Social and Religious Life of Antiquity," 1974).

In the early period of temple music, psalm singing had been the exclusive prerogative of professional Levitical singers in the capacity both of soloists and choristers. The synagogue consisted of the assembled Jews – anywhere, public or private. In this "synagogue" is of the same nature as the later Christian concept of a "chapel" as evidenced in Burgundy (Flanders).

In Athens the public instruction of the citizens took place in the "Kyklios Koros." Following a primary education, to which every youth was subjected, every free-born citizen was supposed to participate in this choir if he had a thorough foundation in music from his earliest youth. Not only Athens, but all the Greek city-states sent choirs to the festival in Delos honoring Apollo.

With the exception of the Hebrews, no other people of antiquity assigned such an important role to singing as did the Greeks. Throughout antiquity up until the decline of Greek civilization, poets and singers were inextricably connected.

In artful singing, however, the public performances, at Mousic contests (Agon), as well as solemn occasions, the singers were represented as standing. The young boys learned this in their early music instruction. In the pictorial representations, the music students are always standing as if at attention. In contrast to solo singing, there was the Thiasis, in which singers marched or performed songs while moving in circles.

Homer ranked the singer in the same category as the physician and the carpenter: the practical necessities of life, of which singing was one. The Greek ideal of education was to bring the beautiful and good in every young man to the point of spiritual unity. Greek education was directed less to imparting knowledge to youth than to the formation of his character.

According to Plato and other great philosophers, music had the leading role among the Mousic arts. He considered music as the most important element of education; its aim was to develop the character and the morale of the individual; consequently the practice of music was not considered a "private" matter, but was the concern of the state. The Greeks considered singing an educational necessity and an integral part of a good education and it had a highly ethical significance.

All these requirements were lacking in Rome. Here singing had merely an utilitarian value, solida utilitas, with no other aim than entertainment. The quantity of singing in Rome had to supplant the quality in Greece. The quantity grew larger with the ever-spreading amateurism and it eventually took on gigantic proportions.

With the increase of all artistic media (orchestra and choir groups) musical practice became coarser and coarser, which did not diminish the pleasure of the Romans in singing or listening to it. In spite of the attitude of the Romans toward vocal art, so different from that of the Greeks, their pleasure in listening was no less intensive.

Romans considered that singing was not suitable for a free-born man or specially one of high standing. The playful practice of music was considered improper and the professional use of it indecent. As Greek culture spread, singing came to be accepted as respectable (Cicero). Craceno tells of a Roman knight practicing singing, which he had studied as a boy. Nepos (100-212 B.C.), a Roman historian, on the other hand, maintained that according to Roman custom, practicing music, especially singing, was not appropriate to a man of distinction. Nevertheless, during this time the love of music spread more and more throughout Roman society.

The Romans could be heard singing in the streets, while tilling the land, in processions and in weddings and funerals. The street vendors had specific melodious call which they offered their merchandise with a characteristic modulato.

Ode were sung by young boys and maidens, with the poet furnishing the accomaniment on the kithara.

Singing was always performed in unison, meaning that the voices of male and female singers, as well as boys and girls, sang the melody in their vocal range, usually in the interval of an octave.

The choir was led by a conductor placed in the middle, who was also the precentor. To keep the singers together rhythmically, especially large choir-masses, the Romans, like the Greeks, had the scabellum and in large groups, several of them.

In Rome, there was not much difference between sacred and secular music. Both served practical purposes, the solida unitas, the utilitarian principle. In both Greece and Rome, the range of instruments, as well as that of solo and choir singing, was governed by that of the human voice. Huge choirs and large orchestras destroyed the intimate charm of Greek musical practice.

The intensive practice of singing in Rome was mainly for the purpose of tenertaining and it was on a gigantic scale. Later on, singing was used mostly for sensuous pleasure, as a concomitant phenomenon of the decaying mores. This led gradually to the degeneration, and eventually to the complete decline of the once-flourishing vocal art.

The ancient ethical character of the musical art was preserved mainly by the new religion of Christianity. It was Byzantium’s musical culture that provided the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages and thus gained merit for saving an age-old tradition.

Boy singers were incorporated into the service of the Western Church to sing the increasing "tessituras" of the church composers. With the establishment of dukedoms, kingdoms, etc., when the wealth came as a result of a system, aggregations of choirboys were established throughout Europe within the space of 200 years, a fiefdom which they have held for a thousand subsequent years.

© 1983 George Bragg
Used with permission


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This page was last modified on 06 December 2005