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

Surpliced Boy Choirs in America [1]

 By S. B. Whitney

Note: Contributed by Douglas Neslund


S. B. Whitney


The rapid introduction of boy choirs in our Episcopal churches during the past few years has been so general throughout the country, taking the place of the conventional quartet and chorus choir, that reflective musical students have tried to find some cause for it.  Ritualism has been assigned by some; while others have ascribed it to the fact that so many of our people spend their summer vacations in England, where the surpliced boy choir is almost universal, especially in the cathedrals and larger parish churches, and we have a tendency to copy English ways.  We think that Ritualism has little or nothing to do with this change; for in England the boy choirs are as universally found in churches and cathedrals where there is an utter lack of anything like high ritual in the service, - they have been employed for years, and during all this time there has been no appreciable change in the nature of conducting the service.  Even in this country, choirs of boys and men, unsurpliced [2] , have been employed in many churches; and at Appleton Chapel at Harvard College a boy choir has been introduced to render the service for the daily prayers and the weekly vesper service, to the great satisfaction of the president, faculty, and the large congregation of students and others who enjoy the services.  Certainly, Appleton Chapel would be the last place where any one would expect to find anything in the way of ritualism connected with its services; and so the question arises, in this case as in that of hundreds of churches throughout the country:  Why was the boy choir introduced to supplant the quartet and chorus?

We think that the reason lies in this fact, that earnest people are more and more demanding distinctive church music, distinctively rendered, - distinctive in its form, like the architecture of the building in which it is performed.  No one would mistake Cologne Cathedral for a town hall or court house.  So no one ought to mistake a church anthem for an opera chorus, or a secular part song.  Music written for the church should bear the church stamp.  In any case, let it be distinctive, something, the like of which one will not be likely to hear at the opera house or concert hall.  There should not enter into sacred music anything of a frivolous character; nor should it suffer from haphazard construction.  It demands strict form as alone suited to its dignity and gravity.  This is not supposing that to be dignified it must be heavy, or to be grave it must be melancholy.  We must have strictness of form to set it apart from the lighter uses to which a style less severe is adapted.  Technical strictness of form is certainly not any hindrance to grace or sweetness, any more than the bony structure of the human form is to the marvellous beauty of the most illustrious examples, or the severity of mathematical accuracy and strictness of scientific principles to the highest beauty in architecture.  


Willie Cooper, St. Paul's Church, Kenwood, Chicago  

This general desire for distinctive church music is a natural outcome, after many years during which suffering congregations have been racked and tortured with church music, so called, of no character whatever; transcriptions of operatic selections; and music written in order for quartet choirs, giving in turn each voice of the quartet a solo, with no pretence to any form of artistic construction, according to the rules and canons of the choral art, followed by the best writers of church music.  As a natural result, such compositions are fragmentary in their construction, and entirely unacceptable to the cultivated musical ear.  As a reaction from all this, the demand seems to have been, as we have stated, for distinctive church music.  As we have no distinctive American school of church music in this country, we naturally turn to the mother country, to England, where a distinctive style of music has prevailed for years.  The many cathedrals throughout the country have called for organists and composers of acknowledged ability, to whom the whole religious world is indebted for services and anthems of the very highest order; which, being introduced into our churches, have been the means in many places of driving out the flimsy compositions and so-called sacred music which before prevailed.

That there is a distinctive school of church music in England, no one would doubt who has ever frequented the English churches; and we are indebted to it, in a large measure, for the great advance which we have made in the matter of religious music.  We trust the time is not far distant when there will be in this country an American school of church music as well, similar to that which exists in the mother land.  Although we have no churches and cathedrals established by the state, in which the merits of original compositions by American composers can be at once recognized; yet the time has come when we should make a beginning in this important field of music.

But we have also learned from our English cousins that distinctive church music naturally calls for a distinctive choir to perform it, a choir which one will not be likely to hear the next day in the concert-room or opera house.  In this way we have distinctive church music, distinctively rendered.  To this cause, rather than to ritualism or anything else, is due the fact of the introduction of boy choirs so extensively in this country.

English church music has gone beyond the bounds of the Episcopal Church, and been taken up by the many other religious bodies, its distinctive merits being at once recognized; we find English anthems and English hymn tunes in the musical publications and hymn-books of Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists.

The English organist occupies a much more exalted position than that of his brother organist in America.  Usually a graduate of some college or university, his position as a musical authority is at once recognized in the town or city where he resides.  The cathedral organist often starts as a chorister in the cathedral where he afterwards may have charge of the music, going meanwhile to Oxford or Cambridge, where he pursues his academic and musical studies.  He may have as a fellow-student, one who, pursuing the theological course, will obtain his doctor’s degree, and eventually may become Dean of the very cathedral where he himself may afterwards be installed as organist.  In this way, beginning his musical career as a choir boy, afterwards receiving instruction on the organ from the cathedral organist, occasionally substituting at a service, and eventually becoming deputy-organist, later on pursuing the higher musical studies of musical theory and composition, his final success as a church musician is assured from the start.  We have only to cite such men as Stainer, Barnby, Sullivan, and others in proof of what results from the thorough training which English organists receive to fit them for the various positions which they afterwards occupy.

In utter contrast to this, the American organist assumes his position oftentimes with little or no training at all worthy of the name.  He may have had instruction on the pianoforte, and possibly a few lessons on the organ, but it often happens that he takes up his work with no adequate preparation for it whatever.  This state of affairs has improved very much in the last few years, certainly very much since the time long ago, when the organ was first placed in King’s Chapel.



Chorister of the Madeleine

It is a matter of history that an organist was advertised for, to come out from England to take the position there, and it was suggested that it would be very much to his advantage if he had some other trade, like that of barber, or some similar occupation, to enable him to augment his stipend.  Oftentimes in the past persons have been employed as organists who played during the week at theatres and concert halls.  Of course, such persons could have no possible sympathy with the religious service, nor any adequate idea of its musical requirements, and it is a matter of little wonder that there has often been a certain antagonism between the two departments of the church, the pulpit and the organ-loft.  The occupants of these two positions in the church were naturally as far apart in their ideas of church service as were their relative positions in the church building; and the clergyman was often obliged to watch the organist, lest he should introduce some irreverent or secular adaptations of music into the services.  The introduction of boy choirs into our churches, by bringing the organist and choristers into the chancel, has done away with the antagonism which before existed and made the musical services to supplement the efforts of the clergyman, in giving to the congregation a musical service where everything is in harmony and in keeping with the place and occasion.  It has also made a demand for organists of much greater ability, and greater knowledge of church music, voice culture, choir training, etc., than has existed in the past.  The result is so noticeable in the past few years, that persons proposing to qualify themselves as organists have felt the need of greater care in preparing themselves than was formerly the case.

We cannot hope to cope with England in the matter of church music, so long as we have no cathedral churches where the organist receives a sufficient stipend to enable him to give almost his entire time to the preparation of the music for the daily services.  Only one church occurs to us, viz., Trinity, New York, where the salary of the organist at all compares with that of one holding a similar position in England.  There will be a grand opportunity whenever the proposed cathedral in New York is completed, to inaugurate the system of daily morning and evening services throughout the year, with the necessary daily choir practice.  The result of the establishment of daily matins and evensong in a great cathedral like the one to be erected in New York will be felt throughout the length and breadth of the land.  Meanwhile it behooves every organist and choir master to exert himself to the utmost to improve the music in the choirs already in existence.  In this connection, it seems rather unfair for persons visiting England, and hearing the various excellent choirs to be found everywhere there, to depreciate our own choirs in comparison, on their return from abroad.  It would be wrong to expect that a choir in this country, that is only obliged to sing at two services during the week, could possibly hope to compare favorably with a choir that sings twice every day, with the necessary daily practice.  Nevertheless, it has often been the case that Englishmen visiting this country have had occasion to speak of the attainments of some of our choirs in terms of the highest praise.  A professor of Cambridge University (England), who was present at an Easter service in a prominent church in one of our large cities, remarked to a friend that no better service could be heard in all England.  Such commendation of our musical advancement should be an encouragement to every choir master and organist to persevere in the work of raising the standard of church music in this country.  In this way will he prove his right to occupy the exalted position which has been given him in the church, as the clergyman’s most worthy assistant.

The style of music which prevails in English churches is the result of years of growth, from the earliest composers of that country who wrote for the church, down to the present time; and although there may have been times past when compositions, written for the church by these old English composers, may have been open to the charge of being pedantic in their style and lacking in originality, the productions of the modern English composers, such as Stainer, Calkin, Tours, Stanford, and others equally distinguished, would not warrant such criticism.  With a broader musical education, these modern composers have been greatly influenced by the modern trend of musical composition in all departments of the art, and as a result the services and anthems which they have given to the church are worthy of the admiration of all English-speaking people.  A friend once said to me, as I was taking my departure from London for the Continent, “You will bid good-by to church music until you return here.”  And this was strictly true; for although in Paris and other cities on the Continent I heard many services great in their way, none impressed me as being so thoroughly devotional, and so far removed from secular music, as the music which I heard in England.  It seemed like getting back home to go down to St. Paul’s once more, and hear the beautiful service there, in all its dignity and impressiveness.



Church of the Advent, Boston, in Recessional



Church of the Advent, Boston

A word may be said just here with regard to adaptations of masses written for the Romish Church being introduced into the English and American churches, especially on the greater festivals.  The principal reason for their use seems to be the fact that an elaborate service is thus secured with orchestral accompaniment.  Many of these services are written in a very florid style, with elaborate solos, - written with no idea of their ever being sung by a boy soprano.  The result is, that it often seems to be a makeshift not altogether satisfactory.  We must except the services of Gounod, which are much more susceptible to this adaptation, and seem to fit into an English service with much greater propriety than the more florid compositions of Schubert, Weber, and others.  For several years past, such orchestral services have been heard at the Church of the Advent, in Boston, on the greater festivals, through the liberality of a wealthy parishioner who has taken great interest in church music, and in the boy choir movement in particular, and made it possible to have these elaborate services, to the great satisfaction of the many worshippers who are always present on those occasions.  It behooves the English and the American composer to give to the church, services similar to those mentioned, written with orchestral accompaniment, so that the churches may not be dependent on foreign sources for music on these greater festivals.

In the days when quartette choirs prevailed, there seemed to be a general complaint that the choir appropriated the entire music of the services, so that the congregation was obliged to remain silent, even in the singing of the hymns.  The simpler music used when the boy choirs were first introduced, made it possible for the congregation to supplement their efforts, thus making the services more congregational.  But as time went on, the music written for the choir gradually became more elaborate, so that it was feared by many that the old state of affairs had returned, and that the congregation would again be deprived of its right to be heard in the service.  The question as to how much of the musical part of the services the choir can justly appropriate to itself is one which is constantly recurring, and so much has been written about this whole matter of congregational singing, that it is only necessary to dwell upon it for a moment.  It ought never to be forgotten that the office of music in religious worship is twofold, - not only to express but also to excite devotion; and the devout worshipper can often be moved and made better as much by hearing an anthem as a sermon.  Let the humble worshipper join in all parts of the service where he can render intelligent assistance, but let him remember that as the spire of the great church towers aloft, far above the choir transcepts and nave, so it is given to the trained choir to soar aloft far above and beyond, to heights where the great congregation cannot expect to follow.  But let the congregation, listening in reverent silence, be moved to greater devotion, and thank God for the exceptional musical gifts vouchsafed to the few, through denied to the multitude.  There can be no greater model for a church service than Bach’s Passion Music, written as it is for trained soloists, a trained chorus, and the great congregation, when those mighty chorales occur, in which each and every worshipper is supposed to join, thus making a service in which all the known resources of the musical art are brought into play.  

[1] From The New England Magazine. April 1892. Vol. VI, No. 2

[2] Spellings have been left intact as written by the author.

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