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


By Frederic Dean1

Note: Contributed by Douglas Neslund

The Venite

From 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."

The 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.

Arthur Sullivan, standing; John Henry Barnett, seated. The earliest known portrait of Sullivan, a photograph made just after entrance to Chapel Royal.

Henry 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 age.

But it may well be understood that it is not only in England that famous musicians have begun their musical careers as choristers.

Musical 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."

The 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.

It 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."

When 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.

George G. Rockwood as 69-year-old chorister.

George G. Rockwood as 9-year-old chorister.

The 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.

Richard Coker

In 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.

Theodore 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.

Blatchford Kavanaugh

Frederick 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."

William H. Lee

Blatchford 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 artist."

When 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.

Master 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 his teens.

Cyril Tyler

It 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."

Master 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.

Charles Meehan

Charles 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.

Earl Gulick

One 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.

Witter Peabody

Three 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 another.

George Bagdasarian

Master 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.

Harry Smith

He 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.

Harry 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.

The McGee 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.

Harold McGee

Leonard McGee


Allen Fenno

One 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.

Charles Arthur Bradley

There 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.

Many 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 choristers.

1  Reprinted from the April, 1902 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine, Vol. XXIX, No. 6; contributed by Douglas Neslund

2  Bracketed information added by Douglas Neslund.

(Printable version)

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

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