An article from The Guardian


Dischord In The Choir

Tonight, Edward Burrowes (pictured right) makes his debut at the BBC Proms, taking a solo in a work based on fragments of Anne Frank's diary; next month, he's recording several CD tracks for a Japanese company. The remarkable point isn't that Edward is only 12 but that he's a chorister.

Interest in boys' voices stretches from cathedral choirs to commercial recordings. Of all the ways of marking the year 2000, of conveying a continuous and living link, the celestial sound of choirs could, for many of us, be a way of making sense of 10 timeless centuries. This is not fanciful; we have few intact, uplifting traditions going back to Norman times; and many, from bishops to businessmen, believe that boys' voices will be a motif of the millennium.

But just as the future has never looked  brighter for choristers — Edward, for instance, is already on the way to a career in opera — cathedrals are divided on the issue of starting girls choirs. The three Burrowes brothers all started at St Paul's Cathedral but there are no plans for girls to sing there. So it's just as well that their sister, Elizabeth, nine, has found a place at Salisbury.

Critics of the innovation argue that, even though boys and girls perform at separate services, a thousand years of tradition is at risk. It was first breached in 1990 when Salisbury (pictured right) became the first cathedral to start a female choir. The move, by the then organist Dr Richard Seal, was seen by some as common sense — why shouldn't choir schools become co-ed, so that sisters could join brothers? After all, more pupils mean more fees to buttress a quaint corner of the independent sector. Others argued that female choristers should follow women priests; others again supported the move simply as as an interesting musical development.

But in some tight-lipped cathedral closes, there are what best could be described as a gnashing of clenched teeth. The core point is that the sound of boys singing with men is now a sound unique to us: it's all but disappeared from continental Europe, say experts. It's a particularly English glory that worshippers and tourists marvel at.

Start a girls' choir, say opponents, and we're on the slippery slope that will lead eventually to mixed choirs. Then the supply of tenors and basses and counter-tenors will be depleted and the sound personified by Ernest Lough, Aled Jones or, more recently, Paul Phoenix, will be lost.

The Church of England's battles over women's ordination and gay priests have been about theology; by comparison, the choir issue is about tradition. It is passionate rather than ferocious, but it shows how male the ossified heart of Anglicism still is. In the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, beside the door leading to the choir school, is this inscribed plaque: "To the glory of God  and in greatful memory  of Harry Barnes, 1909-85, who for more than forty years faithfully served this collegiate church as chorister and lay vicar" Mention the possibility of admitting girls, and a chill runs round the abbey.

Most cathedrals have stalwarts like Barnes, who started as boys and spent much of their adult lives processing to the canopied stalls with the little red-shaded lamps, intoning their way through the liturgical year.

Peter Giles, author of several books on choirs, has recently retired from a long stint at Canterbury. He fears that all-male choirs will go within a generation. "It's a sacred art form that's been weakened and diluted by political correctness. It becomes thought of as a sissy thing to do as soon as girls get into a choir."

Pre-pubescent boys, dreading the ridicule of their mates, won't any longer want to dress up in white surplices and tripple ruffs, he predicts.

To those who say that it's just a case of equal opportunities for young singers, he retorts "boys only have four or five years [before the voice breaks]. Girls can sing soprano all their lives."

Even so, male organists and choirmasters have set firm limits on female encroachment. Girls sing at well under half the choral services in many places. Even at York Minster, which has parity as a goal, girls appear twice and boys six times a week.

Winchester will have a second choir before the end of the year, but the girls will be heard only once a week  "a prime slot on Sunday," promises David Hill, organist and master of the music.

Tokenism? No, says Hill. "I never felt that seeking equality was the solution for Winchester. Reduce   the services at which the boys sing by a third or a half (to give girls a chance) and you start seeing a different pace of work; boys start achieving less and doing less. Dilute that, and they might start forgetting the psalms of the day"

Unthinkable, of course, in the unique sound-factories that the ancient choir schools are. But who is right in the controversy about the special nature of the sound they produce and protect? Is there a whiff of misogyny? A hint of monasticism?

Are the detractors really saying that young girls' voices are somehow less pure than boys? Or is the debate solely about aesthetics?

Peter Giles, a leading light in the Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir, insists it's not about purity at all. "Girls sing just as well. but the sound is different. Boys of 13 have a stronger voice: more plangent, more sonorous. It's more resonant. Girls at 13 .... their voices have a sweeter grain."

From the choir stalls, Edward Burrowes agrees: 'They do sound very different," he says. "I wouldn't have girls in a boys' choir singing together."

What he would have, though, is separate boys and girls choirs in all cathedrals that wanted them with  whichever group sounded best singing at most of the services.

However, David Hill, perhaps surprisingly, disagrees that the sound made by the sexes is very different. Hill, whose summer break is partly taken up with the plans to bring girls to Winchester, says: "I would be surprised if I couldn't get the same sound out of a 13-year-old girl as a boy of 11 or 12." No doubt that's meant to be a conciliatory contribution to the debate, but it could add to the dear old CoE's chaliceful of confusion.


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