An article from the Musical Times 

Laudate Pueri

A RECENT article by Peter Phillips ('Let the women sing', The Spectator, 12 July 1997) cannot leave indifferent those of us who spend our time teaching children to sing. To be told that 'even by the lowest professional standards these boys' choirs do not sound very good', and. that 'it is hardly surprising that on average these children find it difficult to blend and tune, to overcome the natural breathiness in their voices, to interpret with maturity', is to be invited in no uncertain terms to defend the status and work of children's choirs.

Clearly, Phillips had been piqued by a review in which a preference was expressed for boys' voices against his women's. It might be best to dispose of this issue first. Are those of us who run children's choirs, and in particular boys' choirs, opposed to the use of woman sopranos in repertory which historically was conceived and performed by boys' voices? Personally, I am not, and I doubt whether there is serious opposition elsewhere. The philosophies underpinning 'historical' performance fully concede the necessity of a meeting with contemporary culture, a coming-to-terms with modern conditions of music-making (social, institutional, practical). I cannot think of anyone wanting to rule out a performance of a Bach cantata because the soprano line is sung by women, any more than she would wish to condemn a Handel performance because it did not feature castratos. The second instance is a more obvious case of social mores inflecting modern performance conditions, but not different in kind from the mores that now welcome women into musical performances, and indeed which accept the performance of sacred music in concert halls. With respect to vocal scoring, there is a wholly justifiable plurality of practice: one which not only concedes but respects the place in our own time of institutions and their modus operandi. That the Tallis Scholars should use women to sing English Tudor music is not to be contested - any more than New College choosing to employ boys' voices when singing Britten's Hymn to St Cecelia.

Indeed, there are no alternatives for the Tallis Scholars: take sacred repertory out of the liturgy, promote it in the concert halls of the world on a commercially viable basis, and you must accept that children can be no part of the enterprise. That said, the matter of transferring the repertory from one context to another raises questions of a different kind. We talk about faithfulness to a composer's intentions in matters of performance practice, ignoring an intention that probably in most cases overrode all others: that the music was for Christian worship.

Tallis might merely be surprised that his music is now sung by women, but I guess he would be deeply shocked to find it performed in contexts where Christian worship is wholly absent. Not that I wish to be judgmental here, nor the bringer of some satisfactory answer to the conundrum. I wish only to point to an issue of greater significance than boy or woman.

I hope this clears the ground of the notion that boys are preferable to women (or indeed women preferable to boys) on historical grounds. One doesn't even have to conjure with notions of what the 16th-century boy was like; it is sufficient to say that historical repertories must come to an accommodation with our own time, and nowhere more obviously than with music involving the voice. The accommodation will recognise features of modern (institutional) performance practice that differ from the old ones.

Now we may pass on to the question of standards, and Phillips's view that generally speaking a child will never accomplish what an adult can. Such assertions are too simplistic, built on a comparison that sets a 13-year-old against a 25-year-old without further reflection.

Things are more complex than this. There is a dimension in performance related to the age of the performer which is intrinsic to the performance. Menuhin playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto in New York when he was eleven years old is a phenomenon in which his age is an inseparable part of the listener's experience, and to which a value is properly attached. The value is not based alone on what a child can achieve on his way to higher things as an adult: it recognises aspects in the performance that an adult cannot achieve, and indeed which Menuhin never again achieved. Less we dismiss this argument as good only for geniuses, try drawing a line between what Menuhin, and then other less gifted children have accomplished: there is no demarcation possible disallowing this truth for the less gifted. We are forced to accord to young musicians (and to children's choirs) a value springing from their very 'childishness', and we have to recognise the part it plays in the aesthetic experience.

This conclusion invites us to consider the terms commonly used to describe the performances of older against younger artist: 'sophisticated' (of adults) against innocent' (of children); 'mature'(of adults) against 'pure' (of children). Too often terms such as these, unexceptionable as they stand, are used as surrogates for polished' (of adults), 'rough' (of children), secure' (of adults) and 'uncertain' (of children). Perhaps it would be better if children's efforts were not subjected to terminology such as 'innocent' and 'pure'.

But whatever the spin put on our reception of music made by children, it seems downright insulting to state that they can only rarely be taught to blend and sing in tune, to use a focused vocal production, to sing with insight and feeling. All these things are well within the grasp of both boys and girls; and if they appear not to be, then blame the choirmaster. Has Peter Phillips not heard choirs such as the Tolzerknabenchor, Westminster Cathedral, or the Montserrat Escolania? It may be that there are too few choirs working to these standards, but to damn the children is going too far. It is fact rather than miracle that children can be taught to sing with a good technique, to sing in tune, to sing together, to sing the right notes, and to sing them stylishly. Phillips should hear New College choristers turn a tremblement appuyé, temper a major third, cross-accent the metre, and respond viscerally to Bach.

If the punter prefers their performance to that of women it might well be that he finds it more alive, more stylish, more accomplished than that of certain professional sopranos. It might also be that he prefers the timbre of boys' voices. It need not be, as Phillips asserts, that 'the inadequacies of the boys' choirs will inevitably be even more painfully obvious' because sacred music has escaped to the concert hall, where their voices are not sufficiently strong. A few years ago, New College Choir sang Bach's Komm, Jesu, komm at a Promenade concert in the Royal Albert Hall with no difficulty of this sort, and King's College Choir often works with large baroque orchestras in large European concert halls, and the one thing you hear are the boys. I do not know where Phillips has picked up the idea of the endemic feebleness of boys' voices, but my experience is quite other.

So, if you find yourself preferring a performance by boys over women, it might well be because they are better; it will certainly be because they are different, and it need never be because the music was written for them in the first place. What we are now left with is perhaps the most important aspect of children's choirs, totally ignored by Phillips: they are arguably the means of the best musical education you can receive. There is no reason why the listener should have to know this to respond aesthetically to their performance.

But there is every reason why the listener should wish to defend the existence of children's choirs because of their educational value. The quality of the education is greatly advanced by engaging in the very activity to which the training leads. It is the more effective for pushing children into a wide range of exacting musical performances presented to a discerning public, from Handel oratorios to Bach passions, from Tallis's Gaude gloriosa, Dei mater to Allegri's Miserere.

But its value lies not only in the contribution made to the child's knowledge and skills, but also to the fabric of musical training in the UK as a whole.

The young adults who return to sing in collegiate choirs as choral scholars are often former choristers, and the men who sing with the Tallis Scholars and other such groups are often former choral scholars. There is a dependency here which needs recognising and cherishing.

Of course, one of the arguments for the retention of all-male choirs is that it ensures a supply of experienced counter-tenors, tenors and basses: where will these singers come from if they have not already formed their taste for and expertise in church music as boys? 'Let us therefore not reduce the opportunities open to them', the argument goes. Phillips, taking a sideswipe at the male tradition, will have none of this. he comes down solidly in favour of radical change. The restriction of intake to boys is in his words aesthetically, let alone morally, indefensible'. I suspect that he might wish to reconsider both of these terms: the issue has neither an aesthetic nor a moral basis, though I could envisage aesthetic overtones. But it is an issue. Not I hope for radical solutions where we would no longer have any all-male choirs, but for a calmer transition to a 'mixed economy' of usage and opportunity. Although I do not intend to argue it here, the vocal potential of boys and girls is different, and is in itself sufficient ground for ensuring the continued existence of boys' choirs, quite apart from the group psychology and gender issues surrounding mixed children's choirs. I am confident that boys will continue to play, indeed sing their part in the musical culture of this country, and in so doing uphold not only a tradition but also a legitimate distinctiveness. I turn with some reluctance to the folly of insisting on mixed football teams as support for the retention of some all-male choirs, but there is something in the comparison.

Let us therefore not knock our boys' choirs, nor indeed our girls' choirs. They are one of the most distinctive and precious parts of our national heritage. If there were an Olympic competition for these choirs, I could confidently predict more golds for the UK than any other country. A cause for celebration rather than sour grapes, I would have thought. A fair conclusion is that professional sopranos can sing marvellously, and so can well-trained boys. Phillips is right that women should not be expected to sound like boys. By the same token, boys should not be expected to sound like women.

Edward Higginbottom
New College Choir, Oxford

From The Musical Times, December 1997

The following letter appeared in the February 1998 issue: 

Beyond Compare

One cannot help sympathising with Peter Phillips's feeling of irritation at having a reviewer wag his finger at him because 'The Tallis Scholars sopranos... do not sound like boys', though it has to be said, some early music groups seem set on aping boy tone. Be that as it may, for him then to cast a slur on the marvellous choral tradition of our cathedrals and colleges smacks of over-reaction. His Spectator article was entitled Let the women sing. Who is saying they should not?

Certainly not those who sing in all-male choirs. And what possible threat can there be to women sopranos when, outside cathedral choirs, scarcely a boy is singing. Indeed, the singing boy is now an endangered species. The type of cathedral choir still found in this country once flourished throughout the rest of Christendom. Today, there are but remnants left. The winds of political and religious change have swept them away. Surely, instead of carping, we ought to be cherishing this stupendous inheritance.

In advocating a 'mature culture of equal opportunities for both sexes', he fails to realise it will result in the destruction of a sound which has moved countless generations of listeners. 'Democracy is all very well as a political device,' wrote C S Lewis. 'It must not intrude into the spiritual, or even the aesthetic world.' Any insistence on equal opportunities in this regard will exact a terrible price.

Aesthetic appreciation, of course, is something very personal. However, it might be worth recalling that the late composer, Alan Ridout, called our cathedral choirs of men and boys 'a fragile musical miracle'. And the music critic, Michael White, has written: 'That you can walk into a church like St Paul's and experience choral singing of this quality, more or less any day of the week and without charge, has to be one of the proudest cultural claims this country can make. Go where you will - Vienna, Paris, Rome, New York - you'll find nothing better. Nothing even comparable'.

That ought to make us think before we start tampering.

Bernarr Rainbow
Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir

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