Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir

Our 'unique choral heritage'

Before starting on a discussion of such a subject I should perhaps explain what I mean by our "unique choral heritage", and in order to do that it might be helpful if I let our readers know a little about my background and how I became so interested and involved in this subject. This interest has become so absorbing that I have, since retiring, spent a great deal of time researching into the history of English Church Music.

I was born in Croydon during the first world war, of devoted parents, and through them became aware of the beauty of choral music at an early age. My father, who worked in London, was a professional musician and taught piano and singing. From time to time he gave lunch-time organ recitals in a number of City Churches. I, with my elder brother, was taken on occasions to Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral and Southwark Cathedral to hear some of the major choral works sung. On Sunday, my father sang tenor in a large parish church choir and my brother and I would attend morning and evening worship with my mother.

At the age of about seven my brother and I both joined the choir, which was made up of about 25 boy choristers and several men and this was my introduction to the cathedral repertoire. When I joined I knew very little about music but this was soon put right by my father, who taught us the rudiments of music.

I remained as a chorister until my voice changed at about the age of 14. Later, I studied the Organ and received much encouragement from Mr H. L Balfour, then Director of Music at the Whitgift Schools and also organist & choirmaster at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square. Here I often sat at the organ during Evensong to hear the excellent singing of his choir of men and boys. This further inspired me with the sheer beauty of choral music being used in the worship of God.

When I left school at the age of about 18 my father, for financial reasons, encouraged me go to University College, Southampton where I studied science. After leaving Southampton, I went to Durham where I was trained as a teacher and played the organ in the Chapel of Bede College.

My love for English Church Music continued to grow passionately. However, since the second world war I have witnessed the gradual decline of the traditional parish church choir of men and boys. Whatever the reasons for this decline, and they are many, we must face up to the task of preserving the "unique choral heritage" of the all-male choir. Such choirs do still exist at this time in many of our Cathedrals, though for many years this tradition has been threatened not only by a shortage of finance, but also by a mistaken view of some of our clergy who insist on the introduction of trendy or so-called popular music. Now we have to face up to the newest threat of mixed choirs.

I want to discuss what I feel to be the real reason why the number of boy choristers has declined in parish churches and will in my opinion decline in our Cathedrals too if a real effort is not made to stop this regrettable occurrence. The effect of this on our great tradition will certainly be disastrous.

By the time I retired in 1979 I had taught in many types of school, including C of E Primary, Junior Mixed, Secondary Boys, Secondary Modem Mixed, Boys Grammar and Independent schools. I have taught both as a day master and in four of these schools as a resident house-master (or teacher as they are now called for political correctness). My last appointment was as Director of Music at an Independent School.

My many years of teaching experience and my study of Child Psychology at Durham during my teacher training have given me much awareness of the fundamental differences between boys and girls, and of their thoughts, their likes and dislikes and, of course, their nature and ambitions. I feel therefore that I can speak with some authority on the subject of the difference between the way boys and girls think and work, play and mix together.

Even putting aside the difference of sound produced by boys or girls, which I feel misses the main point, there seems to be every reason to strive to maintain the wonderful heritage built up over so many years. It seems wrong to me to interfere with what has been a tradition going back for same nine centuries. There has been a choir of boy choristers and men singing the services at St Paul's Cathedral for that length of time, so I understand.

Our Cathedral Choirs of men and boys have a world-wide fame and reputation. It is an established fact that lovers of our Cathedral Music come from many parts of the world especially for the purpose of hearing them sing the daily services and to attend our Cathedral Festivals. This tradition is no longer to be found anywhere else in the world, except possibly with a few exceptions in the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

I am not opposed to girls' choirs per se, nor do I look to deprive girls of the excellent musical training which boys receive in Cathedral Choirs and Choir Schools. But I am certain that mixing the sexes in cathedral choirs would eventually make it virtually impossible to obtain boy choristers at all.

Boys are more aggressive by nature than girls and you can see this on the games field. Young boys, between say 7-12 years of age, do not readily mix with girls. This can clearly be seen in the classroom where in a mixed school, boys and girls of that age group, tend to sit in separate groups. Now what is likely to happen if we try to mix them? Quite quickly the boys will disappear and you will be left with only a choir of girls.

Having, for a while, been an organist & choirmaster of a parish church choir I feel sure I know the answer. I did at one time recruit a mix of boys and girls from the local church school but soon it became obvious that I would end up with girls only. I did not wait to see this happen.

Attending a Cathedral for Evensong many years ago, I listened to a large all-male choir from a famous public school. There were about 40 boys. A few years later this Foundation closed the then separate boys' and girls' schools and formed a co-educational one. When I next heard their choir at the same Cathedral with about the same number of singers there were about 35 girls with just a sprinkling of boys. This surely eloquently tells the story, and it is that when girls are involved in singing in a choir, it appears to be regarded as "sissy" for boys to take part.

On the vexed question of finance, having two separate choirs will necessarily greatly increase the financial commitment of the Cathedral Chapter. Much money has already been raised by various people to finance the present rising number of girls' choirs in our cathedrals. Would it not have been better if this money had been given to ease the financial burden of the parents of many of our boy choristers?

In my travels, on behalf of the Friends of Cathedral Music, I have met at least two Headmasters who have asked for financial help for a boy-chorister who would otherwise have had to leave the choir since his parents could no longer afford the fees.

The question of who is to train the new choir must also be considered. If the choirs are to remain separate, twice the time is needed and possibly two people - not one - to train than. In addition, the place where they are to rehearse needs to be planned. It could be at different times in the same place, which would not prove ideal, or possibly in two different places, which poses different problems. Many Chapters might well be tempted to have only one choir, even if it be mixed, if only to save money. Appointing an equal number of girls and boys would deprive half of our boy choristers of the opportunity of such excellent character and musical training and would most likely lead to a lowering of standards - just for the sake of giving equal opportunity to all. As I have already explained, this would surely lead to fewer boys volunteering for trial and the eventual disappearance of the boys altogether. If the voice trials were to be for both sexes on a competitive basis I am certain this would lead to fewer boys wishing to become choristers.

Certainly two separate choirs would lead to a reduction both of standards and of the pride experienced by our existing boy choristers and eventually this would lead to a reduction of the repertoire and loss of excellence.

As I have already said, the lack of good music in many of our churches together with the change to "trendy music" is yet another cause of concern. This trend, if it spreads to our Cathedrals from the parish churches, will obviously destroy not only our "unique choral heritage" of the all-male choir but also the new so-called tradition being formed by Cathedral girls' choirs.

Finally I must add that we need to have men or lay clerks to add the lower parts to the choir and these must, of necessity, be male. The best source to supply these is the boy choristers who are no longer able to sing treble. They will have the musical skills, the awareness of the repertoire, the experience and hopefully the willingness to go on praising God with such dedication and devotion.

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