Girls as singers in their own right
Doing Their Own Thing
Instead of shuddering and hoping the current problems of girls' choirs in cathedrals will go away, some of us favour taking a hard look at the situation and the possible opportunities it unexpectedly affords. If girls are to form liturgical choirs, we find ourselves thinking, why not provide opportunities for them to do so in their own right - as acknowledged supernumerary groups, robed appropriately as girls, and singing an individual repertory specifically designed for female voices?
One thinks straightaway, perhaps, of the corpus of choral works by the German abbess, Hildegard of Bingen, the nine-hundredth anniversary of whose birth in 1098, is soon to be celebrated. Her visionary writings and apocalyptic poetry, together with the highly individual unisonous chant melodies she composed for its performance, have recently become widely known and appreciated through the issuing of commercial recordings. All this might suggest an available resource for the new liturgical girls' choirs. However, inexperienced choirs of whatever make-up would be unwise to attempt this highly specialised and demanding genre early in their development.
A more fruitful and realistic source for building a modest but authentic and effective repertory for trainee girls is to be found among the music sung by the exclusively female choirs once found in the larger post-medieval convents. Most of their composed repertory is unfamiliar to us. Some part of it, particularly that produced at the end of the eighteenth and in the mid-nineteenth century may be of doubtful value. But works written before and after that time will almost certainly include much serviceable music and even a handful of unappreciated minor masterpieces.
Even more likely to produce suitable material for use today are the seventeenth and eighteenth-century girls' orphanages of Venice (prototypes of the modem conservatoire). There, works written especially for them by such resident composers as Galuppi, Legrenzi, Polpora, Sarti, Jommeli and Vivaldi himself, were regularly performed by girls' choirs before thronged congregations.
By no means everything written for the girls' choirs of eighteenth-century Venice will be found immediately suitable for our purposes. Some of these compositions call for elaborate orchestral accompaniment, provided at the time by other inmates of the same institution, specialising as orchestral players. While some large part of the purely choral works then used there were written for standard combinations of sopranos and contraltos, some works - written to meet peculiar local circumstances - will be found to employ female tenors. Indeed, at one time, it appears, a female bass singer was to be found among the inmates of one of these institutions. But the vogue was short-lived; and after a spell of considerable fame (if not notoriety) in the choir gallery, the female bass eventually dumbfounded devotee and sceptic alike, by leaving the choir to get married!
Elsewhere in the convents of Europe, minor contemporaries and conservative followers of Palestrina, Vittoria, Monteverdi and Morales regularly provided workmanlike music for female voices, all of it deserving careful scrutiny and re-appraisal with present needs in mind.
Research in these areas would undoubtedly produce the nucleus of a self-contained liturgical repertory as well as a role of their own for today's girls' choirs. "The addition of new works furnished by contemporary writers would allow the creation of an independent stock of music, making it unnecessary for girl's choirs to poach on works designed for performance by the traditional consort of men and boys.
Who among our practical musical scholars and composers will be bold enough to help the nascent girls' choirs to attain a respectable and respected individual role, by producing for them a distinctive repertory to be called, with justification, their own?