Music

I dread the extinction of boys’ choirs

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

One by one, cathedrals have succumbed to the inevitable. In blazes of publicity, with front-page photographs of girls in cassocks in the cloisters, most deans and chapters have signalled their drive for equality of opportunity by inaugurating a girls’ choir to run alongside the boys’ one. So now, at the vast majority of our cathedrals, instead of boys singing up to eight services per week, the two top lines take turns, in varying ratios, with girls aged from eight to 18.

The scheme has been working for 27 years, since Salisbury started the trend in 1991, and let me say from the outset: some of the girls’ top lines are extremely good and the boys’ top lines have adapted pretty well to the enforced job share. Anyone who used to protest that ‘it won’t work, because girls sound different from boys’ has been proved wrong. While that debate was raging, a group of the country’s top directors of music were blind-tested by the director of music of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh. They were asked to listen from behind a screen to boys, then girls, and write down who was singing. Many of them made errors in their guesses.

That today’s sisters can be immersed in psalm and Magnificat-singing as only their brothers once were is something to be celebrated. The girl choral scholars of today are the non-vibrato Tallis Scholars of tomorrow, and we need them. But I’m now going to dare to say something heretical in this age of equal opportunities for all: stop right there.


Forty-eight cathedrals in Britain now run separate girls’ and boys’ top lines, and three run mixed-voice choirs. There are now only 11 daily-singing choirs of men and boys left — four Anglican cathedrals, one Catholic one, four Oxbridge colleges, and two Royal Peculiars. As Britain is the only country in the world that maintains the medieval miracle that is daily sung services with psalms, responses, canticles and anthem, this means that there are only 11 choirs of men and boys left in the world singing daily. (Well, 12: St Thomas’s Fifth Avenue in New York has a choir of men and boys who sing five services a week, emulating the glorious British phenomenon.) The tradition of daily sung services has died out in France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Holland — in fact, everywhere.

Journalists, as well as cathedral deans, enjoy taking pot shots at this tradition of men and boys’ choirs. Writing for BBC Music Magazine in February, Richard Morrison wrote that King’s College, Cambridge, when it appoints its next director of music, should start a girls’ choir. ‘Male domination of the musical world is broke — and about time too,’ he said. ‘It has always struck me as weird that King’s of all places — the first all-male college in Cambridge to admit women undergraduates… should have lagged so far in this respect.’ He disparaged the remaining boys-only top lines as ‘glaring exceptions’ to the equal-opportunities trend.

It may happen at King’s, who last week appointed the excellent Daniel Hyde to be its next director of music. The possibility of starting a girls’ top line will almost certainly be discussed by the dean, dons and Mr Hyde. And once this emotive subject is aired, it becomes hard for institutions to dare to say ‘no’. The dean and chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral are currently in talks about developing their new girls’ top line. So one more boys-only top line may well soon bite the dust. The thin end of the wedge started when St Paul’s admitted the first woman alto to the back row, which attracted waves of approving publicity. Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, is now advertising for a counter-tenor/alto, opening the field to both sexes. If you have a woman in the back row, why not have girls sharing the duties in the front row?

I dread the extinction of boys-only top lines. I dread the future bulldozing deans who will force the changes through. Surely, true ‘diversity’ should mean a diversity of choral situations — some cathedrals with girls’ and boys’ top lines, and some with boys only, and perhaps some (though this has not happened yet) with girls only. The almost-unsayable but (I think) true fact is that those last remaining choirs of men and boys still have the edge when it comes to astonishingly high-quality singing. To dilute is usually to demoralise one faction and to damage the whole.

It’s not just about treasuring and maintaining what Benjamin Britten called the ‘tremulous beauty’ of the boys’ treble voice, so short-lived, at its most beautiful when about to break. As one director of a boys-only top line said to me, ‘It’s the momentum of rehearsing seven days a week, and singing seven or eight services a week, that maintains the high standard of the boys’ singing.’ The unmatched beauty of the sound you hear when you go to evensong at King’s and St John’s College, Cambridge, St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, New College and Magdalen College, Oxford, or Hereford and Chichester Cathedrals (still holding out as boys’-top-line only) is made possible by the monastic rigour of the daily routine. Boys especially, choral directors tell me, respond to being carried along in this routine of performing almost every day.

Bit by bit, this richness of choral experience is being dismantled. When a cathedral or college starts running two top lines, each line then has half as rich an experience as the boys-only top line previously had, and something immeasurably precious is lost.

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