The Better Land - Volume One
Great Boy Sopranos - Recorded 1914-1944
|Stephen Beet celebrates the boy sopranos of the early part of the 20th century
"I hear thee speak of a better land...
During the course of a lifetime, much of great beauty seems to have been lost from our church and musical lives, but the demise of the boy soprano voice is perhaps the most significant. Not only have we lost the voices of professional boy sopranos such as Denis Wright (who was able to devote his life to singing after he left school at fourteen), but due to a multitude of factors, mainly social, the number of boys singing at all has been in sharp decline for the past fifty years.
Not only are there fewer boy choristers and soloists these days, those we have tend to be younger, and sound completely different from their forebears. I set about trying to discover the reasons behind this post-war decline in the quality of boys' voices. Simply to suggest that voices are breaking earlier these days seemed a far from satisfactory explanation. Other factors are probably more responsible - one of the most important being the fundamental change in voice production that has taken place over recent years. In other words, what some will remember as the 'Pure Head Tone' has been replaced by the use of the chest register. What we now hear from our trebles bears little resemblance to what many will remember as the Boy Soprano sound. But how many do remember? For a generation we have had nothing to remind us but dusty piles of old gramophone records, many of which have long been destroyed.
At last, we can recall those golden voices from that Better Land. This CD is probably unique in not only making these recordings available for the first time since the 1940s, but also in bringing the recordings of several boys together under one title for the first time ever in recording history. The records of these thirteen boys have not been generally available since the war years, and some are heard for the first time -wartime conditions or lack of money preventing their release all those years ago.
The story of how the CD came to be made is fascinating. It all started for me, as I suspect it did for many of the boys featured, as a result of one gramophone record: Ernest Lough's O for the Wings of a Dove. The record made for Lough a place in history, and he became the inspiration for many choristers: one such was Sir David Willcocks, who described the effect the record had had on him in Robin Lough's moving documentary about his father's life. But it is a mistake to believe that Lough's voice is unique. Many people believe this, perhaps because his is the only record they have heard from that period (it was recorded twice during the course of 1927 when Lough was nearly sixteen years old). His voice stands as a shining example of an older and better tradition of voice production, which I would suggest was destroyed after the war by a new generation of choirmasters. (The sleeve notes to a 1972 recording of O for the Wings of a Dove state: 'Hear my Prayer' is only just beginning to benefit from performances which are stylistically appropriate).
What we hear today from boys is not the pure head-tone boy soprano voice of the past, but a harsh incisive sound produced from the chest register, the voice of a small boy that fades quickly at the first sign of puberty. The old head tone (and there were several variations) was so unmistakable and distinctive that there could be no doubt that it was produced by a boy. This sound, capable of filling a large building, does not fade at the onset of puberty; and this is perhaps the most convincing explanation for the fact that many boys in those days sang on well into their teens. I recently heard this sound described as falsetto, suggesting that this was in some ways unnatural: it was certainly not regarded as such in the past.
The selection of titles was very difficult. We had over one hundred and fifty discs to choose from, most of them collected by Martin Carson of Ipswich. We tried to strike a balance between the classical and sentimental, and, believe me, some of the discs were real tear-jerkers. However, we did discover some really outstanding voices and recordings of the highest quality. We thought it important to include as many different singing styles as possible: we were not able to simply classify them either as "church boys" or "light-music boys". But one golden thread running through the collection is that all the boys were trained to cultivate this "Pure Head Tone". Some sang with a distinctive vibrato (Leslie Day, in I hear you calling me, for example), others with just the slightest controlled tremor, which was considered by reviewers to be very attractive.
There is little evidence of the choirboy 'hoot, but a fine example of the old "Cathedral Tone" is given in Gordon Carter's O for the Wings of a Dove, which he sings with Manchester Cathedral Choir. I wanted to find out exactly how these boys were trained and by whom. One of the best Victorian choir-training manuals, "Boys' Voices", by John Spencer Curwen, contains much advice given by famous choirmasters of the day. The general opinion was to train boys to use the head register and to get rid of any trace of the 'rough chest voice'. A few choirmasters did acknowledge the use of the chest register for the lower notes, but they could not agree on which note it should be introduced. Exercises were given for the correct cultivation of the head tone. Scales were practised downwards, never upwards. Boys were told to 'hum' to get the voice into the head. Fingers were placed between the eyes and on the top of the head in order to focus the tone. The correct position of the mouth had to be gained by putting the thumb between the teeth or by looking through a hand mirror. There was much practice of vowels, not just the "oo" sound which tends to produce the hoot if over-used.
A great deal of expression and emotion was put into singing. Dr Buck of Norwich, to get a boy to realise the words Without Thee all is Dark would shut him in a cupboard. He also gave boys 'pocket pistols' containing port wine, which they injected into their mouths before singing their solos. It was considered exceptional, even in those days, if a boy continued to sing treble until he was seventeen: thirteen was given as the age a boy's voice would start to change. But Curwen states, and he is backed by others, that a boy's voice could be 'long preserved' by the correct cultivation of the head tone. There has recently been considerable debate about the ages of choir boys in times past. Recent studies of the records of St. George's Choir School, Windsor Castle, have shown that between 1670 and 1730, some eighty-five boys entered and left the choir. Very few of those whose dates of birth are known were admitted before the age of ten, and nearly seventy per cent remained as choristers for at least six years, two remaining until well after their eighteenth birthday.
There may be some truth in the claim that today the age at which boys' voices start to break is younger than in Post-Restoration times, but it has been observed that, when visited recently by the boys of the Savoy Chapel, London, several had 'changed' speaking voices, and this was commented on by more than one of the St. George's boys. The sound produced by the Savoy choir is very much the old head-tone technique, and they produce a considerable volume of sound. There were eight boys in the St. George's choir in the seventeenth century, suggesting the boys, though few in number, were well able to hold the balance. I have no firm evidence to prove that the sound made by boys in past centuries resembled that produced on these records, but there are strong indications that we are, indeed, hearing a sound that was passed from generation to generation of choristers and learnt almost by osmosis.
Until the Stuarts' reign, it was the practice for boys to take the female parts on the stage, and the tradition probably began in the Middle Ages when touring players would use local choir boys in their Mystic Plays. This tradition of boys taking female parts has never completely died out, and survives in boys' prep and public schools to this day. Some surprise may be expressed in today's world at the true soprano quality of many of the boys singing on these records; so it is worth quoting from a late Victorian tract on the subject, published by Novello in 1894. Edwin Stubbs, of the Massachussetts Choir Guild, wrote: "The use of the head tone throughout the entire vocal compass is looked upon, by not a few, as a 'fad'. That it embodies the old Italian method, practised for ages and ages by choirmasters of Italy, and later introduced into England, is a fact either unknown or ignored.
"What is the boy's voice from the trainer's standpoint? It is the Woman's Voice. It would be a blessing if the term 'boy voice' could be abolished entirely. It tends to foster the idea that Nature fully intended the boy to have a singing-voice perfectly unique. Small wonder that choristers are accused of singing falsetto.
"That surprise should be so generally expressed when boys sing like women is most unfortunate. The boy's voice is plastic; it is capable of marvellous development; it shows in course of time singular purity, and it exceeds in range the adult female voice. Dr. Martin, of St. Paul's Cathedral, has recently called attention to the fact that women are harder to train on high notes than boys."
So we make no apology for using the unfashionable title Boy Soprano - it was by that name they were proud to have been known. Iwan Davies was a chorister of the London Choir School, which was begun in 1894 by James Bates. When Curwen visited in 1899, over one hundred boys were on the roll. "The singing voice, or 'head voice' Mr Bates would carry down to D, the note below the first line." The college supplied boys to twenty-five London churches, but its main work was to provide solo and chorus boys for concerts, festivals and theatres all over the country. In this case, the same man who was training 'church boys' was also training boys for secular work. In fact, they would in many cases be the same boys.
The sheer numbers of boys singing in choirs in those days (sixty boys at Marylebone Parish Church for instance, and large choirs in working class districts) would certainly throw up outstanding soloists. And indeed, George Fleming, writing in 1898 reminds us that "By far the greater number of choir boys belong to the upper grade working classes". We are fortunate that some of the best boy sopranos of the modern age are still alive, and it has been a privilege to have been able to interview three of the finest: Denis Barthel, the much neglected soloist of The Temple Church; Frederick Firth of Morecambe; and Denis Wright of Mansfield, who sang with the Kentucky Minstrels.
All the boys whom I contacted were thrilled to know that their records would once again see the light of day "while some of us are still treading this earth". Some weeks ago, I sat in the drawing room of Frederick Firth as he played his records for me. Sitting in his chair, he became transported back seventy-one years, his lips mouthing the words he had committed to wax so long ago.
Major Denis Barthel and his wife were deeply moved as they listened for the first time to an unpublished duet he had sung in the early 1930s with his long-lost friend, Harold Langston.
The majority of boys included on our CD were between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, although lwan Davies was thought by the reviewers to be older and 'pushing it a bit'. It may be that many had naturally unbroken voices, but the boys I have been able to interview are certainly of the opinion that it was the vocal technique they were taught that preserved the voice. Freddy Firth told me that he began to train his adult voice before he gave up singing as a boy soprano. "I think it was the training Dr. Ball gave us". Denis Barthel told me he was sixteen when he recorded He was Despised, perhaps the best record on the CD. We hope this CD will be warmly received, and we offer it not only to the general public but also to the present generation of choir trainers in whose hands the future of our musical tradition rests. Wouldn't it be grand if we were to hear boys sing like this again:
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