|Stephen Beet celebrates the boy sopranos of the early part of the 20th century
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'Tis there, my child, the Better Land.
In the sleeve notes to Volume One of The Better Land, I suggested reasons for the demise of the Boy Soprano Voice. My main contention was that there is no reason why we should not still be hearing this glorious sound today: it is mainly a matter of correct training and the right attitude of mind. There has been quite a lot of inaccurate information put around, and if something appears in print a number of times, people tend to believe it, despite there being little evidence to support it.
First of all, many people believe that the sound produced by these boys cannot be attained by boys under the age of about fifteen. This is certainly not the case at all. The seeds of the 'pure head tone' were sown at an early age. Several of the old training books made the particular point of stating that the first thing a small boy should be taught was to obtain this pure tone. Any shouting was to be discouraged, as it forced up the chest voice into the higher register, a fault which could not be corrected at a later date. Gradually, as a boy became older, he would develop a fuller, stronger and floating tone without any hint of forcing.
Listen to Denis Barthel's voice recorded at the age of fourteen (in Remember now thy Creator - he is singing the lower part) and then again at the age of sixteen-and-a-half (in Jerusalem) and the point is well made: the voice was there from an early age. Derek Barsham's voice at the age of thirteen has still the same full tone, although slightly less mature than when he recorded The Star of God at the age of nearly seventeen.
Another fallacy surrounds the age at which a boy's voice breaks. It is generally believed that boys' voices break earlier than in the recent past. In fact, I was reading about a choirmaster who was complaining that he had to retire boys at the age of twelve! I have noticed that it is now rare to see boys older than fourteen singing in choirs these days, but I doubt that it has anything to do with the earlier breaking of the voice. I tried to look out research done into the subject, but there is very little and most of that available refers to the maturing of girls.
The most interesting information which came to light was from Mr. Freddy Hodgson, now a sprightly and alert ninety-two years of age. He has been singing from the age of six. He reminded me of the once well know fact that just because a boy's speaking voice starts to break it does not mean that he has to stop singing. Freddy for many years (as well as being a celebrated Alto Lay Clerk and gentleman of the Chapel Royal) trained countless children to sing. He told me that choirmasters often sent boys to him whose voices were starting to break or were having vocal trouble due to straining. A few exercises in correctly placing the voice in the head (often based on humming) would restore the boy's voice and enable him to go on singing, often for several years. As I explained in the last notes, this experience has been backed up by others especially by Mr. Harry Coles who was a boy soprano at Southwark until he was eighteen. It certainly seems to be the case that the cultivation of the head-tone preserved the voice beyond the natural break. Southwark Cathedral was at one period noted for the longevity of its treble line, a number of boys continuing to sing long after they had started in business, and arriving at the Cathedral complete with bowler-hat and rolled umbrella. According to the Musical Times, which reported the incident, this caused a wag to affix a notice to the vestry door, which read: 'Choirboys are requested to knock out their pipes before entering the vestry'.
Many people have begun asking the reasons for the demise of the boy soprano, and I can suggest some reasons why we no longer have boy singers of this quality:
First of all, the technique of training them as been lost, initially through deliberate neglect. It has only recently come home to me that this wonderful tradition and the glorious sound was deliberately destroyed.
Everything changed during the war. Mrs Jill Staplehurst (whom we have to thank for supplying two of Derek Barsham's tracks, lovingly preserved in mint condition on 78 for fifty-two years) told me of all the musical activities based in Enfield before the war.
"When the men went away to war, we all believed things would get back to normal when they returned, but they never did: what a change in standards we have seen."
When George Malcolm took over as choirmaster of Westminster Cathedral in 1947, he wrote in a Royal School of Church Music publication that "this pretty fluting sound (of English Boy Sopranos) is an insult to boyhood." He introduced there what has been called 'The Continental Tone' which others quickly copied.
'I want a hard edge on the sound' said Dr, Sydney Campbell of St. George's Windsor. 'And I want no emotion.' Many of the men at that time, including Freddy Hodgson, saw where this was leading.
Fashions have changed. It is no longer considered correct to use portamento, so beloved of the great singers of the past. Not only a harder, but a more impersonal and 'natural' voice is called for from boys. And it is not only the sound made by boys that has changed: where are the beautiful voices like those possessed by Isobel Baillie (whose voice at the time was likened to that of a boy) or the so English sound of Kathleen Ferrier?
The popular music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was, in my opinion, melodious with beautiful harmonies. Today's 'pop' producers refuse to base any of their new music on the tunes and songs of this great period in our history. Young people today, in other words, are told by the media what they have to like. But it has always been my experience as a choirmaster that boys actually prefer singing these songs of the past if they are give the chance to experience them.
The fact is that there is so very little teaching of singing of any kind in our schools today, let alone the teaching of the old 'folk songs'. All musical education now consists of either heavy 'Classical' music appreciation (which may not at once appeal to the uneducated ear), pop music, or encouraging children to 'compose' their own tunes!. Gone is our traditional musical heritage, and gone are the artistes who could interpret it and who were the role models for many of the boy singers of the past. Listen to Master Morris Stevens (Volume I, track 7 ) - he interprets God shall wipe away all tears like a young John Mc Cormack.
Another important point to remember is the effect of the great social changes that have taken place during the last half-century and which it is almost impossible to appreciate unless one has lived through them. Thousands of boys were singing in choirs until just after the war: many of them working-class boys, the same type of teenage boys who are now wandering the streets, engaging in teenage sex and drugs, and generally leading lost lives..
In those days it was socially acceptable to be in a choir and to go on singing for as long as possible. There were countless good amateur choir trainers who gave up their time week by week to train choirs to a high standard. There was the great tradition of the Music Festivals, all flooded with entries. Perhaps most important of all, the Music Hall provided many a boy with the opportunity to sing. Graham Payn was appearing on stage up to five times a day singing between the films at the cinema during the early 1930s.
In those days, boy singers were in great demand and sought after for major roles now taken by women. It was quite common to see a boy in the role of soprano soloist in Messiah. The last time I saw a boy take this role was at an excellent performance by the Vienna Boys' Choir in 1994.
The last boy soprano, to compare with our boys I would suggest, was the Welsh boy, Aled Jones who was singing until he was sixteen-and-a-half years of age in 1986. His voice was of a similar soprano quality than that of some of the earlier boys, but without the expressive, full-toned quality of, for example, Denis Wright, Derek Barsham, or Denis Barthel, all of whom feature on this second CD.
By the 1950s when Billy Neely and Mchael Morley (whom we hope to feature on the next C.D.) were singing, things were beginning to change, and these are really the last two boys who regularly broadcast and produced records in quantity of this quality - the last professional boy sopranos whom we have been able to find. The world of professional music was changing. At the beginning of his career, Neely was described by the reviewers in The Gramophone as a 'Boy Soprano' but later he was referred to as a 'Treble'. It was not Billy who had changed, it was the attitude of professional musicians. Boys didn't sing soprano any more, they sang treble. At the same time, in the popular press they remained boy sopranos to the last.
I have been seriously taken to task by not a few professional people for using the title 'Boy Soprano'. So entrenched is this view now that they would try to re-write the past. My answer is simple: It was by that title that they were proud to have been known.
One recently-retired Director of Music said to me: 'I have spent my entire career trying to get rid of that boy soprano sound, and you want to bring it back!' It was his opinion that the modern sound produced by boys (from the chest, and naturally fading quickly at puberty) was the correct Chorister Sound. Well, certainly fashions have changed and many today, including most cathedral choirmasters, would, I suspect, agree with him. But we are of the opinion that this is not the case, and we have fine records on which to base our opinion. One reviewer privately told me that before the CD had been released, people could easily dismiss our opinions as nonsense; "Now you have the recorded evidence, people will have to take note!"
The Better Land | Volume Two Track List | Ordering Information