Denis Barthel


"He was despised is by far the best boys recording I can remember hearing. I can almost say that this is the first boys record to stir me out of apathy" ...Gramophone, April 1932

"Denis Barthel, boy soprano, sings a setting by Walford-Davies of 0 Little Town of Bethlehem. It is a notably good record for anyone who cares for emotional singing from a boy." ...Gramophone, December 1932

Barthel-sm.jpg (6511 bytes)Once described as the unsung hero of the Temple Church, Denis Barthel was born on the 19th May, 1916. He became a pupil at Burdett Coates' school, and commenced his career as a chorister at St. Stephen's Church, Westminster, under its organist and choirmaster Dr. William Bunney.

When Denis was eleven, he was taken by Dr. Bunney to the Temple Church, Fleet Street for an audition by Dr. Sir George Thalben Ball. 'The Doctor' was quick to act on Bunney's introduction and Denis became probationer chorister at Temple in November 1927, the same year in which Ernest Lough made his famous recording of O for the Wings of a Dove.

"I shall never forget how kind Doctor was at my audition, and the encouragement he gave to a terrified young boy.

"The choir consisted of twelve boys and twelve men, and immediately below the choir stalls was the place where we seven or eight probationers sat. Knowing of Ernest Lough's achievements, and also of his second boy, Ron Mallett, for a newly joined probationer, it was somewhat awe-inspiring. However, Ernest was a very kind individual, and he helped me enormously during my early days at Temple.

"Dr. Ball was extremely charismatic. All of us who were taught by him came to love him for his clear understanding of boys. He had a great gift for imparting to us exactly what, and how, he wanted us to perform, and always succeeded - thus achieving a matchless professional standard of choir training."

Denis became principal soloist and Head Boy in 1931, and went on to record some of the most remarkable records ever to come out of Temple - two of which are included here.

In those days, there was no direction of the choir from below the stalls: 'Doctor' always played from the organ loft, and it was the responsibility of the Head Boy on Decani side to lead the choir. It developed leadership qualities, and was a wonderful preparation for the future - all thanks to 'Doctor'.

I asked Denis if he could describe the methods used by Dr. Ball to achieve what has been described as 'the mystical Temple Tone':

"We were always taught to throw our voice forward, and to avoid singing through the nose. We were taught perfect pitch, always hitting the note. Phrasing and sustaining, were emphasised."

Perhaps Denis's most memorable performance during his Temple days was the occasion on Armistice Day, 1931, when he sang solo, 0 Valiant Hearts before King George V and Queen Mary and a packed audience in the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first broadcast of the Festival of Remembrance by the B.B.C. to the Empire, U.S.A., and Dominions. It was a very awe-inspiring experience for a fifteen-year-old boy.

"The hall was very dimly lit, poppy petals were falling from the ceiling, and I was positioned adjacent to the organ loft, which is quite high up in the hall. I was looking out through a dim light at a mass of humanity - and it really was quite frightening. The hymn which I sang was a very beautiful one in my opinion, and I was accompanied in the later verses by George Dixon and Frank Hastwell - both great mentors of mine."

I asked Denis if he could remember the time when his voice broke? Did it suddenly go, or did it just fade away? "No, but I was conscious of the odd crack appearing, and unhappily the day came when Dr. Ball said to me "Denis, I think you had better come down from the stalls and sit with the probationers. I knew then that my day had come, but I had had a good innings."

Many of Denis's 'twelve boys' under him went on to sing in the choir as men, and they all remained devoted to George Thalben-Ball, who was the choirmaster at Temple for sixty-three years until his retirement in 1981.

"It is indisputable that those privileged years at Temple left an indelible mark on my life, and I shall always remain grateful to 'Doctor' for putting me on the right path in life. I left as a chorister in the summer of 1933 with a heavy heart. I had just turned seventeen."

After working for an insurance company in the city, Denis embarked on what was to become a distinguished military career and retired with the rank of Major. In 1969, he and his family emigrated to Vancouver. There he founded one of the most successful marine equipment distributorships in Canada in which he and his sons are now actively involved. Like his father before him, Major Denis Barthel was awarded the M.B.E.

Looking back on his years as a chorister, Denis remarked: "They were wonderful years: I don't think I ever really left Temple, and my heart is still there."

Additional notes from Volume III

Denis Barthel delivers lovely accounts of He was despised from Messiah and Walford Davies's setting of O Little Town of Bethlehem. George Thalben-Ball, who accompanies Barthel on the organ was a choirtrainer in a million. Tully Potter, IRCR, Summer 2000.

Together with Ernest Lough and Tom Meddings, Denis Barthel is recognised as one of the three greatest soloists of the Temple Church, London, where he was trained by his friend, mentor and choirmaster Dr. Sir George Thalben-Ball.

Denis’s full story is featured on volume one and his records feature prominently on the first two volumes. His proudest moment was on Armistice Day, 1931 when, as a fifteen-year-old boy, he sang solo O valiant hearts at the first world broadcast of the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall.

Major Denis Barthel MBE now lives with his family in Vancouver and is still actively involved in business. His reissued records have excited much praise from the modern critics and he has, deservedly, become quite a celebrity and much in demand for interviews about what he describes as ‘those halcyon days at Temple’.

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