The Better Land: Great Boy Sopranos Recorded 1914-1950
Last November, Amphion Recordings released the first CD in a series entitled The Better Land. It was the culmination of months of hard work and the beginning of even more discoveries. For years I had collected the records of the great boy sopranos of the 20th century. Like so many others, I began my collection with the records of Ernest Lough and two of the other Temple greats, Denis Barthel and Tom Meddings. It was hearing these records as that first brought me to visit Temple as a boy in the mid 1960s where I was immediately struck by the beauty of the singing and the kindness of Doctor Ball who let me sit beside him as he played the organ.
Some years ago, I began to wonder why boys were not taught to sing like that any more? I had not realised just how much fashions had changed until I started to compare them with the recordings made my our modern boy sopranos, or 'trebles', as we are supposed to call them nowadays. It seemed to me that something of the old technique of training boys in the use of what we used to call the 'head tone' had been lost or even destroyed after the war by the modern generation of choir trainers who were looking for a colder, more impersonal 'chesty' sound from boys.
The records produced by the best pre-war boy sopranos serve to remind us of a glorious tradition, all but lost to the modern world. I set about trying to bring that sound to the attention of our modern choir trainers, many of whom have never heard examples of this type of singing. Little did I know that it would create such interest and not a little controversy. For the first time in over fifty years, these fine soloists have been rediscovered by the public, not least Denis Barthel and Tom Meddings, two of the unsung heroes of Temple, who both feature on the CDs.
Over a number of years, I slowly assembled scores of pre-war recordings, and two years ago, Graham Lough put me in touch with Martin Carson, a schoolmaster from Ipswich who had hundreds more of such records.
Not only at Temple under Doctor were fine boy sopranos trained. Names such as Denis Wright, Derek Barsham, Leslie Day, Billy Neely and Graham Payn all came to light as professional boy sopranos who were broadcasting either just before or just after the last war. I later found that all had fascinating stories to tell.
I put a selection of these records onto tape and sent them to Trevor Ford, the editor of the Royal School of Church Music magazine. He 'phoned me immediately and said: "You must have these records reissued: people should hear them again."
I was then put in touch with Martin Monkman of Amphion Recordings who gave me the go-ahead to assemble titles for a CD.
It gradually became clear what should be included: on the first disc: as many soloists of the highest quality of the pre-war period as was practical. I also began to track down several of the surviving 'boys'. Over the past two years we have managed to contact half-a-dozen, several of whom had been completely forgotten.. All were thrilled to know that their records would be released ''while some of us are still on this mortal soil'', as Denis Barthel put it when I visited him in Vancouver last year.
The first run of The Better Land was sold out even before the issue date and a second volume was immediately called for. Denis Barthel has received fan mail for the first time in many years, and people have called for more of his records. Denis has been interviewed several times by the BBC over the past few months and is becoming quite a celebrity! Several prominent musicians have remarked upon the beauty of the singing on some of these records especially those made at Temple under Dr. Ball.
Derek Barsham, a prominent London soloist of the 1940s, who was known as 'The Boys' Brigade Boy Soprano' contacted me from the USA to suggest a concert be arranged to raise money for the Boys' Brigade 'Lifeboat Appeal'. Derek is now a principal baritone soloist with the Cape Cod Opera. In early April, over two hundred people attended the concert in Wesley's Chapel, Central Road, London to honour the boy sopranos of the past. Derek's special guests were Denis Wright, the former B.B.C. Boy soprano (1940-1942) and Billy Neely, who toured the U.K. and made many records in the early 1950s. Sadly, Tom Meddings (whose fine recording of As pants the hart is on the second CD) and Denis Barthel (who is featured six times in all) were unable to be present, but we were very glad that David Lewer was in the audience. It was quite a memorable evening.
The second volume of The Better Land also featuring the voices of Graham Payn, Denis Wright, Tom Meddings and Billy Neely is now out. Both volumes are accompanied by a twenty-page booklet in which the featured boys tell their own stories. Both Tom Meddings and Denis Barthel pay warm tribute to Doctor Ball, without whom none of it would have been possible.
The Better Land
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