Stephen Beet celebrates the boy sopranos of the early part of the 20th century
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"I hear thee speak of a better land...
Thou call'st its children a happy band...
Tell me where is that radiant shore...
Shall we not seek it and weep no more?"
If you have been following what has been described as ‘the Better Land debate’ in the church and musical press, you will know that early in 1998 I first asked why we no longer seem to have the quality boy soprano soloists we used to have up until the early 1950s. And I also began to question the methods of training employed by choirmasters since the war, suggesting that we should return to the former head-tone techniques of voice production, which produced a more mellow and fuller tone and enabled boys to continue singing much longer than modern, chest-voice methods allow.
Little did I expect to create such a debate and receive so much public support and encouragement. The publication of the first two volumes of The Better Land has had the effect of rallying support for the traditional 'head-tone training' from some of our most eminent choral directors and has caused not a few to question what is going on in some of today's cathedrals and choirs.
Others have been angered that the 'head voice/chest voice controversy' has once again been raised, so long after they had though it dead and buried. And it very nearly was dead and buried, because so few of the younger generation of musicians have had any experience of the training methods which produced the 'boy soprano sound' of the past. We had either forgotten or never heard the true boy's singing voice so accustomed had we all become, myself included, to the sound of the 'forced-up' chest voice that it has long accepted it as the boy’s natural singing-voice. The old choirmasters would certainly not recognize this modern sound, or if they came across it would,
and did, condemn it as injurious to a boy's voice.
Objections were even raised to my using the title 'boy soprano', and some have claimed that the boys of those days 'sang like women and were trained by women'! The fact is, as we now have rediscovered, neither of these statements are true: they were trained as boy sopranos, and in almost every case, by men!
Others, while admitting the value of the work carried out in producing The Better Land, have tended to offer excuses as to why we are not hearing the traditional 'boy soprano sound' today. So, I was delighted to have the support of George Bragg, the founder of the Texas Boys' Choir, and known as 'the dean of American boys choirs', for his permission to include a more recent soloist, Donald Collup. Donald's track, recorded in 1969, draws attention to the fact that the traditional methods are alive and well today in many parts of the world. Other letters from singing teachers in some of our Public Schools have drawn my attention to the fact that the old traditions do survive here and there in England too.
The publication of The Better Land has reminded us that it was quite common for boys of up to seventeen or even eighteen to be singing soprano in church and cathedral choirs before the second world war. Many people have drawn the conclusion from this that the age of puberty must have been much later in those days. This was not necessarily the case, and, in fact, I have seen no evidence to suggest that boys of seventeen today are any more adolescent today than they were fifty years ago What have changed are the vocal technique of singing and the social conditions that allowed such boys to go on singing for so long.
There have been several reports recently that it is becoming increasingly difficult to retain older choirboys. This fact is not in dispute. But what does come across to me is that very few, if any, of the boys in choirs today look anywhere near the age of adolescence. In other words, boys are lost to choirs before their voices break. Yet it is noted that several choirs do still have boys who have turned sixteen.
One of the reasons why choristers are generally younger is the fact that many of the cathedral choir schools lose boys at thirteen to their public schools, whereas, in the past, they would have been able to continue singing. Many of these public schools are now co-educational and in those, I assume, it would be ‘uncool’ for a boy to go on singing soprano. There are exceptions like Uppingham; and Eton, which is not co-ed, still has a fine chapel choir of boys, and maintains a very good treble line.
Some of the few remaining traditional choirs thrive under inspired leadership in what used to be called ‘working class districts’. But generally, boys of this social background have been lost to choirs. Many younger people do not realize that in the first half of the twentieth century, large and flourishing choirs existed in working-class and slum areas, and in 1898 it was claimed by George Flemming in The Training of Boys' Voices that by far the greater number of choirboys belonged to the upper grade working classes. Would it be untrue to claim that today most of our cathedral choristers come from ‘middle class’ backgrounds?
There have also been reports of one or two well-known cathedral choirs having difficulty keeping older boys because of the commitment involved, and other choirs report boys having to ‘go off singing’ because of vocal trouble due, in my view, to the post-war training methods which encourage the forcing-up of the chest voice into the higher register. In private, one or two eminent directors have admitted that the old techniques were ‘kinder to the voice’. Why then, I ask, do they still teach this injurious method of voice production, especially as they claim their boys’ voices are breaking earlier? If they were to teach the correct techniques and cultivate the head-tone, their boys could easily go on singing much longer. Much of the problem today is based on ignorance of past techniques. Fifty years ago, a completely different technique was taught which produced the quality of sound to be heard in our three volumes of The Better Land.
“I cannot understand how those boys could have been taught to sing like girls,” was one scathing comment from an ex-lay clerk recently. Yet I heard a recording of a 1940s BBC broadcast in which this very chap was singing 'like a girl’ as he put it!
However,. the official reviews of The Better Land have been most encouraging, not least from Paul Hale, the Rector Chori of Southwell Minster, who wrote in Organists’ Review:
I cannot remember experiencing such delight and pleasure from an historical release before. It also gives me cause to reflect upon what we are doing with the training of our boys’ voices today (despite apparently knowing all about technique and employing singing teachers in many cathedrals) if we can but so rarely produce such rounded musicians as these, with their sumptuous beauty of tone.
It is interesting to note that even in 1981 it was still commonplace for the Temple Church choir to include boys of sixteen and sometimes over seventeen; and David Lewer, the Temple historian, who has kept meticulous records, informs me that there was a remarkable consistency in both the joining and leaving ages of boys from the 1860s, when records began, until the retirement of Sir George Thalben-Ball in 1981.
If I have brought the old techniques back to the fore after so many years of neglect, I am thankful. It is not a question of portamento or vibrato which are merely matters of style: the real issue here is about correct 'forward' tone. As Major Denis Barthel (head boy at Temple 1931-33) said in a recent BBC interview: "Things aint what they used to be, but I am very hopeful for a restoration of the former standards."
The Better Land | Volume Three Track List | Ordering Information