The Better Land - Volume Four
Great Boy Sopranos - Recorded 1927 - 1969

Stephen Beet celebrates the boy sopranos of the early part of the 20th century

Click here for track listings from the CD in detail

"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?"

The haunting voice of Master Leslie Day ringing clearly down through the years bids us ‘Come Back’ to The Better Land.  It is now exactly two years since the release of  Volume 1 and a great deal of interest and debate has been generated.  I have been amazed by the number of letters that have come flooding in agreeing with my observations.  It seems as if the recorded evidence of the past has spoken for itself; and many choir trainers have ‘paused for thought’;  some have even openly begun to reassess their training methods in the hope of beginning to recreate the glories of the past.

There is no question in my mind that the training methods employed in the past were certainly better and produced a fuller and more expressive tone.  Some people have found this hard to accept due, perhaps, to the widespread belief that standards of performance were generally second-rate before the war. The recordings we have reissued prove this not to be the case.  It is certainly true that there were many bad performances, some of them committed to wax, but the best of the past shames many modern-day recordings. 

Reviews & Critics

"We may have lived through a golden age in the last century - when the old traditions interacted with the new technology, but were not yet entirely dominated by it." ...Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph reviewing  Timothy Day’s ‘A Century of  Recorded Music’.    

Prior to the publication of the first volume, few people had heard the sound of a chorister trained to produce a head tone. ‘What is this head tone?’ I was often asked.  Many had heard the great  Ernest Lough, but assumed him to have been unique.  However, the Temple Choir produced more than one Lough,  as we have heard and as  Sir George Thalben-Ball was keen to point out.

Some critics, after hearing the quality of sound, claimed that such singing could  be produced only by a boy over fifteen-years-old.  But in fact, both Billy Neely and Derek Barsham  were  thirteen when  they first recorded commercially; and Derek Barsham’s tone remained consistent throughout the four years of his recording career.

Other critics and two cathedral choirmasters have claimed that boys in those days were singing ‘falsetto’. This is a question that deserves much more research before a full answer is given, but I feel they are mixing up the term falsetto with head voice.  Some experts would deny that a boy has a falsetto, but one Victorian trainer wrote that the ‘head voice in a boy corresponds to the falsetto of an adult singer.'  The criticism of ‘choirboy falsetto’ was raised in Victorian times but was countered by George Stubbs, who claimed that 'the thick register of the boy's voice is NOT what Nature designed for singing'.  In a paper published by the Massachusetts' Choir Guild in 1894, Stubbs says:      

'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 by choirmasters of Italy and later introduced into England is a fact either unknown or ignored.'

Some critics from the United States have questioned the ability of boys to sing treble or soprano after their natural speaking voice has broken, or ‘changed’ as it is fashionable to refer to it these days.  But, it is still not uncommon in England to find choirs that include boys of over fourteen or fifteen-years-of-age and these boys often have  broken speaking voices.  This is backed up by the memories of several of our featured boys, as you will read later .

Boy ‘Altos’

‘Most of your boys weren't true sopranos,’ wrote a reviewer in the USA who has fastidiously examined the range of each track in the series, claiming that this boy or that was actually an alto or mezzo-soprano. The question of the boy alto has indeed excited much correspondence: confusion seems to arise from the mistaken belief  that the use of boys on the alto line was normally in those days, as today, confined to those with breaking voices or with ‘naturally low voices’.  Much use is made of ‘boy altos’ on the continent, and in at least one  English cathedral.  The sound  produced, especially in England, is not a true contralto, but usually a laryngeal, chesty sound, which is forced up into the throat and most unpleasant -  nothing like the rich tone  produced by boys in the past.  In the nineteenth century, several English cathedrals employed boys to sing the alto part.  The famous Dr. Buck at Norwich was noted for using boys to sing alto. They were also used  at Magdalen College, Oxford, under  Dr. Roberts when men altos could not be had.  I think we can on this CD demonstrate the good quality of sound produced by boys in the past when they were, as was often the case, allowed to sing an alto part.

The confusion was compounded by another critic recently falsely describing  Denis Barthel, the great successor of Ernest Lough at the Temple Church, of being an alto, whereas, in fact, he was a boy soprano.  We must remember that the range of a well-trained boy is far greater than that of a woman.  Dr. Martin, of  St.Paul’s Cathedral, at the beginning of the twentieth century, wrote that  ‘whereas the average lady's voice is more or less confined to a limited range, a trained boy is capable of the full soprano and alto range'.   James Bates, of the London Chorister school did not recognize alto (in a boy) as a separate voice. ‘All his boys are capable of the full range’ John Curwen observed in 1899.

The inclusion of the  records of Master John Bonner, soloist of Manchester Catherdal in the early 1930s illustrates this point most strikingly and demonstrates the full range of a well-trained boy soprano.   The author, celebrated alto and teacher, Freddy Hodgson, who knew Bonner, agrees  that his lower register was not a ‘chest voice’.

Masters Leslie Day and Robert Harris also demonstrate the true range of a boy soprano, though, sometimes,  power in the lower register was effected by a break into a ‘chest voice’, a break which would not have been detected in 'choirboys' like John Bonner, Harold Langston and Denis Barthel.

Feminine Sensitivity?

Donald Webster, reviewing The Better Land in Choir Schools Today, wrote:

‘Advocates of continental tone proclaimed it as a reaction to what they called the Anglican hoot. You’ll find no evidence of  that here. Instead, many boys sing with an almost feminine sensitivity and would have no difficulty in blending with girl choristers.’

I would agree, up to a point  and  have been most impressed by the several excellent girls’ choirs in some of our cathedrals, especially at Rochester, and the mixed choir at Manchester.  The sound produced by them is in some ways superior to many modern all-male cathedral choirs, and much closer to the expressive singing of our boys on The Better Land. 

In the late nineteenth century, George Stubbs  made a very  interesting distinction between the voices of boys and girls: 'The boy's voice is plastic; it is capable of marvellous development; it shews in course of time singular purity, and it exceeds in range the adult female voice. Dr. Martin, of St. Paul's, is one of the few who have called attention to the fact that women are harder to train on high notes than boys.’

I would add, however, that while I agree that there is feminine sensitivity in many of the voices featured on The Better Land, they still retain that unmistakable boyish quality too.  The voice of the great Isobel Baillie was often in the past compared to that of a boy soprano.  And, as far as I am aware, she was never accused of singing falsetto!  Freddy Hodgson sums it up well by saying: ‘It remains indisputable that nothing can equal the unique purity of tone and robustness of boys’ voices.'

‘Treble’ or ‘Boy Soprano’?

The term ‘treble’ seems hardly ever to have been used commercially during the 1930s and 40s.  All record labels and most reviews refer to ‘boy sopranos’.  It is true that ‘treble’ was, and still is, used in English cathedrals, but in popular music, on the stage, etc.,  'Boy Soprano' was used , and the term seems widely to have spread to include church boys too.  Its use was probably encouraged by the recording companies following the success of Ernest Lough’s great recording of  Hear my prayer.

The surprise sometimes expressed  that some of our boys were singing close to their seventeenth birthday is, in my view, more of a reflection of the changes in our society than any earlier onset of physical maturity.  Freddy Hodgson deals with this very point in his book Choirs and Cloisters:.

‘To remove a boy’s voice from his head by systematically training it upwards to introduce an edge, is to place it inevitably in the chest and throat.  By thus raising the larynx and constricting the throat spaces we have what used to be known as ‘Continental Tone’.  It is already being discovered that this type of singing, which has its counterpart in the incisive edge of many adult voices of today, notably among counter-tenors, is as much responsible for the premature termination of a boy’s singing career as the fact that boys are now reaching physical maturity earlier.  In this gimmick-ridden age we should mourn the moribund art of bel-canto, and pray for its revival.’

A return to the Better Land?

The boys on our disc and their trainers were masters of what has now almost become a lost art and we need to learn from them before it is too late.  The old traditions of singing  (like many other things of worth and beauty) were either deliberately torn down and destroyed after the war or gradually died out as their great advocates passed away.  However, there are signs of hope.  We still have  CDs featuring  boy singers, especially from overseas, and the tradition is not entirely lost here.  Several young choirmasters are taking note, and one or two  of the ‘old school’ are still flying the flag in our cathedrals, schools and choral foundations.  Since the screening of the film Billy Elliott, the story of a working-class boy who wanted to be a dancer, dance schools have been flooded with applications from boys.  If a film were to be made about a boy overcoming everything to become a chorister we could hope for a marked upturn in applications to choir schools.  A similar upturn occurred during the popular career of Aled Jones and, more recently, Anthony Way.

Sadly, it is the working-class boys that  have been the greatest loss to our choirs as Freddy Hodgson makes clear in his book, and our story of John Bonner illustrates.  Now we have both peer pressure and ‘political correctness’ to deal with, whatever that may mean!  These seems to have ensured that there are few boys’ choirs (other than in cathedrals) left for a boy to sing in. The question is not should girls be allowed to sing in cathedral choirs, but should it be possible for boys to sing at all?  If singing can be made ‘cool', many of our problems will be over.

 The Better Land | Volume Four Track List | Ordering Information

Copyright © 2001 Stephen R. Beet

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This page was last modified on 10 March 2007