Feature: Boy sopranos
Andrew Green has been speaking to some of the stars of Amphion’s The Better Land boy soprano series of CDs, and asking whether a lost tradition of singing can make a comeback.
I had already made one long journey – back in time – to hear the remarkable voice of the legendary Denis Barthel singing Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ in 1932 at the age of 15. Heard it, that is, in volume 3 of Amphion’s remarkable series of CDs featuring boy sopranos of the past, The Better Land – named after the Hemans-Cowen song. At that time, Barthel was Head Boy and Principal Soloist of the Temple Church in London. His accompanist on this once best-selling recording is the Temple’s famed and long-lived choirmaster, George Thalben-Ball, who turned out so many accomplished ‘boy sopranos’ – the term which was in common use in both secular and sacred musical contexts. And the young Barthel’s sound was extraordinary: rich and focused, with immaculately sculpted vowels – so adult, individual and bursting with personality. Barthel had few peers, but the genre of singing was found everywhere.
Now came another journey, via the phone, to Vancouver, where the 85-year-old Barthel now lives nearly 40 years after he left the UK (‘…to escape Harold Wilson’, he says enigmatically). Still the sculpted vowels, still bags of character. Looking back on the fame he enjoyed in the 1930s – yes, the top boy sopranos did enjoy fame through their recordings and broadcasts – Barthel puts it all down to the training received from ‘Dr’ – alias Thalben-Ball. ‘We were taught how to throw the voice through the mouth – not the nose, which would lead to the English cathedral hoot which "Dr" so hated. And he was so concerned about diction and phrasing. All in all it was a far more expressive sound than you tend to hear from choirboys today – a more "feminine" sound, although we never thought of it that way at all.’
Talking of fame, Derek Barsham was the boy soprano of the 1940s, recording for Decca as well as appearing often at the Royal Albert Hall, broadcasting times without number and singing regularly in oratorio (several times deputizing for Isobel Baillie, such was the vocal similarity). Although Barsham sang briefly in St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir, the voice was essentially untrained. Yes, that ‘feminine’ sound again, maybe through the influence of his mother’s singing, he says. ‘I sang all kinds of things – ballads, oratorio, opera … everything. The voice didn’t break until I was 18 – I don’t know why, although I was always very careful with it. In my twenties, when I’d developed a light baritone, a friend said there was a public out there keen to see what had happened to me, still keen to hear me sing, such had been my popularity. And he was right.’ Barsham remains prodigiously active as a singer in Cape Cod, USA.
Billy Neely (actual name William Corkill-Callin) was one of the boy soprano voices of the 1950s, having begun singing as a means of conquering a childhood stutter. His full, rounded, powerful voice made him a familiar guest artist on the radio (not least on In Town Tonight and Henry Hall’s Guest Night) and brought him concert engagements nationwide as well as a string of recordings. He was taught both privately and at the hands of CJ Brennan at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. ‘The volume had to do with the placing of the voice. Brennan liked a natural voice, with good breath control and a focus of the tone at the front of the face.
‘The problem for boys now is getting ragged at school for singing: but in my case the other kids were interested in what I was up to – and envious that I was able to get off school! I loved every moment of my time as a soloist – imagine … working with such people as Victoria de los Angeles and Gerald Moore. When I heard my voice on the Amphion CDs I was a little tearful – it brought back to me just how much I’d enjoyed it all.’ Neely went on to enjoy an adult career as a concert singer under the name Lawrence Neely. Strange to relate, he is yet another former boy soprano who has left the country (living now near Poltiers in France).
The driving force behind the Amphion Better Land project is Stephen Beet, who teaches singing in a London prep school. He sees no reason why the boy soprano tradition should be regarded as dead. ‘In the old days boys heard this type of singing all around them so they just picked it up – in a choir you learnt it from the older boys. But the technique can still be taught. The essential, bel canto, principle is to focus the tone not in the throat but in the top of the head. And the head voice can be applied below middle C without resorting to chest voice – the sound is smooth and even across what often becomes a very wide range. A slight vibrato is fine – that adds expression and helps with placing notes. Breathing is important – one former boy soprano I spoke to said that his training was largely about learning to release breath slowly. And there should be absolutely no strain – in some cathedral choirs today you can see such tension in the face and neck.’
Beet sees the decline in the boy soprano voice as having had to do with, yes, fashion, but accelerated by choir trainers such as George Malcolm at Westminster Cathedral who decided the soprano sound was too emotional, sentimental … feminine. ‘I think Malcolm once said that the pretty, flute-like voice was an insult to manhood. But what he ignored was the fact that you can’t have singing without emotion – and boy sopranos could offer that.’
Passionate agreement comes from 93-year-old Frederic Hodgson, who had a long and distinguished career as a boy soprano in Sheffield and then as a male alto with a line-up of choirs including Lincoln and Lichfield cathedrals and St. George’s Chapel Windsor. ‘Our training in the head voice and in producing a relaxed, natural sound made it possible for us boys to sing with so much expression. All the famous organists and choirmasters taught that way – WH Harris, Ivor Atkins, Frederick Bridge. Just thing about what you’re being asked to sing in divine service – whether it’s praise, penitence or sadness. How can you not then sing with emotion? Boys today sing very will – I’m not denying that. But by and large they sing with less expression.’
George Guest, the distinguished organist of St. John’s College Cambridge for forty years, offers a halfway house, developed in his early years in the job. ‘I wanted to promote a way of singing that was more natural than the "hoot", but I didn’t like talk of boys having "a" voice, of singing either with head or chest. For me, it was a matter of what was most likely to convey emotion. A breathier, "English" sound is good for homophonic music, but when it comes to contrapuntal music, breathiness is no good – you need clear lines. I was hugely impressed with the sound made by the boys of the royal chapel in Copenhagen when I visited in the late 1940s … the "continental" sound they had. So I experimented with giving St. John’s boys two voices. Eventually I was able to just shout out in rehearsal "English" or "Continental" and the boys could change at will.’
But what of matters of vocal health? The longevity of boy soprano voices is constantly cited as evidence for the benefits of the technique used. By Frederic Hodgson, for example. ‘People can claim that the earlier onset of puberty today makes voices break earlier, but I believe our voices lasted longer – mine until I was 18 – because of the training we received. I’ll never forget two boys who sang at Lincoln Cathedral. Both 16 and both over six feet tall!’
Denis Barthel is of the same mind. ‘In my day it was very unusual for a voice to break when a boy was under 14, and many carried on singing as sopranos until they were 17. The "hoot" put much more strain on a voice.’
The issues surrounding what constitutes ‘healthy’ technique can be contentious – one high-profile cathedral choir director declined an interview, implying the issues were simply too thorny. Paul Hale, Rector Chori at Southwell Minster, has been fascinated by the Amphion recordings, but believes it would be utterly wrong to imagine that boys’ voices are somehow in greater danger of abuse now than in the age of the boy soprano. ‘I think the basic understanding of the right way, the healthy way, to produce sound hasn’t really changed. Yes, there are cases of choirs where you hear boys apparently being encouraged to force the tone, but not very often.’
Edward Higginbottom, director of the choir at New College, Oxford, agrees. ‘In the last 20 years cathedral and collegiate choirs have increasingly been using professional singing teachers. Yes, I think it’s probably true to say that pulling the head voice down into the lower register of the voice may well be a particularly safe method and perhaps extends the life of the voice. But you can’t deny the existence of different registers in the voice with different colours and I like to try and exploit them. In doing so, maybe you have to be more circumspect in technical terms … you have to know what you’re doing. But I wouldn’t do anything that might remotely be injurious to young voices. And I don’t agree that choirs of boy soprano voices necessarily produced a more powerful sound than today’s trebles.’
Higginbottom and Hale agree that the earlier age at which boy’s voices now break cannot solely be explained by the loss of the ‘boy soprano’ technique. ‘Earlier puberty surely has so much to do with it,’ says Hale. ‘And when it comes to the greater range of expression that you hear on these recordings you have to bear in mind the fact that if voices were breaking later, there was more time for boys to mature and develop at the emotional level and for that to be heard in their singing. And in any case I suspect that many of the voices on these CDs had special, individual training.’
‘If New College boys today were able to sing treble beyond the age of 14,’ adds Higginbottom, ‘I think we’d hear some remarkable things from them, simply because they could bring greater personal maturity to their singing.’
Equally, you can’t divorce a style of singing from its period, says Hale. ‘These boy sopranos were singing in what was then viewed as acceptable style in many areas of music-making. Much of the repertoire was very emotional and sentimental, which was also reflected in cathedral music. But things move on. Cathedrals looked beyond the restricted 19th-centruy repertoire, not least to Tudor and Renaissance music, which makes different demands. A clearer, fresher sound was called for.’
‘I think we’ve lost a tradition which hasn’t been replaced by a single way of doing things,’ argues Edward Higginbottom. ‘There are many "schools" up and down the country now. But if anyone gets the impression that boys’ voices today aren’t capable of great sophistication of sound they’d be totally wrong.’
If it is indeed true that many styles of singing are now embraced by choirs, could the boy soprano sound rediscover a place? Through his pupils, Stephen Beet is helping turn the clock back, but he is adamant that his sound ‘… mustn’t be put in the ‘authentic music-making’ category. It’s not a historical curiosity. I’ve been amazed at the number of letters I’ve received showing interest in the Amphion recordings. Yes, the boy soprano sound can seem ‘girly’ now, but it didn’t 50 years ago. My experience is that if you train boys from a young age they just accept it as natural.’
from The Singer – August/September 2001
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