The Better Land - Volume Five
Great Boy Sopranos - Recorded 1927 - 1957

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 series celebrates the lost and forgotten boy sopranos of the 20th Century and draws attention to the fact that the traditional style of singing, derived from the Old Italian School, has been lost. The art of training boy sopranos passed down through the generations has died out almost completely. In fact, evidence suggests that it was deliberately `killed off' shortly after the war by a new generation of choirmasters who reacted against what they believed was Victorian sentimentality. In fact, the sound destroyed was not Victorian but had been received in direct line from the Italian masters of the Bel Canto school, including the teachings of Manuel 11 and Gustave Garcia, who lived and taught in London during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Many choirmasters held the view that a highly trained boy soloist was not only equal to but far superior vocally to a woman. Those who have heard the boys of The Better Land are in no doubt that this is the case. 

It is our hope that after listening to these CDs a new generation of choirmasters will wish to revive this style of singing. Indeed many choirmasters have expressed genuine interest in train­ing soloists in these methods. In the meantime more evidence is coming to light to support the view that the hard, laryngeal sound produced by today's boys' choirs and soloists (especially in the U.K.) is indeed injurious to a boy's voice and contributes more than anything else to the pre­mature demise of that voice. The traditional `head-tone' techniques taught by choirmasters before the last war produced the true English sound: not only did it blend but it was a beautiful sound, kind to the voice and very easy to produce. 

Manchester Cathedral Choir

This disc has a strong Northern flavour and three of the boys featured were all members of the same choir - Manchester Cathedral - and trained by A.W. Wilson and his assistant, Norman Cocker. 

The rebuilding of the choir seems to have been the work of the Dean, Hewlett Johnson, who later became the `Red' Dean of Canterbury. It was he who appointed Archibald Wayett Wilson as organist of the cathedral in 1919 and Wilson is credited with creating one of the finest choirs in the land; but it was his Assistant, Norman Cocker who appears to have had the greater influence on the lives of many of the choristers. Cocker was appointed sub-organist in 1920. The Reverend Victor Dams gave the following account of his interview: 

Canon Scott: "I notice that you did not take your degree at Oxford. Why was that, Mr. Cocker?"  

Cocker: "I was sent down." 

Canon Scott: "Sent down, Mr. Cocker?" 

Cocker: "I didn't do any work." 

They appointed him on the spot.

Cocker eventually took over the position of Organist from Wilson in 1943 and held the post until his death in 1953. He was very popular in Manchester and seems to have been unique amongst cathedral organists in that he was also organist at six cinemas. The Manchester Guardian stated he was also a fine cook, a brilliant conjuror and a designer of stage-sets!

Robert Duncan Peel * John Bonner * Raymond Kinsey * Thomas Criddle

Other Boys Featured 

There have been many requests for Derek Barsham's most moving recording of Abide with me. This is one of his earlier and most popular records, made in November 1944 in The Kingsway Hall and was responsible for at least one `death bed' conversion. The full story of `The Boys' Brigade Boy Soprano' is featured in the booklet of The Better Land Volume 2.

Alan Broadbrook - 1958

Alan Bradbrook's recording of the Beekeeper's Introit was arranged by George Dixon, who had been a chorister at The Temple Church and, at the time of the recording in 1957, a gentleman of the choir. 

'Doctor (Thalben-Ball) asked me quite casually after a choir practice to pop along after school one day to do a recording but didn't say what it was. So it was all very impromptu'. Alan was a chorister at the Temple Church from 1956-8.

Kenneth Purves was born in New Longton, near Preston in 1911 and his story is featured on The Better Land Volume 3. He made his first appearance at the Blackpool Musical Festival in October 1925, at the age of thirteen. The Vocaleon Gramophone Company contacted him and offered to record him. In mid-1927 they had introduced an 8 inch Broadcast record, which retailed at 1/3d. The records were made in the Stoll Picture Theatre, Kingsway, accompanied on the 1921­28 Jardine organ. Kennneth Purves made Hear my prayer in the spring of 1928 on the first of a two-day recording session. It is estimated that the record sold well over 339,000 copies. There were no royalties but Purves was paid thirty pounds and given a portable gramophone. Kenneth's son, Peter is the well-known B.B.C. presenter. 

Billy Neely's story is featured in the booklet to Volume 2 of The Better Land. He had first been a pupil of Nan Shaw, a respected vocal trainer in Belfast. In 1946 he joined St. Anne's Cathedral Choir and was greatly influenced by the choirmaster, Captain C. J. Brennan. He then become a pupil of Arthur Martin, a well-known trainer of boys' voices. It was Martin who was responsible for his subsequent training. During his career as a professional boy soprano Billy worked with many famous artistes, beginning with engagements for Northern Ireland Children's Hour and working with Havelock Nelson and the B.B.C. He then undertook concert work throughout the British Isles. Early in 1950, Billy toured London and recorded several titles at Abbey Road for H.M.V. with Gerald Moore at the piano.

Billy's many records were tremendously popular during the 1950s and they have now all been remastered for The Better Land series. 

John Brookman's story is featured in the booklet of The Better Land Volume 4. At the time of making this record he was just short of his sixteenth birthday. Cyril Lewis was a member of Steffani's Silver Songsters. We have no other information about him, and we are also appealing for information about Leslie Day, and Michael Morley. "Poor Michael must have done something very terrible to upset Decca! Morley is not only disallowed to retain his red (label) but is actually reduced to the ranks of blue! Nethertheless he sings these old songs most delightfully"

Moore Orr, Gramophone Record, November 1951.

Morley may have been 'demoted' as far as his last reviewed 78 was concerned but he had the honour of being one of the first British artistes, certainly the first boy soprano, to be issued on L.P. - Decca wouldn't have chosen Morley had they not thought very highly of him. The compa­ny obviously valued its boy sopranos as their previous boy, Derek Barsham, had launched Decca's Full Frequency discs seven years earlier. 

Other `old friends' return, including Trevor Schofield and Beverley Jones. Jones was a chorister at York Minster during Dr. Francis Jackson's early years as Organist and was Head Chorister at the time of making this recording in 1954. Beverley had represented the Minster at the Coronation in June 1953. Dr. Jackson succeeded Bairstow at York Minster in 1946. He has been a frequent broadcaster and has made records with York Minster Choir until his retirement in 1982. More recently, Dr. Jackson has recorded exclusively for Amphion Recordings. 

Robert Regent made just two discs, as explained in the notes to Volume 4. Here we include the second and perhaps more moving of the two Father in Heaven a then much-loved English rendering of the famous Largo by Handel. Robert lost his young life at sea in the war but his voice remains, like the others, a precious memory of the past.

Far beyond the clouds and beyond the tomb,
`Tis there my brothers, The Better Land.'

© Stephen Beet, 2003

No part of this article may be reproduced without permission from the author

Stephen Beet can be contacted via e mail:
StephenRBeet@aol.com

I hear thee speak of a Better Land 

'A remarkable series of CDs has been appearing. This is - rather unfortunately, I think - entitled `The Better Land', after a song which featured Master Denis Wright with the once famous Kentucky Minstrels....... A pioneering spirit here is Stephen Beet who writes strongly argued introductory essays and finely researched biographical notes.....  (Perhaps) this neglected species may at last gain some co-ordinated recognition. It is a subject to which I shall be returning' ...John Steane, Gramophone, May 2003

Over the past two years, two volumes of The Glory of the Temple Church Choir have been produced and have further fuelled the interest in boy soloists. Paul Hale, writing in Organists' Review says: `Lough is in heart-rendingly glorious voice for Hear ye, Israel, Barthel in rich mezzo mode for Jerusalem, Mallet and Horton ideally matched in Lead me, Lord.' Ernest Lough and his fellow soloists of the Temple Church feature prominently in The Better Land series, a testament to the inspired choir training of Sir George Thalben­Ball. It is fitting that Ernest Lough also appears on this CD, together with Mr. Thalben­Ball, as he then was, at the piano. In addition, one of Dr. Ball's first post-war soloists, Alan Bradbrook features on a previously unissued recording.

 The Better Land | Volume Five Track List | Ordering Information

Copyright © 2003 Stephen R. Beet


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