The Biggest Threat to Boy Choirs
The great British tradition of boy choirs was nearly lost during Cromwell’s Commonwealth, when cathedral musicians were disbanded for political and ideological reasons. Today’s choirs face a different threat; so far they seem to be holding up magnificently, but they are wrestling with a challenge that is little-known outside the choral world.
George Thalben-Ball was in charge of music at London’s Temple Church for nearly 60 years from 1923. (He directed the famous recordings of treble Ernest Lough singing ‘Hear My Prayer’.) Thalben-Ball observed first-hand that as the 20th-century went on, drawing away from the Depression and major wars, male voices broke earlier. He attributed the effect to better health and nutrition.
We know from church records that in earlier centuries it was very common to have 16- or even 17-year-old trebles (such as Joseph Haydn). These days the average is more like 12. There is of course a vast difference in musical ability between a 12-year-old and a late teenager, not least in the hours of practice put in, and that’s behind the almost unbelievably complex solo lines written for trebles by people like Bach and Handel. It’s not that they had superhuman 12-year-olds back then; it’s that the lines were performed by young adults.
Haydn was almost literally thrown on the street when he could no longer sing treble in St Stephen’s, Vienna. Today, happily, boys are most often encouraged to gently sing through the change, singing in their ‘old’ voices while it’s comfortable, and gradually experimenting with the new. Sometimes their voices slide downwards naturally over a few months; for some there are two distinct voices, with perhaps a difficult or ‘missing’ octave between them. In a choir with a heavy schedule, a boy may need to step back from performing while he gets used to his new voice.
At Stephen Cleobury’s suggestion, Musica Viva is bringing an ‘extra’ King’s treble on this lengthy national tour…just in case…
Director of Artistic Planning, Concerts
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge tour Australia for Musica Viva 21 July – 2 August. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit;musicaviva.com.au/kings