I was brought up in the English tradition of all-male church and cathedral choirs. I began around the age of six as a treble (memorably singing the solo of “Brother James’ Air” at my sister’s wedding in London – which coincidentally took place the same day as Singapore achieved its independence from Malaysia), went on to become a tenor and finally an alto cathedral lay-clerk. I also served as a church organist, an organ scholar, a cathedral sub-organist and finally secured my own positon as Organist and Master of the Choristers at a British cathedral. All this time, all I had ever known within the context of church and cathedral were choirs of men and boys, sometimes just boys, sometimes just men, but always exclusively male.
Which is not to say that I led a monkish existence completely removed from the presence of singing women. I sung with a mixed group called the Cardiff Palestrina Choir which regularly performed a cappella church music of the Renaissance (once famously doing the ITV Christmas Day television broadcast at which a cameraman confessed to me that he had not wanted the assignment since he had thought we were all going to be Palestinians – Palestrina/Palestine, an easy mistake to make). I also conducted a number of choral societies - in Cardiff, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Aylesbury - where women rather seriously outnumbered the men. I was well acquainted with female singers socially – one of my early university girlfriends was an opera singer - and had no issues with the idea of women and singing. It was just that I distrusted the idea of girls in a church/cathedral choir.
That church and cathedral choirs are now mixed-sex is an inevitable consequence of EU gender equality legislation which bans the gender exclusive practices of the past, no matter how successful they had been. In Europe (and elsewhere) it is no longer legal for churches and cathedrals to stipulate male only voices in their choirs, and from the enthusiastic uptake of places in choirs by girls, it is clear that this legislation has had the desired effect.
However, when I look long and hard at my feelings about mixed choirs in the choir stalls, I realise that it is not merely prejudice (although that does play a very big part). There are some purely musical issues which create my sense of unease. The most serious is the worry for the future. I went from treble to tenor, to alto. Friends went from treble to bass. In short, with a preponderance of female voices in choirs, might we be looking to a day when there are no tenors or basses to support them? It is a sad fact that where boys and girls are mixed in a church choir, it is the boys who eventually succumb and fade away, and I wonder whether boys would so willingly head towards developing their mature voices when they have not had the long exposure to the discipline of singing gained in cathedral choir stalls. EU laws cannot, despite the best efforts of EU law-makers, force women to develop the necessary physical attributes which would allow their voices in maturity to reach down to the C below the bass clef (or anywhere near). The flow of former church and cathedral choristers into the ranks of Oxford and Cambridge Choral Scholars, the rigorous musical training of being a cathedral chorister might produce only top voices in our opera houses. Am I looking at a low-voice Armageddon or merely using an imagined crisis to obscure my very real prejudice?
Less open to question – if ripe for debate and argument – is my sense that there is a fundamental difference between unbroken boys’ voices and those of girls. Over the past few weeks I have been trawling through the regular crop of Christmas CDs; recordings released for the Christmas market by school, chapel, college, church, university, cathedral choirs usually containing the same things but largely intended for distribution amongst families and friends, for whom critical assessment is alien in the face of social loyalty. Since many of those recordings have been released into the general market, it has been my lot to listen to them with a more objective ear, and while I never cease to admire the range and scope of choirs tackling the same old Christmas favourites, and their unceasing ability to find anew the magic in timeless carols, this year brought me face to face with the stark realities of single sex and mixed choirs.
Boys’ and Girls’ only choirs (they get round EU legislation by having one of each under a single banner) make very different sounds. Boys certainly have a richer vocabulary of tone and expressive nuances, but this can lead to rough edges and inconsistencies with (a common failing) top notes forced in an almost hooting manner. In comparison, girls sing with an amazing purity of tone and security of pitch, but lack the timbral depth or the expressive range, and often produce a sound which is so well blended and manicured that it comes across almost as bland.
Ironically, some of the best new Christmas discs have been with mixed boys/girls choirs, where the girls tend to moderate the boys’ excesses, while the boys add colour and depth to the girls’ monochrome sound.
This was reinforced to me when I attended a live performance last night of a choir from Lyon, Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc. This was a mixed group of girls and boys who produced a very strong and confident sound, and at their best produced some fine music-making. They were hampered by some pretty dreadful arrangements – Schubert’s Ave Maria delivered in the minor key and Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei turned into a soft-core jazz number in which Barber’s contribution was a couple of notes heard in an obbligato oboe descant eloquently played by Singaporean Quek Jun Rui. There was also a version of my all-time favourite Welsh melody, Suo-Gan, which was so dreary as to seem quite boring (and what language the children were singing in defied recognition; it certainly was neither Welsh nor French – could it have been Breton??). But what fascinated me was the effect of a deliberate juxtaposition of boys and girls voices in a choir where, clearly, enthusiasm was rather more strong than musical or technical finesse.
Once or twice a boy’s voice would squawk out harshly at the top, but was quickly covered by a rich tone in which the girls clearly kept the focus on pitch and ensemble while the boys added the colour and expression. It was interesting to read that nobody remains in the choir beyond the age of 14, and since boys have to drop out of choirs when their voices break while girls can go on and on for ever, this is important in preventing the choir becoming dominated by the girls. It all worked enormously well and was clearly far better than had this been a choir of boys or a choir of girls;
It may well be that my prejudices are slipping, but I’m coming round to the view that mixed voice children’s choirs can be rather better than single sex ones, provided the choir’s director has the ability to achieve the perfect balance with neither sex having dominance either numerically or in longevity.