The Boy Treble: A thousand year con?
Chapter 5 of my book Contemporary Choral Work with Boys is entitled “Achieving Authenticity”. It begins thus:
How many of us have dreamed of time travel? What would it be like to set the coordinates of a time machine for Lincoln Cathedral in the 1500s? What would a choir actually directed by William Byrd have sounded like? What would the boys have been like? How would they have compared in sound, physical size, intellect, appearance, cleanliness and character to the Lincoln choristers I knew so well during the 1980s? Would the men, indeed, have sounded anything like present day choir men?
The answer to that question is almost certainly not! Simon Ravens’ scholarly study The Supernatural Voice: a history of high male singing makes fascinating reading and raises many doubts about the English counter-tenor, posing a question that will disturb many. Is the counter-tenor that is obligatory in today’s cathedral choir a modern invention and a somewhat inauthentic resource for the performance of Byrd’s music?
- He never wrote for boy trebles. When Byrd did write for boys’ voices, he wrote for meanes only.
- Some of Byrd’s most well-loved and often sung pieces, such as the Ave Verum Corpus were from his recusant phase. The top line would almost certainly have been sung by a small number of female sopranos in a domestic setting. The sound of boys in a resonant cathedral is almost certainly inauthentic. Would we go so far as to suggest arguably a corruption of Byrd’s music?
We have got to the situation we are in because of the straitjacket of SATB and an approach to the performance of choral music that is (with some notable exceptions) seldom scholarly and hardly ever scientific in its approach to its fundamental resource – the singer. The vast majority of modern editions are conceived for SATB voicing. So hegemonic is SATB that a disturbing number of choral enthusiasts seem to imagine that if boys were singing in the fourteenth century, they were singing out of what was effectively a “soprano” part book (now re-named “treble” to preserve an essential gender distinction, of course). Please tell me I am exaggerating here! Compositions that were never for SATB (the entire output of the golden age of polyphony for starters) are forced crudely into the SATB mould. Theories about early music pitch, some bizarre, some credible, are then invented. A result can be strange transpositions created on what sounds authoritative but on closer examination can seem little more than the personal whim of an editor. For several decades, we have lived the notion of a universal standard to sing renaissance music a third higher than it is written. The evidence for this turns out to be rather weak, resting upon an imaginative estimation by Edmund Fellowes of the probable pitch of just one long-defunct organ, the Worcester Dallam instrument.
A case is even building that renaissance pitches were lower, not higher. My personal passion is that the study of boys’ voices, rather than defunct organs, may contribute to better understanding here. For the last fifteen years I have fought, on behalf of the adolescent boys of Great Britain, a very necessary battle against SATB. How many times have I repeated Irvine Cooper’s primary Cambiata tenet “The song must fit the voice, not the voice the song”? It is gratifying to see that our new OUP Emerging Voices choral series has been shortlisted for a Best Print Resource at the 2017 Music Teacher Awards for Excellence. This comes after years of head-bashing and being ignored by the musical establishment. The pieces in Emerging Voices are carefully crafted so that they do fit the voices, and this crafting is based on painstaking scientific research into the nature of those voices.
Encouraged and emboldened by this small success I am turning my attention to the meane voice. Who were these boys who might have sung Byrd’s Short Service, probably composed during the 1560s to satisfy the puritan leaning Dean and Chapter of Lincoln’s desire for simple musical textures? Were they even boys at all? There are two critical areas where I hope that my existing research, combined with an interest in historical music scholarship could lead to exciting new discoveries and creative possibilities.
- The distinction between child and adolescent, and where the line should be drawn between the two. The issue here is that the word “boy” has long been used to describe both categories of singer. I remain convinced that this is a fundamental error that has given rise to many misconceptions with regard to how renaissance polyphony should be performed. The biggest of all these misconceptions concerns the timing of puberty, the relationship between puberty and voice “break” and the use of the falsetto voice by adolescent singers described as “boys” (or “boye” or “childe” in historical texts). If you haven’t read the paper I wrote with Anne-Christine Mecke, a scholar of voice change in Bach’s day, you may find it interesting.
- Techniques developed in England to cultivate and sustain high singing by boys. Reliable, scientifically useful documentary evidence concerning how young males were trained to produce a high singing range dates only from the late nineteenth century. Techniques described by authors such as John Curwen or Francis Howard reached their apotheosis in the first half of the twentieth century when adolescents such as Ernest Lough (aged 16) popularised a belief that “boys” were “sopranos”. The essentials of this technique are still with us today when English choristers are trained to develop a so-called “head voice” that is continued to the bottom of the singing range. Often an apparently seamless transition between child voice and adolescent falsetto is the result and the voice keeps going. It can sound beautiful, but it is also controversial.
It’s now common in England to refer to all boys’ high voices as “treble”. How this universal high voice might differ from the true renaissance treble is becoming an absorbing question, as is the question of whether a good many boys today might be better off singing a part other than soprano labelled as treble. The important, practical relevance of this question is that the young adolescent male singer finds himself between a rock and a hard place. If he wishes to sing great choral music, he must (as such boys do) ride over the mirth and derision of peers by using his falsetto voice to “sound like a girl”. If he wishes to heed the advice of researchers of the adolescent voice, he can sing works in the mould of our Emerging Voices series. There is much to commend that series, of course, but a means of introducing youngsters to great choral polyphony (or sustaining their interest in it) could not be included in claims made for the series. This problem has really perplexed me for many years. Hence I feel that the time has come for some serious work on the meane voice!
So is the boy treble really a thousand year con? It depends on how the undoubted truth that young males of some description have been singing higher parts in English choirs for at least this long is interpreted and put to use. If used as a dogmatic polemic to assert that the cathedral choir as we know it today has existed for 1500 years, it is undoubtedly a con. If used as a starting point for serious research, new interpretations of choral music and new opportunities for boys, then it is not a con. I came across a review by the late Phillip Brett who was concerned with the cultivation (by Wulstan) “of what might be called the female boy treble”. “Female boy treble?” Yes, it is time for a rethink!
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