There is quite a lengthy and lavishly illustrated article in the New York Times Magazine about the famous Thomanerchor of Leipzig. You can read it here. I spent a day with the journalist who wrote it, but in the end got only a paragraph that didn’t say much! The journalist also visited Leipzig where she met Michael Fuchs. Fuchs is an ex-member of the choir, a leading phoniatrician and global authority on boys’ voices as well as the choir’s “voice doctor”. So he is an authoritative source and he seems to have been quoted accurately (unlike some English newspapers!)
The article, in my view, is nicely written and presents the average NYT reader with a fair summary of life in the choir and the ways the choir is having to adjust to earlier pubertal onset, which of course has been my most recent research topic. Had I been given a bit more space, it might have been reported that, in my view, when Bach was cantor the boys stayed in the choir for far too long. Now, perhaps they leave it earlier than necessary. They certainly leave at an earlier stage of puberty than a good many boys in English choirs who sing “soprano” (I’ll come to that in a minute!) for longer into puberty. These changes in choral practice account for more than changes in the actual biological timing of puberty, although there has been some slight advance in that (somewhat less, though, than the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail like to think.)
At least as interesting as the article itself have been the postings from readers. Some are of the predictable “get girls” or “castrate the priests” type, but the majority are well-considered and thoughtful. At least, they are from American readers. Sadly, I’m not sure that I could say the same about some of the Brits’ responses. There’s one thing I think needs putting right. It’s the old chestnut of “soprano” or “treble”. I did read a post somewhere that appeared to dismiss the article out of hand simply because it called the boys “sopranos”. I suspect that’s unfair because the journalist may well have been reporting what she was told. I checked up on this with an authoritative contact in Leipzig and received this reply:
“Usually we call the singers of the highest line “Soprane” (Sopranos). If
it is crucial that it is sung by boys, one would say “Knabensoprane”.
(boy sopranos – but “Knaben” is the old fahioned term, so it would be
“boyees sopranos” or so 🙂
We do not have a word like “treble” that is exclusively used for boys.
Also the Choir director would say “Nur die Soprane bitte” (“Only
The belief that “treble” is somehow a gender word is a modern-day one prevalent amongst English choral enthusiasts. Before the last world war, boys in England were regularly called sopranos. Ernest Lough was only one of many to be known as such. The sound of the old boy sopranos is different to the that of today’s boy trebles. You can listen to some examples on the audio resources page of this site.
Now, this may generate some “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” responses. Girls can be trebles! What counts is the pure, guileless, vibrato-free sound of the young adolescent. “Treble” is more of an age wonder than a gender word!
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