Back to the Future
I am acutely aware that it’s been some time since my last blog. Does that mean I’ve given up my work? No, it means the opposite! I’ve been so absorbed in detailed, fascinating and (for me at least) utterly compelling research into sixteenth century choral singing that I haven’t had time to blog. My attention will turn soon to a new set of pages on this site, developed from the Recovering Lost Voices pages but now informed by the research that I hope is going to see the light of day over the next two years (though academic publishing is such a frustratingly slow process!)
In case you don’t recognise it, the cathedral on the left is St Paul’s London. Of course, it’s the “old St Paul’s” that fell into abuse (by today’s standards) and disrepair, eventually to be destroyed by the great fire. Well, we can recreate the old cathedral (in model form at least). What if we could also recreate the ten boys who sang in its choir? You think that impossible?
Here are the abstracts of the three main papers that have, so far, informed what I’ve been up to.
Wee shall hear the fearest voyces of all cathedral churches in England: Uncovering a lost treasure of English choral singing
The “fearest voyces of all cathedral churches in England” were those of the ten boy choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral, London in 1575. A visitor from France had never heard the like of their “sweete musicke”. It is probable that the “sweete musicke” was not that of boys singing a soprano part, as is the case today, but of boys singing a lower part known as meane. The meane voice is little known today, but in the sixteenth century it was the most common boy’s voice. Some boys sang a higher part termed treble (not the same as today’s “treble”), but this fell out of favour when the new English prayer book was introduced in 1549. Was the meane voice just an ugly “chest voice” sound, or was it truly “sweete musicke”? This paper explores the case that it was the latter – a “feare voyce” we do not hear today. Modern recordings most commonly employ counter-tenors to sing the boys’ meane part. What might we hear if boys once again sang that part and how should we go about it?
A high-stretched minikin or a good strong meane? Male puberty and voice change in the late sixteenth century
The “high stretched minikin” and the “good strong meane” are members of the late sixteenth century company of boy actors based at St. Paul’s Cathedral who take part in a singing competition in John Marston’s play Antonio and Mellida. The article compares evidence about the behaviour of the boys’ speaking voices with present day research on adolescent voice change, focussing particularly upon the phenomenon of “squeaking”. The conclusion is that the timing of male puberty and the age ranges of boy choristers during the sixteenth century did not differ radically from what is the case today. Boys began their careers as choristers a little earlier and stayed a little longer, but their voices were at their best at around the age of twelve. It seems likely that the meane voice, though lower in range than today’s “treble”, was almost always an unchanged voice. Changing voices were more likely to find employment in the drama which capitalised heavily upon the different types of speaking voice experienced during the stages of puberty. The principal task of the ten boy choristers of St Paul’s was singing at cathedral services. They also sang and perhaps acted a little in the dramas, but the main roles were taken by older boys who were no longer members of the choir.
English Choirboys Ancient and Modern: some preliminary investigations into acoustic profiles associated with renaissance choral music
Modern (i.e. living today) English choirboys generally sing only one vocal part, commonly called “treble”. “Ancient” (in this instance, sixteenth century) boys sang one of two parts, the higher treble or the lower meane. Of these two, the meane was the more common but the tessitura of both treble and meane was lower than the tessitura of boy choristers today. Significant acoustic energy is generated by boys only when singing in the higher part of their range. Questions therefore arise about how boys can balance other parts in polyphony if they sing lower in their range. This becomes challenging when it is appreciated than many sixteenth century choirs contained more men and fewer boys than is the case today. The paper reports empirical investigations that have acoustically profiled the voices of eight current boy choristers who were given sixteenth century meane parts to sing at historic (i.e. lower, non-transposed) pitch. The results are woven into a discussion of different approaches to the training of boys and differences attributable to age and physical maturity. An American approach that favours a balanced middle register is compared with the traditional English approach that concentrates mainly or exclusively upon the upper register only.
The two delightful line drawings are by Robert Micklewright and are taken from an out-of-print book by Katherine Hudson, ‘The story of the Elizabethan boy actors‘. My apologies to the artist that attempts to obtain permission for reproduction how so far failed to unearth the necessary trail. The photograph is a still from a film of The Ballad of Salomon Pavey by Jeremy Taylor, David Drewe-Smythe and Jeremy Taylor. The all important musical arrangements are by Gordon Roland-Adams, Ralph Allwood and Brian Bennett. It was performed by the London Children’s Music Theatre in 1977. Now that’s where I get excited! If that could be done in 1977, what could we do now with the benefit of huge progress in scholarship and even greater progress in technology? Wait and See!
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