Music history is full of anecdotes. I’d be surprised of your choir conductor hasn’t ever told you any! But has she or he told you these ones based on How High Should Boys Sing?
Do you recognize this piece? Have you ever sung it?
Yup, it’s the “Little Organ Mass”. The one where everybody sings different words at the same time to make it short so the men can get off to the pub . . .
That’s not why it’s “little” though. It was written for the chapel of the Brothers Hospitallers in Eisenstadt, where Haydn worked. The chapel was “modest”, so the organ was “little” and no more than 12 singers could cram into the tiny gallery.
Haydn began as a boy chorister. When he was little he was so good that he started at the age of 5. Later, he boasted that his voice didn’t change until he was 18. Now this was a naughty boast because it actually started changing quite a lot earlier, probably about age 14 or 15. By the age of 16 the Empress of Hapsburg complained that he was “singing like a crow”. This made him mad, so he cut the pigtail of another boy’s hair, for which great misdeed he got a public flogging!
Moral of the Tale? Don’t believe some of the claims you hear about how long voices lasted in the past!
Now, do you recognize this one?
Of course you do, it’s Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus! One of the most well-known pieces that Byrd wrote for boy trebles to sing.
Wrong I’m afraid. Byrd never wrote anything for boy trebles. They didn’t have them in his day because after the Reformation the new protestant clergy didn’t like high singing. The boys Byrd knew were called meanes and they sang a bit lower than you do.
But it doesn’t end there. Ave Verum Corpus is in Latin. Very naughty! It was written for Roman Catholics and there’s no way Byrd could have performed it in a protestant cathedral. If you’ve seen Blackadder II, just imagine Queenie in a rage ordering his head to be chopped off!
So, most of Byrd’s music had to be performed in secret in the houses of Catholic sympathisers. Byrd was a recusant (a person who disobeyed the order to be protestant).
Tudor “safeguarding” would have kept boys well away! The top part would have been sung by recusant women.
Moral of the Tale? Be careful about claims that are made that the music you sing was written specifically for boys’ voices!
Now here’s an interesting one. Sadly, there’s no picture of Thomas Weelkes. This is rather a shame, because although he wrote some rather good music, he had some immoral habits which the Bishop and the Dean tried and failed to correct.
You’ll have to translate this olde English:
. . .every often come so disguised eyther from the Taverne or Ale house into the quire as is muche to be lamented, for in these humoures he will bothe curse & sweare most dreadfully, & so profane the service of God … and though he hath bene often tymes admonished … to refrayne theis humors and reforme hym selfe, yett he daylye continuse the same, & is rather worse than better therein
So, do you know this piece?
If you’ve sung the verse part in Weelkes for Trebles, well done, you must be a top boy in your choir. But now it’s confession time. My turn to be naughty! I pitch shifted the recording to make it so high that you can’t sing it. Bet you can’t.
But I haven’t really been that naughty, no naughtier than Peter le Huray who edited the music copy and guessed at how high the missing top treble part should be. The real pitch of the recording you heard was a tone lower than Le Huray wrote. Lots of music from this time has been made higher to make it, amongst other things, easier for modern counter-tenors to sing. But it makes it harder for you!
Moral of the Tale? Look with suspicion upon choirs with very high sopranos!
And finally, a sad one to end on.
I think that’s one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. Do you?
It’s by Robert Parsons (of course you knew that). He’s another one we don’t seem to have a picture of. One of the reasons for that is that he fell into the River Trent and drowned before anybody could paint one. Nobody knows quite why he fell in, but it was probably a dark night and the river was probably in flood. It would have had sloping, muddy banks in those days (and no electricity pylons).
As soon as Parsons drowned, Byrd took his job at the Chapel Royal. Byrd was great, but judging by the Ave Maria, might Parsons have been even greater if he’d lived longer? A singer of the time called Robert Dow wrote this:
“Parsons, you who were so great in the springtime of life, how great you would have been in the autumn, had not death intervened“.
Moral of the Tale: If you ever go to Durham University (as some of you one day might) don’t go late night clubbing and drown in the River Wear (as Durham Uni students sometimes do).
Life is precious. treasure it.