Wondering About Girls In Choirs
Christmas was like, well, Christmas for the boys’ choirs of the world.
For many in Britain, Christmas Eve meant tuning in to a broadcast of a lone boy chorister singing “Once in Royal David’s City” in a piercing voice, before being joined by the other boys and men of the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, which dates back to 1441.
In Austria, the Vienna Boys Choir, which is nearly as old, sang Haydn on Christmas morning in the Imperial Chapel. Also that morning, in Germany, the St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig, which dates back to 1212, sang the music of Bach, its former leader. And at a younger St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York, an esteemed choir of men and boys sang a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.
Which leads to a question: Where were the girls?
That has reverberated more than usual this year, ever since a British soprano, Lesley Garrett, wrote an article last month calling on King’s College to include girls in its choir.
“Every Christmas I sit down to watch Carols from Kings, which is broadcast around the world, and every year I wonder where the girls are,” Ms. Garrett said. “So this year I decided to pose the question and see what would happen. And we got this great outpouring of passionate opinion.”
Her broadside inspired a debate about gender inequality; the value of tradition; the particular vocal timbres of girls and prepubes- cent boys; the different ways their voices develop; and the practical difficulties of persuading 21st- century boys to step away from their screens and sports to sing high treble lines in choirs.
Some of the objections to Ms. Garrett’s call to admit girls were musical: The best boys’ choirs are cherished for a particular sound, sometimes described as pure or ethereal. But how much of it is nature — is there a timbre unique to boys just before their voices change? — and how much comes from training is much debated. Some research, done with listening tests of recordings, has called into question how well listeners can tell boys’ and girls’ voices apart.
David Hill, who was the director of music at Winchester Cathedral in Britain when it introduced a girls’ choir in the late 1990s, cited the special sound of boys in advocating the preservation of the tradition, saying there should still be room for separate boys’, girls’ and mixed choirs.
“Removing the boys’ and men tradition would be removing something which is unique in the choral sound world and for which this country is revered,” Mr. Hill, now the music director of the Bach Choir, wrote in a statement.
Boys’ choirs date from a time when girls could not even attend school, let alone join the clergy. And many are belatedly changing. Racial and ethnic diversity has increased in leading choirs. And many British choirs that were once male preserves now include girls and women in varying degrees. Salisbury Cathedral helped pave the way in 1991 when it formed a girls’ choir; these days, its weekly services are evenly divided between girl and boy choristers.
Ms. Garrett said she was most concerned not about whether boys and girls sang together but whether girls had the same opportunities as boys: the access to scholarships to the great choir schools, which provide fine educations; or the same chances to sing on important, high-profile occasions like tours.
“I’m not saying we should abolish boys’ choirs,” she said. “I just think we need to work harder to give girls the parity of opportunity. In other words, equality.”
A British soprano spurs a debate over all-boy productions.
Boys’ choirs date back hundreds of years. The Vienna Boys Choir at Carnegie Hall in New York in December.