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.

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