During the early 1990s the Church of England suddenly noticed women. In 1991, despite warnings of “sacrificing a wonderful, ancient tradition of men and boys’ choirs for political correctness”, Salisbury Cathedral introduced a Girls’ Choir for the first time. Then on 12 March 1994, the first 32 women were ordained as Church of England priests. However, it was not until January 2015, some 21 years later, that Libby Lane was consecrated as the first female bishop during a ceremony at York Minster.
Outside of Cathedrals, choirs were also dominated by men. This bought about the rise of castrati, the history of which dates from the early Byzantine Empire. In Constantinople around AD 400 the empress Aelia Eudoxia had a eunuch choir-master, Brison, who may have established the use of castrati in Byzantine choirs, though whether Brison himself was a singer and whether he had colleagues who were eunuch singers is not certain.
Against this backdrop, William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices is now regularly delivered by choirs of two dozen cassocked, be-ruffed men and boys in vast, candlelit edifices – the quintessence of what we know as the English cathedral tradition. And yet this could not be further from the original performance environment of Byrd’s Mass: a private chapel or chamber, poor acoustics, one singer to each part and quite possibly a female voice singing the highest. The male-dominated English choral tradition has also been highly effective in appropriating for itself music originally intended for other vocal resources. Mendelssohn’s O for the Wings of a Dove, which for most will prompt in the imagination the sound of an English boy treble, was in fact first performed in a concert hall and by a female soloist.
If we move away from Cathedrals and into the world of Church Choirs, Community Choirs & Choral Societies, almost the opposite becomes true. These choirs are typically dominated by women and, as such, choir leaders the world over are desperate to find a good tenor. Or indeed any tenor for that matter!
From the chap’s perspective, I can see their point. If you go along to join a choir and find yourself amongst just a handful of men in a choir with say 50 women or more, then it can be quite daunting. Suddenly, there is nowhere to hide and, unless you are a confident singer and know / can read your part, it all gets just a bit scary. But I don’t think that’s the real reason. There are plenty of men who sing in Male Voice Choirs all over the UK – although the Welsh still have the monopoly on men singing.
I’m afraid I blame schools because, certainly in secondary schools, you see the same imbalance between girls and boys singing. In Primary schools, everyone sings. The tradition of singing in a morning assembly still seems popular up to the age of 11. But then at secondary school, boys voices change and suddenly they stop turning up to choir. For most boys there is a period where they don’t really have much of a singing voice. And this is the time they remember being told they can’t sing. I’m not suggesting we need to go back to the draconian measures of creating castrati, but I do believe that if more boys were encouraged to sing at school then a lot of choirs would find it much easier to recruit tenors and basses.
Jules Addison is a Choirleader and Sound Engineer who runs 4 choirs in Wiltshire & Gloucestershire and owns 4 Part Music location recordings.