Vocal heroes: Going out on a natural high: 'High and sweet and strong'. Tess Knighton on what England expects of her cathedral choirboys

'Nothing uplifts like the perfect treble.' So says one of the older and more reactionary canons in Joanna Trollope's The Choir, a tale of the battle to save the choir school of the fictional cathedral of Aldminster. The canon is, of course, speaking in a spiritual sense (no smutty doubles entendres please, boys), and there is no doubt that his statement pinpoints one of the main reasons why the Church, at least in this country, has continued to support the cathedral choir schools. Go into almost any British cathedral or into many of the Oxbridge college chapels at Evensong and hear those treble voices soar up into and echo round the vaulted ceilings and perpendicular-style columns and arches, lifting hearts and minds heavenwards. In the context of a liturgical service, the voice of the choirboy has, since at least the later Middle Ages, imparted an angelical quality - a unique and inspiring blend of purity and innocence - to the music of divine worship.

But exactly what is it about the quality of the treble voice that uplifts and moves us so? (Even those who never attend Evensong will have experienced something of the sensation listening to Aled Jones sing The Snowman or the 'Pie Jesu' from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem, to name but two secularised examples.) Most immediately, of course, there is the intrinsic sound of the treble voice, so high in pitch, so pure in tone.

The vocal qualities most prized in the Middle Ages, when choirboys began to be trained musically, were precisely these: the voice should be 'high and sweet and strong'. The sound of boy trebles began to be exploited by composers of sacred polyphony towards the end of the 15th century, especially so in Tudor England. In English polyphony of the 16th century, the top line was often divided into two (treble and mean) with a tessitura (or pitch level) that bordered on the vertiginous. The headmaster of the threatened choirschool at Aldminster refers to this tradition in his eloquent plea to save his institution: 'Without the choir of boys' voices that particular sound, a sound of unrivalled beauty and power, would not be possible. For 500 years, music has been composed to that top line of extraordinary sound and it is in English cathedrals alone that it remains, still uncorrupted, strong and free, with a higher standard of voice being recruited every year.'

Trollope is right to allude to the length and strength of the English cathedral tradition; certainly it is unrivalled in the rest of Europe, although there are famous boys' choirs in, for example, Vienna or the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia. However, even the English tradition has had its ups and downs with standards and morale reaching a dangerously low ebb at the beginning of this century. Then began an extraordinary revival with the injection of new levels of musical discipline at certain establishments, notably at King's College, Cambridge, under the direction of Boris Ord. And it was perhaps this choir, more than any other, that led the way, most publicly through the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast each Christmas, with a sound that was pure (open-vowelled) and clean (precise in ensemble and intonation) and ethereal (perfectly suited to the reverberant acoustic of the college chapel).

Ord was succeeded by David Willcocks, who raised standards even higher and whose celebrated recording of Handel's Messiah had the trebles singing the soprano arias in unison. This has recently been digitally remastered, brought out on CD and reviewed in Gramophone, the critic remarking appositely that it 'successfully recaptures the unique King's College acoustic and all that goes with it. This is the Messiah of suede-silk boy soprano arias ('I know thett my Redeemer liveth, ent thett he shell stent . . .').' This hits the mark as regards both the interdependence of the tone quality of the boys and the acoustic of King's chapel (that kind of almost urgent breathing that sent whispers round the fan-vaulted ceiling) and also the precision and preciousness of the Willcocks approach, the sound being distinguished by the unanimity of those incredibly (almost forced) bright vowels and the emphatic togetherness of those final Ts. The sheer discipline of this approach, however, raised standards enormously - and not just at King's.

As a choirboy manquee in a mixed college chapel choir in the very shadow of King's, I, too, was trained to sing 'eck-shel-cees', with the bright vowels bringing out the upper partials of the harmonic series in a way that made the soprano line pure and milky and, well, boyish. The ramifications for the many excellent mixed professional 'early music' choirs were thus equally important.

The King's sound became the model for cathedral choirs everywhere, although not every choir director favoured its almost disembodied quality. For example, George Guest, further along the Cam at St John's College, adopted a more athletic approach to training his boys: 'To sing top notes,' he is quoted as saying in an article in Early Music in 1980, 'one needs to take big breaths, to throw one's shoulders back, and to adopt something of the poise of an all-in wrestler.' I have never noticed a resemblance between the boys of St John's and Big Daddy but it would be true to say that their sound has more punch, an almost hard-edged quality in comparison to the unalloyed sweetness of King's. Guest was just as strict a disciplinarian as Willcocks, but he perhaps concentrated less on vowels and more on the way in which the sound was produced. Interestingly, when he started out at St John's, he played recordings of Continental choirs to the boys in an effort to inspire them to a less distinctly English sound. 'Having established the sound,' he said in that interview, 'it is easy perpetuate it; boys are great imitators.' Guest also had a distinctive method of training the boys, making each chorister able to sing a three-octave range, from B flat or D below middle C to the G above top C, dispelling at a stroke the idea that notes in the top G or A range were 'high' (and so hard to reach). 'These notes do not have much practical value, except perhaps to reduce the terrors of the Allegri top C; but it also helps the boys here to have much bigger, more dramatic voices than most.'

This fuller, richer and often darker-hued sound is often described as 'Continental', although I do not think any serious analysis lies behind this. 'Non-King's' would perhaps be more accurate. The most distinctive of the boys' choirs is that of Westminster Cathedral, Roman Catholic and perhaps therefore with greater Continental affinities, but trained for most of the 1980s by David Hill, himself formerly an organ scholar at St John's. Under Hill's direction this choir enjoyed a tremendous boost of confidence, with a sound as rich and supple as any in the world, but as distinct from the vibrato-laden but equally striking sonority of the Escolania de Montserrat as from that of King's itself. Hill, now at Winchester Cathedral, where he has had a similar impact, clearly combined Guest's concentration on voice-training with the distinctive sound he inherited at Westminster. Their numerous recordings illustrate superbly how the boys bring a dramatically direct and full-blooded approach to the music of Continental composers such as Victoria and Palestrina: they are definitely my vocal heroes.

It is probably largely due to the experience of making recordings that standards have now reached unprecedented levels. But there is a downside to this extraordinary late 20th-century revival. Boys' voices are breaking earlier and earlier, and this means that inevitably a boy treble cannot normally achieve the degree of musical maturity and leadership of former times. The statistics are alarming: during the Renaissance, boys' voices did not break until the age of 17 or 18, and even up to World War II, it was common to find trebles 15 or 16 years old. Today, however, voices break at about 13, before most boys can possibly acquire much musical sophistication. And the reason? 'I blame McDonald's,' once said Gustav Leonhardt, co-director of Telefunken's complete Bach cantata cycle.

During the 20 years that project took to record, it became almost impossible to find a boy capable of singing a solo aria and so to re-create the kind of sound Bach himself would have had in mind. (There are, nevertheless, some extraordinary performances from members of the Tolzer Knabenchor.) It would appear, though, that modern protein-rich diets have brought about faster hormonal changes than of old; perhaps all boys with good voices should become vegetarians.

The banning of hamburgers would certainly be a mild threat compared to that faced by choirboy Hubert Anvil in Kingsley Amis's The Alteration. Castration is no longer deemed acceptable, thank goodness, even in the service of the papal choir. Amis finds the quality of the boy's singing voice 'resistant to definition, hidden somewhere among pairs of antonyms: full- grown yet fresh, under total control yet spontaneous, sweet yet powerful' (with these last adjectives he unwittingly echoes the medieval writers). Another pairing might be tradition versus transience: against a shadowy backdrop of centuries of trebles flickers the brief span of each boy chorister whose voice is lost along with his innocence (in medieval France the boy singers were referred to as 'les innocents'). Purity of sound gives way to a gruff and uncontrollable croak, native innocence is ousted by the desires of manhood. Thus the treble voice elicits from us a deep emotional response related to innocence lost and the transience of life - a universal image that Shakespeare (in As You like It) adapted to express, with the kind of poignancy evoked by that sound, the coming full circle from boyhood to senility: 'and his big manly voice, / Turning again towards childish treble, pipes / And whistles in his sound . . .'

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map