When Exeter College, Oxford, voted to dispense with boy choristers and introduce female undergraduates to join their male counterparts in its choir instead, it created discord where usually all is harmony.
The college's senior organ scholar, 21-year-old Charles Cole, was incensed. "I cannot really believe what they have done," he said. And Allan Mottram, head of Christ Church Cathedral School which supplies the boys, expressed concern for the future of all-male singing.
"If the thing was dying on its feet or we weren't recruiting boys, fair enough," he said. "But that's not the case. To do this at the expense of a very important tradition is a great shame."
The schoolboy choristers of Exeter College are part of a great tradition of choral foundations set up in Oxford at Christ Church, New College and Magdalen, and Cambridge at King's and St John's. Alongside the great English cathedrals, these colleges have maintained the hallowed convention of choral life in this country: trebles, tenors and basses can soar to the rafters, but female sopranos and contraltos can't.
Now a lack of funding, the pressures of the national curriculum, a shortage of boy recruits and demands for equal opportunities for talented girls have put paid to all that.
Several choirs, including those of Salisbury, Norwich, Chester, Lincoln and Winchester, are braving the critics and welcoming girls.
For Exeter College, the issue was straightforward. Chapel attendance had declined and the governing body felt that excluding half the college population from choir membership was not helping. Marilyn Butler, Exeter's rector and the first female head of a former all-male Oxbridge college, said the move did not alter its commitment to the choral tradition. The plan was simply that, from October 1998, the choir would be led by four men and women choral scholars instead of 13 cathedral school boys.
"We believe that we will attract the very ablest and most talented young musicians and that our great chapel will become what it should be, a focus for both the spiritual and musical life of the college," she said.
Five years ago Salisbury Cathedral was the first to introduce a girls' choir, widely deemed a success, yet its organist, Dr Richard Seal, feels that Exeter's decision is a "backward step". He said: "It's a tradition we should guard, because it is unique. For a young musician who wants to develop musical faculties early, there's nothing else to compare with it."
Having a girls' choir at Salisbury means more services can be sung and the first recruits are now progressing to undergraduate choirs. But Dr Seal harbours a soft spot for times past: "There is a very special quality about an all-male choir."
John Baxter, head of Wells Cathedral School and chairman of the Choir Schools Association, said being a chorister was stressful on both child and parent in time and commitment, particularly now the National Curriculum was taking up more time. He considered the Exeter precedent worrying. "If boy trebles are replaced by girl voices that means there are fewer opportunities for boys to sing."
Supposed challenges to the tradition are not necessarily fatal blows. Even where girls have been admitted, they rarely sing with the boys, but in separate choirs at separate services due to a received wisdom that boys perform less well in front of the opposite sex. St Mary's Cathedral choir in Edinburgh is a rare exception in blending the two since 1978. And Timothy Brown, director of music at Clare College, Cambridge, which 25 years ago was the first Oxbridge college to promote a mixed choir, thinks working with young women is more exciting musically. "They have a more emotional and a more technical approach to the music than young trebles."
The admittance of women has been important in providing professional adults for choirs such as the Tallis Singers, he said. "The missing link has now been provided by the cathedrals having girl choirs. If I'm looking for a girl at 17 to join my choir, I don't have to take them as raw recruits. It means the standard of the women in the choirs is undoubtedly improving."
He added: "If somebody said Christ Church was giving up I would start jumping up and down, but to the best of my knowledge none of the really well-established boys' choirs has disappeared." In the words of another choirmaster: "Exeter has done a very good thing. There are three places in Oxford where a boy treble can sing, but no opportunities for a female undergraduate."
Besides, it is a question of religion as well as music. Canon Trevor Willmott of Peterborough Cathedral, which is to launch a pounds 1m appeal later this year to try to secure its choir's future, said the choral tradition was living worship. "The glory of music is one way that people find a relationship with God," he said.
And it is a tradition still widely envied, despite traditionalists' fears. Dr Douglas Major, organist and choirmaster of the national cathedral in Washington DC, recently visited Salisbury, Wells and Exeter cathedrals to investigate how girls' choirs have been developed. The Americans plan to follow suit. "There is no choral tradition involving church music anywhere in the world that can claim the kind of longevity and commitment to daily services seen in England. It is a tradition of musical excellence that is admirable," he said.Reuse content