Monday, 22 November 2010

Adult female trebles - a great late 20th century English invention

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Over the past few hundred years, the English choral tradition had an insoluble problem.

Who should sing the soprano line?

All answers were a compromise.

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Most churches used young boy trebles for the soprano line and either just-pre-pubsecent boys or adult male falsettists (counter-tenors) to sing the alto line.

The result was a homogeneous blending of male tones, but there were obvious limitations from having boy trebles - especially in terms of their childish and inexperienced level of musicality, and from the limited power and dynamic range of a boy's voice.

Experiments to solve this problem included castratos ('nuff said), adult male falsettists screeching up to the soprano line (eek!), and using adult women (who were potentially of much greater musicality, power and dynamic range than boys - but who sang with a warbling femininity which spoiled the purity of blend).

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Then came the adult female treble: a woman who was trained to sing like a boy - with a pure, minimal vibrato, treble tone.

The first I heard of these creatures was in a mid 1970s recording of Tallis by David Wulstan conducting the Clerkes of Oxenford.

My understanding is that when Oxford and Cambridge colleges began to go co-educational, some the organists such as Wulstan (in English cathedrals the organists also train and conduct the choir) began to train the female undergraduates to sing like boys.

And it worked very well... very well indeed.

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If Wulstan was indeed the pioneer - he deserves much greater recognition than he is currently accorded.


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The Clerkes of Oxenford seem to have been the pioneers, but the heights were scaled by the likes of the Tallis Scholars (Peter Phillips) and The Sixteen (Harry Christophers) - then came along some adult women treble soloists such as Emma Kirkby - and the process was complete.

The problem was solved.

There is no compromise in the results of the best choirs using adult women trebles.

They achieve perfection in musicality, dynamics, volume - and even in that holy grail: tonal blend.

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2 comments:

  1. As a great admirer and partisan of the traditional choir of men and boys, I cannot agree with this post. The Tallis Singers may be very polished, but for me there is something special and unique about unchanged boys' voices that no adult can match. It is precisely the innocence and "artlessness" (the way boys tend not to try to interpret too much) of boys' voices that makes them so suitable for sacred choral music, and I would contend that the fact that the boy's voice will disappear in a few short years gives it an intrinsic preciousness and poignancy that the female soprano voice, whether young or mature, cannot equal. I would take the best traditional choirs, such as those whose services are available online (St Thomas Fifth Avenue, NYC; St John's College, Cambridge; New College, Oxford), over the best adult mixed choirs any day. For more on the traditional choir please see: http://www.ctcc.org.uk/

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  2. Yours is a perfectly reasonable point of view.

    Aside from the un-debateable matter of personal taste; there is a sense, it seems to me, in which you appreciate traditional boys and men's choirs for implicit extra-musical aspects - rather as an opera goer might appreciate a performance featuring the beautiful and dynamic-acting Maria Callas rather than the plain and wooden-acting Joan Sutherland (who was a vastly superior singer).

    I prefer the more naturalistic vocal production of the Vienna Boys Choir to the English treble tradition.

    My favourite recording featuring boy trebles is Purcell's Ode on Saint Cecilia's Day conducted by Charles Mackerras with the Tiffin Choir and the famous treble soloist Simon Woolf - which adopts a very un-Oxbridge approach.

    But, quite aside from my own taste, there has been a long-term dissatisfaction among some English choral traditionalists about the results attainable with boys - which is why adult female trebles have emerged.

    I would also concede to you that boy trebles produce a more reliably suitable sound for sacred choral music than adults female sopranos - since either women need to be trained-out-of their normal spontaneous method of vocal production, or be 'caught early' (during their teens) and taught treble vocal production from the very beginning.

    My point is that (in my opinion, and those of many others - it would seem) the very best choirs with adult female trebles are better than the very best choirs with boy trebles.

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