Magazine article The Spectator

Let the Women Sing

Magazine article The Spectator

Let the Women Sing

Article excerpt

The idea that women should ideally sound like boys in the singing of any soprano music written before the advent of grand opera is one of the most tedious, blinkered yet persistent dreams of our time. In other circumstances one might call it puerile. It brings tears of frustration to my eyes to think how fluently the best of our non-operatic sopranos have for decades been shaping our perception of pre-Romantic sound, only to have all their effort reduced to this notion that they have in some measure failed if they cannot emulate a boy. `The Tallis Scholars sopranos . . . do not sound like boys. I hope Mr Phillips will forgive me if I suggest that in much renaissance music it would be no bad thing if they did,' wrote someone recently in the Musical Times. I do not forgive him: this is nonsense.

Where does it come from? In the first place it must be a romanticisation, which our choral tradition still relies upon, of the boy soprano. The pretty 12-year-old in ruff and surplice holding a candle and singing like an angel is an icon as powerful to the British now as it ever was. Countless discs are still sold every Christmas on the strength of it; the choir of Kings College Cambridge, amongst many others, derives a large part of its current reputation by perpetuating it. The English cathedral choirs, incredibly in our now mature culture of equal opportunities for both sexes, are able to survive and even thrive on restricting their intake to boys. Some part of our society evidently supports this in sufficient numbers to make it viable. Aesthetically, let alone morally, it is indefensible.

For by even the lowest professional standards these boys' choirs do not sound very good. I would ask any advocate of the boysonly theory to listen with open mind and ears to the real standard of this kind of singing. I will not belittle it here by generalisations, since in its own terms it is disciplined and beautiful. Besides, once in a generation a young lad is discovered who is good by any standards; but it is hardly surprising that on average these children find it difficult to blend and tune, to overcome the natural breathiness in their voices, to interpret with maturity and to survive the arduousness of concert-giving with the stamina of adults. …

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