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November 16, 2006

Singing from the same hymn sheet?

Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir was formed in September


A cathedral will break with 1,000 years of tradition on Wednesday when its new girls' choir sings its first evensong. Is this long overdue or sacrificing an ancient tradition for political correctness?

Now that the Church of England has opened its doors to women priests, and, on paper, to women bishops, it seems the tide of equal opportunities has caught up with Anglicanism. But there is a less obvious bastion of all-male culture in the Church - the boys' choir. There is an ancient Christian tradition of boys singing, from providing the high notes in Allegri's Miserere, to the solo first verse of Once in Royal David's City. Is it now time for the girls to get a look in?

In what has been called "a quiet revolution", an increasing number of UK cathedrals are starting girl's choirs. The latest is Ely in Cambridgeshire, where on Wednesday the cathedral girls' choir will sing its first evensong. The famous boys' choir there is 1,000 years old. Its female counterpart was formed in September. Salisbury Cathedral led the way, starting a girls' choir in 1991, and others have followed since, including Wells, Southwark and Liverpool. "It's not a break with tradition so much as creating a new one," says Sue Freestone, the head of King's School in Ely, who started the choir. "We're not replacing the boys' choir, we're adding to the richness and variety of musical tradition here."

The advantage of girls' voices is that they do not break in the same way as boys. The Ely choir deliberately takes girls from the age of 13 - the time when things tend to go a bit wonky for the lads. "They can sing the same kind of parts as boys, but you get a fuller sound instead of that beautiful purity of a younger child's voice," says Ms Freestone.

Not everyone appreciates that fuller sound however. The choirboys, for a start, seem to have reservations. Alan Thurlow, the director of music at Chichester Cathedral, says he introduced girls into the all-boys parish choir. "The end result of that was I lost the boys," he told BBC Radio 3's In Tune. The same thing has happened in many churches and cathedrals that have tried mixed choirs. Apparently the hormones that have not yet broken the boys' voices have also not made hanging around with girls an attractive option.

This is another reason why Ely have decided to avoid an overlap of boys and girls - not to scare off the boys. Dr Peter Giles, of the Campaign for the Defence of the Traditional Cathedral Choir (CTCC), takes a different - but equally strong - stance against girl choristers. "We are sacrificing a wonderful, ancient tradition of men and boys' choirs for political correctness," he says. "In 1963, there were 180,000 boys singing every Sunday in parish churches. Today there's hardly a boy singing."

One might think getting girls singing would help make up that loss, but Dr Giles sees that as short-term expediency. "It's a different kind of choral music, so we are losing the repertoire and the musical tradition is being weakened. Boys and girls are being trained in the same way and in time their choirs get amalgamated because cathedrals don't have the time or the money to run them both."

And yet, surprisingly perhaps, research has cast doubt on listeners' ability to tell boy and girl singers apart. A number of studies have been done in the 15 years since girls' cathedral choirs began, with varying results. The most thorough and up-to-date is from Professor David M Howard of York University. He recorded 20 snippets of the boys' and girls' choirs of Wells Cathedral performing with adult accompaniment. "So long as they are singing the same material with the same acoustics and have had the same training, people simply can't tell the difference," he says. "It does depend upon the material though. If they are singing something that includes the notes from the C above middle C to the F above that, those can give the game away."

Posted by acapnews at November 16, 2006 12:05 AM