Boychoirs: Special, Celebrated and Unique

A continuation of Artistic Director Joyce Keil’s discussion of the boy choir tradition, its background and future. See also Boychoirs: A Fragile and Important Legacy

In November, I began discussing the heritage of boy choirs as they have existed throughout history. In an article for Boychoir Andrew Marr notes that few people have really heard the particular quality of sound that boys singing together can produce. There are not very many boy choirs left in the modern world, so people don’t realize what a special gift these unchanged voices have to offer. Few communities provide the resources even if a boy wishes to study singing before his voice changes. According to Marr, “a surprising number of professional musicians and critics … seem unaware of what well-trained boys can accomplish vocally.” He also notes that it takes a huge expenditure of effort and resources to be willing to nourish these young and fragile voices. And yet the boy choir sound is so special, it deserves our attention and our devotion to nourishing it.

Greek and Roman Legacy

In the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome boy choirs were cultivated for special festivals and worship. Singing schools were created to train boy singers. Marr quotes Lucian of Samosata (c. 125-180 AD)  who said that a boy’s voice is “perfectly delicate, not so deep as to be called masculine nor so fine to be effeminate and lacking power, but falling soft, mild and lovely upon the ear.” This is an example of an advanced civilization understanding the value and uniqueness of trained boy singers.

Ragazzi Boys Chorus exists to provide the opportunity for modern-day young males to sing together. In the process of their training they learn all kinds of music as well as music theory and literacy. To hear the beautiful sound of trained boy trebles, listen to any of Ragazzi’s recordings from recent concerts. Audiences at our December recital were treated to a solo, the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s opera Magic Flute. David Sloss, director of Fremont Opera, noted that not many people in the world can sing this aria, and yet a 12 year old boy with training and love of music was able to accomplish this with its high runs and leaping notes in the stratosphere.

After Voice Change

After the treble voice drops, Ragazzi provides a young mens chorus for changed voices. Once the seed of singing has been planted, our young tenors and basses are eager to continue with music. Ragazzi graduates go on to careers as full-time church musicians, sound engineers, cabaret singers, and as founders of rock bands. Others continue to sing as amateur choir members. Ragazzi musical training can be utilized in so many creative ways after the beautiful treble sound has changed to the man’s tenor or bass voice.

It takes a special society

Marr points out that a society needs to be complex and developed to be able to provide and support this kind of music. In tribal societies, while there is much singing and dancing, most of it is non-specialized. People sing together informally.

As I continue this series, I will look at how boy choirs have been used through history, hoping to foster appreciation for the special gift we are giving our boys today. We are part of a long and precious tradition and our music needs to reflect the unique possibilities that only boy sopranos can achieve.