The George Bragg Library

Boy Choirs:
Sustaining the Uniqueness
By George Bragg


Boy choirs are unique. They have a long-established lineage of noble and valuable contributions in the creative world of the musical arts. We should remember the immensity of the boy singer’s work founded in the needs of ecclesiastical mysticism and borne out of a glorious past, through the Papal Chapels and the kingly courts of Europe to the concert halls and operatic stages of the world today.

In thinking of the boy singer, we need to include in our awareness, as well, the boy singer-actor from the Renaissance to the present. We should become familiar, also, with petite plays, salon "operettas" of Europe, and the varied pageants of Spain and Latin American countries. These historical references should be remembered as we think of ideas on the use of the boy singer.

We want to keep in mind how we are applying new ideas to old principles, such as the re-statement in contemporary terms of a morality plan, or of the church-based boy choir availing itself of the commercial opportunities of concretizing, or of the school-based choir functioning to provide civic entertainment, or of the use of recordings, radio and television to share with the world the artistic activities of boy singers without ever encountering travel and the problems, expense and logistics related to touring.

More recently this specialized endeavor of boychoir is showing itself to be a force of social and educative importance in its newest home, the United States. It reflects an interest in a subject new to us, but very ancient in origin and yet modern in its usage and application. It portends an awareness and growing interest in the boy singers and boy choirs in America.

The real problem has been "how to sustain such a group." Long ago, it was the church which paid for the presence of a boy choir in its services, and often it was the King, or the Prince, or the wealthy prelate who made it all possible. The church was at times and extension of the court and at times was complete unto itself. It was all part of the great commercial ebb and flow which took place across Europe.

The church and the state were one in Venice, for instance. The state of the art of music reflected the art of the state and its success in the business of manna and religion. The Venetian choral art became known throughout Europe and the Mid-East, attracting the men of commerce, religious leaders and musicians from all over the civilized world. The height of the Venetian Empire was equaled by the musical resources at hand, and when the time came that these financial and power structures shifted and the center of activity went elsewhere, so did the music and those forces which created the same. One has but to look at Venice today to see the low, pitiable level of music at the Basilica of St. Mark’s.

Follow the course of the trade routes northward from Venice and you come to Graz, Austria, Prague, Leipzig, Dresden, each with its important statement to be made in music through the use of boy choir. Vienna has the most important recognition factor in our time with its touring choirs, prominent during the last 60 years. But the history of the Vienna Choir Boys (1498) goes back nearly 500 years into history, to the place and time of the Burgundian dukes.

The Vienna Choir Boys is but a branch of the tree of boy choir that sprang forth from the Flemings in the Fourteenth Century. After marrying Mary of Burgundy and living at the court for some 10 years, Maximilian I was the one who brought the music of the Burgundians to the Court of the Habsburg following his enthronement as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. And although that was 500 years ago, the Vienna Choir Boys is one of the youngest among the established boy choirs of Europe.

Dresden’s boy choir was established in the Thirteenth Century, as was Leipzig’s. Regensburg in Germany and Montserrat in Spain were schools established by Charlemagne in the Ninth Century. Even these are young compared to the establishment of the schools at Chartres, France in the Fifth Century, and Canterbury Song School in 597 A.D. in England.

Today, it is imperative that new boy choirs find the financial means to stay alive. If, in fact, there is to be a school established, then one is speaking of much money. Some of these groups have done this by corporate giving, done in a most selective way, and carefully so. The Boys Choir of Harlem, Inc. has established not only a choir but a choir school. Each branch is financed in a separate way, but collectively connected and effective. I have been working with this group for the past eight years and have watched this organization develop from a small church organization to a large civic body that spends much of its effort concretizing all over the world. Their financial base is solid and their purposes focused.

One of the most dramatic contemporary instances of growth can be seen in the Boston, Massachusetts area, where within the past 15 years, the number of boy choirs has grown from three to approximately 35 groups of fine standard, used principally in religious worship. If the Boston area were a singular example, it might be noteworthy, but not significant. What is important seems to be the fact that boy choirs are springing up throughout the United States, particularly in the perimeter areas of heavy population concentrations.

In the Southwest, there are 29 boy choirs, most of them providing music within a worship format. However, some, such as the Austin Boys Choir, serve community and/or socio-cultural purposes as well – a new interpretation for this art form in our Twentieth Century civilization.

Contained within the school systems of our country are many boy choirs of varying purposes and standards. Interestingly enough, no one has yet tabulated them as they do football teams or marching bands, most likely because no one has ever deemed it commercially important enough or musically worthy to spend the time to garner this information. If there are a thousand such specialized choral groups, they have special needs that could be commercially looked after, not to mention elevated by attention, as well as nourished by the knowledge that others are trying to accomplish the same sort of thing.

What seems very important in this Twentieth Century is that we have in this particular form of music-making a means of educating the future citizens. The business man, the lawyer, the physician, the average work-a-day man; a means of becoming aware of, and sharing, some of the sensitive beauty of this world in which we live.

1983 by George Bragg
Used with permission


Copyright 2002
This page was last modified on 06 December 2005