The George Bragg Library

The Pied Pipers –
Boy Choirs in America
By George Bragg
From The Choral Journal, March 1972


Boy choirs are unique. They were founded in the needs of ecclesiastical mysticism and have been borne out of a glorious past, through the papal chapels and the kingly courts of Europe to the concert halls of the world of today. More recently this specialized group endeavor is manifesting itself as a force of social and educative importance in its newest home, the United States.

To be asked to write a series of articles on and about boychoir is significant, I think, for it reflects an interest in a subject very ancient in origin and yet modern in its usage and application. It portends an awareness and growth of boychoirs in America.

One of the most dramatic contemporary instances of growth can be seen in the Boston area, where within the past fifteen years the number of boychoirs has grown to approximately thirty-five 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 boychoirs are springing up throughout these United States, particularly in the perimeter areas of heavy population concentration. In the Southwest there are twenty-nine boychoirs of singular distinction, most of them founded for providing music within a worship format. However, some serve community and/or socio-cultural purposes as well – a new interpretation for this art form in our Twentieth Century civilization.

Such boychoirs as those found I Wichita, Kansas; Newark, New Jersey; Atlanta, Georgia; San Francisco, California; and Portland, Oregon attest to a wide and varied interest and geographical distribution.

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 thousands such specialized choral groups, they have special needs that could be commercially looked after, not to mention elevated by attention and 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 citizen, 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.

Boy choirs have always existed for a particular reason. Since ancient times the voices of boys have been used for treble singing in worship simply because of a taboo which kept women out of the religious ritual until modern times. The Church, however, was quick to recognize the built-in value of having choirboys in ritual service which could in time become an educative pattern and thereby a ready source for both future priests and practicing musicians.

Pope Gregory the Great, who had encountered some Britons being sold as slaves, sent Augustine with forty singers to convert the Angles. The Canterbury Cathedral Choir, with boys, is a continuation of the founding of the first song school in England by St. Augustine in 597 A.D.

The Regensburg "Domspatzen" (Cathedral Sparrows) of Germany began serving the Church in the Tenth Century. Most boy choirs which existed centered in and around monasteries in the Middle Ages principally because of the organizational ability of Pope Gregory (591-604) and his establishment of the "Schola Cantorum" as a strict training ground for the performers.

It was not until the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries that boy choir, given its special mission by the Church, blossomed into full flower within the wealthy courts of Kings and the chapels of the Princes of the Church. Certainly one of the unsung centers of development and propagation of boy choirs is the Netherlands. The papal chapel in Liege at the end of the Fourteenth Century numbered seven choirboys and a few cantors. The return of the popes, after the exile in Avignon, brought the traditions of the Burgundian court and many northern musicians with them into Italy. The first valued musicians were singers.

In the Renaissance, Italy had not yet acquired its reputation as the land of the bel canto. When the wealthiest churches and courts began to require polyphonic music as a regular part of their service, they organized choirs for which they needed good singers. It was young choristers who were sought after, since boys were needed to sing the top voices in polyphonic pieces. The Flemings enjoyed a high reputation in this art since in the chapel school boys were trained in a certain type of voice production and in a certain style.

Cities and princes then competed to engage the best singers who were lured from one city to another, from one court to another. There was a constant scurrying back and forth of the singers between Milan, Ferrara, Florence and Venice as the great families – the Estes, Sforzas, Visconti and Medici – strove to outbid each other.

Through the stylistic musical continuity of the great masters: DuFay, Ockeghem, Josquin, Willaert, Lassus, a musical art was born out of French music with English and Italian influences grafted onto its base. From the beginning the music of the Netherlands was an international art. Because of the constant contact and interchange with the Church centered in Italy, the Italian musical art continued to fertilize the musical development of the Low Countries.

Four great lovers of music and practitioners of princely splendor contributed greatly to the spread of the fame of musicians from the Low Countries: Charles V, Margaret of Austria, Philip II of Spain and Maximilian.

When Charles V ascended the throne of Spain he brought most of his musicians with him from the Low Countries, continuing in effect the tradition begun in the courts of the Burgundian dukes: trumpeters for military functions, instrumentalists for entertainments, and for their chapels a half dozen boy choristers plus cantors who were often priests but who, on occasion, also took part in performances of profane music.

At home, the regent Margaret of Austria organized a modest chapel, for it was unthinkable that a civilized and Christian princess should not have a musical chapel. Philip II, following the death of his father, Charles V, continued to maintain the Capilla flamenca which was an imposing institution in that period. It often included as many as twenty niños (choirboys), twenty-four cantors, an organista and about ten capellanes.

The choirboys were trained in the Churches of the North and youngsters of seven to twelve years were taken off to Spain, returning home at the change of voice to continue their studies. Besides his father’s capilla, Philip maintained a Capilla Espanola with Spanish singers and players. Some of the glories of the Capilla espagnola can still be had by one who ascends the holy mountain of Montserrat just outside Barcelona, to encounter a world set apart, where pilgrims still dance the sardana before the basilica, and choirboys are taught the ancient art of ecclesiastical song.

Maximilian of Austria, who married Mary of Burgundy, came to know and appreciate the qualities of the Burgundian Chapel, and of its musicians. It is no wonder that he later demanded of his German chapel that they "sing counterpoint in the manner of the Brabants."

Maximilian as Emperor in Vienna issued a decree on July 7, 1498, expressing his desire to have choristers in the Imperial Chapel of the Hofburg. The choristers, like the musicians, came from the Netherlands. The continuation of this effort can be experienced in the Imperial Chapel today where one may hear a masterwork sung each week by the Vienna Choir Boys, men from the Vienna State Opera Chorus, and an orchestra from the Vienna Philharmonic.

What is singularly important about each of these royal personages is that he traveled – a great deal at one time or another (Philip II probably least of all), and wherever he traveled he took his chapel with him. Thereby organized music, sacred and profane, was spread through Europe: Maximilian and Mary of Burgundy to the North, South, East and West; Charles V, South and West; Philip II, North and East; and Margaret of Austria, West and South.

Timing was of the greatest importance for the spread of this style of music and grouping of musicians. Whether the combination produced the flowering of the Renaissance music or the Renaissance music produced the flowering of the combination requires considerable study and historical analysis. Suffice it to say that it was a glorious flowering and because of it we can still today enjoy the fruits of that season.

All that the idea of boy choir encompasses today is still in part a reflection of all its history, of its past principles, and its past glory. Boy choir has always been in practice a musical organization which serves a purpose. That purpose may vary at times as conditions warrant, or its purpose may become multiple in function to serve more than one need, viz., the Vienna Choir Boys’ duplicity of serving in both the Imperial Chapel and the concert world. The Twentieth Century has given to this art new dimensions, new opportunities, and new challenges.

The function of boychoir within the Church is demanding in every way. It must have musical integrity, vocal technique, and singular purpose. The boychoir organization which functions for the socio-cultural community outside the confines of the church service must, of necessity, be a versatile, hard-working, and a solidly based organization. It must be at home on the stage, as well as in the church. Stylistic "shifting of gears" must come easily. Vocal techniques of the finest kind must be the underlying principle for participation lest an ambitious program of varying activities harms rather than helps the future man, the singer.

At home our Texas Boys Choir has a remarkable range of experiences during a choral season. Within a single month a choirboy may find himself performing a full concert with choreography befitting a musical, participating in a full liturgical service, singing with orchestra and men’s chorus the "Coronation Mass" of Mozart with motets and plain chant for trimmings, providing the introductory carol service to a pageant with candlelight procession in full regalia, singing popular carols in the lobby of a local commercial bank, or touring some of the local public schools, presenting vocal material which will inspire local school youngsters to involve themselves in their own school’s vocal program.

We did not design our group with this format in mind, rather the need gave us reason. Whereas, the need is one thing, the know-how is something quite separate and apart. It sometimes takes years to learn how to successfully teach a child to be versatile and natural and musical all at the same time. In fact, as one moves about the world of boy choir, he observes that the success of a choir is in direct ration to the director’s comprehension, understanding, ability to communicate, and his sense of proportion.

Little is written about boy choir as an historical subject. Considerable interest and speculation seems to be growing, however, concerning boy choir as a social and musical force as well as a cultural means of heightening involvement for youngsters within their school, church or civic communities.

I have spent twenty-five fascinating years watching the phenomenon of interaction taking place within our own Texas Boys Choir group whereby a child awakens to the whole world around him through music: history, mathematics, English, geography, painting, poetry, spelling – all – a total awakening of the young human male. The reason for this seemed to me not quite so clear in earlier days, but I feel it has become more evident as I have traveled about observing the work of others. Total involvement is the answer, a sense of history in undertaking the task, a reflection of the principles of the past found in boy choir, carried forth into our own time until such a work becomes a way of life for the participant, until the singer finds a dwelling place wherein the whole world is interrelated, and a feast from the past is nourishment for the future.

In 1966, a sabbatical was granted which allowed me to travel to the major choral institutions of Europe, during which time I had the privilege of meeting some of the principal purveyors of boy choir choral art in Europe and England: Mogens Wøldike and Niels Møller of Copenhagen Drengekor; Director-Kappelmeister J. Ratzenger, successor to Dr. Thomas Shrems of the Regensburger Domspatzen; Professor Ferdinand Grossmann and Dr. Walter Tautschnig of the Wiener Sängerknaben; and Monsignor Domenico Bartolucci of the Sistina Cappella in Rome, to name a few. I found in each instance the most successful boychoir master was the one who had the greatest dramatic sense of history about him and an ability to communicate. Most of these gentlemen had many facets upon which they could draw as concert artist, pedagogist, writer, lecturer, as well as one who understood the subtle psychology and challenge of teaching children.

The fact that they had chosen to devote their lives to the teaching of children was another "star in their crown" and an achievement which their contemporaries seemed to look upon as a great honor for both the children and the teacher. I was very inspired by what I had seen, sensed, and witnessed in all my encounters. I count this series of visits to be one of the great privileges of my life.

I have prepared three articles on various teachers and/or institutions which I hope will give future or practicing boychoir masters and interested persons information useful for their own purposes. Possibly we can fill our own lives with finer purpose and greater definition, thereby giving to our pupils vision above the horizon of existence into the "world of stars."

This group of articles I will call the "Pied Piper" series. As in legend, these "Pied Pipers," by some magic of ability and circumstance are able to "pipe" children along paths of music, affecting as they go, the direction of their nation’s development.

Some materials relating to boy choir, from: Music in the Renaissance – Reece – Norton; Medieval and Renaissance Music – M.F. Bukofzer – Norton; the Hapsburgs – Dorothy Gies McGuigan – Doubleday; and Flemish Music – Robert Wangermee – Praeger Publication.

George Bragg, "Boy Choir in America," Choral Journal 12 (March 1972): 9-11. © 1972 by the American Choral Directors Association, P.O. Box 6310, Lawton, Oklahoma 73506-0310. U.S.A. Used by permission.


Copyright © 2002
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