Boy Choirs in America

by Thomas Morgan Prentice.

(ca. April, 1893)

THE last decade has witnessed a remarkable increase in the number of vested choirs in this country; nor has this growth been limited to a numerical increase. The standard of church music has been elevated, and as majestic structures with spire and campanile pointing heavenward have been raised to the glory of God, so have the sweet voices of his children been trained to rise in services of praise.

A variety of causes have been assigned for the rapid decay of a time honored institution of the church— the quartette or gallery choir; but while giving each due credit for whatever influence it may have exercised, a potent factor has unquestionably been a realization of the responsibilities of the choristers, of their power as a spiritual aid to the offices of the church, and an appreciation of their high calling, which may fittingly be termed a sacerdotal office.

Insignificant as the position or apparel of the choir may appear, when contrasted with the more important question of doctrinal belief, no less an authority than Dr. J. S. B. Hodges says: "Perhaps this state of things had more to do than is generally supposed with the separation of the Methodists from the Church of England. That separation was not made on doctrinal grounds; it did not arise from different teaching on baptism, eucharist, or episcopacy. It was due more to the coldness and inanition of the church; the lack of warm and living services, and if, instead of having to listen to the praises of God sung for them by those who too often had no thought of God in their hearts, they had the opportunity of taking their own part in singing such hymns as are now to be found throughout the church, it may be that the separation would never have occurred, or, at least, that thousands would have been saved from it."

The subtle power of music has been recognized in all ages. It is the most potent arm of the church, reaching every class, and falling on ears deaf to the most eloquent utterances of her gifted clergy. "Let me make the songs of a people, and I care not who makes their laws," said Fletcher, and the aphorism is as true today.

Boy choirs are now universal throughout England, although fifty years ago they were seldom heard outside of cathedrals and collegiate chapels. Their adoption has created a demand for organists and choirmasters specially educated for their work.  The successful training of boys' voices demands a knowledge of the construction of the vocal organs previous to the period of mutation, which is unnecessary with a choir of adult voices, individual tuition being rarely given in the latter case unless for the requirements of solo singing.

In this country the organist or choirmaster too often has had no practical knowledge regarding the training and development of the voice. Many of them have for years been accustomed to a choir of mixed voices, where the conditions are totally dissimilar to those attending the training of boys. A comparison between the tonal quality of the average English chorister and those in this country is unquestionably in favor of the former. Sweetness of tone, facility of execution, and purity of the upper register, are qualities which make the singing of the English chorister so delightful. This clearness  and  buoyancy, which creates a wonderful impression on the listener, is rarely exhibited in any marked degree in this country. Allowing for any natural superiority in the vocal organs of the English boys, for climatic changes, from which all singers suffer, and for any other causes frequently advanced in explanation, we are forced to admit that intelligent training, the use of the thin register or head tones, the cultivation of tonal purity without loss of strength, correct breathing, and the careful attention paid to pronunciation and accentuation, produce the perfect intonation, the flexibility and flute-like quality, that are prominent characteristics of the singing of English boys.

It is small wonder that England should be far in advance of us both in the introduction and development of the vested choir. Her organists have the advantage of special training, such as Oxford and Cambridge afford. Starting when a lad with a definite purpose before him, the pupil is surrounded by an atmosphere pervaded by musical traditions.   As the young theological student dissects prophecies in the original Hebrew, so may he revel in the scores of Bach or Handel. He is successively a chorister, sub organist, and eventually in charge of some cathedral or parish choir. His salary is sufficient to preclude the necessity of any effort to augment his income by secular duties entirely foreign to his musical education and tastes.  He  commands adequate leisure for the successful training of the voices under him and for the study of higher branches, such as theory and composition. What is the result ? A choir admirably trained, with solo voices of remarkable purity, and the possession of a school of music distinctively Anglican.

Although many compositions of merit have been written by American composers for the use of the church in this country, such contributions have been of a varied and desultory character, and nothing approaching a school of ecclesiastical music exists as yet in America.  A glance over the programmes of the leading choirs in New York shows a succession of foreign writers, the modern English composers—Tours, Stainer, Barnby, and Calkin—being most prominent, while for more elaborate festival services the masses of Mozart, Haydn, Weber, Schubert, and Gounod—adapted, of course, to English text—are chosen. Although the secular music of the day has to some extent influenced the prevailing taste in church music, and arrangements of popular airs and solos from the latest operas may be heard in many fashionable churches, such selections are rarely included in the repertoire of any vested choir. While the powerful influence of the choral service is felt as at present throughout the land, we need not fear a return to the abuses of the sixteenth century, when masses founded on secular airs were the standard of the church.

Many effective anthems and melodious hymns have been written on this side of the Atlantic, and with the increasing interest in church music and the attention paid to it by churches of all denominations, it is not unreasonable to hope that American composers will, at no distant day, furnish  compositions worthy of rendition in the cathedrals of the world.

We cannot attain perfection in choral singing until more encouragement is given to organists and choirmasters. Salaries are far too low to induce the best foreign trainers to locate here, or to encourage local musicians of note to devote themselves exclusively to this particular work. With the exception of the organists of Trinity Parish in New York, and those of the leading churches in Boston,  Philadelphia,  and Chicago, but few organists or choirmasters receive a salary exceeding two thousand dollars per annum, while the average stipend is far below that sum. Choir schools are as yet unknown here. A few such institutions as exist at St. Paul's Cathedral, at many of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and elsewhere  in  England, would rapidly revolutionize existing choir methods. Pupils in these schools receive regular musical  instruction and sing at a choral service daily, attaining thereby remarkable proficiency.

In this country individual training is the exception, attendance at rehearsals twice or thrice weekly sufficing in the majority of cases. We cannot expect to accomplish the results attained abroad without greater facilities for the training of boys' voices, and a more liberal expenditure for competent choirmasters.

One of our leading church musicians describes church music as Active and Meditative, the former comprising hymns, chants, versicles, and so forth, and the latter the more difficult musical selections, such as the Kyrie, the Credo, the Te Deum, or the Jubilate, usually too elaborate for the participation of the congregation. While congregational singing pure and simple is not to be encouraged, the musical service of the Episcopal Church affords ample opportunity for the participation of its worshipers. The soul stirring effect of such familiar hymns as “Jerusalem the Golden," or "Sun of my Soul," sung by a thousand voices, will make a lasting impression on the memory. The choral service invites the assistance of the congregation, and a multitude of melodious hymns suited to every church season, and pervaded with a spirit of cheerfulness and joy, have hailed its advent.

These hymns of modern writers have proved a happy substitute for those of our childhood, too often tinged with melancholy, and they have contributed in no small degree to make the services of the church more cheerfully devotional.

The natural voice of a boy, from the age of six until puberty, closely resembles that of a girl. There are variations, of course, in individual cases, for the singing as well as speaking voice of the latter is often harsh and disagreeable, while the natural purity of many boys' voices is far more feminine in quality. Boys' voices previous to the period of mutation, may be considered to possess two  registers—the "thick" and "thin," commonly known as chest and head tones, from the changes in the larynx revealed by the laryngoscope, although each may be further subdivided into "upper "and "lower."

Boys sing naturally in the thick or lower register, in which the vocal chords vibrate in their entire length. By cultivation, the thin register, produced by the vibration of the inner edge of the vocal chords, is developed, and the flute-like timbre noticeable in the singing of the well trained chorister produced. By the use of the thin register the compass of the voice is extended up to A or B above the staff, which notes are delivered with ease and purity.  Boys familiar with the use of head tones do not tire readily, nor sing off the key, as is usually the case with the untrained boy.

Some choirmasters hold that it is impossible to bridge over the break between the registers in the limited time devoted to rehearsals, and consequently do not permit the use of chest tones at all. Others, and as good an authority as Dr. Messiter of Trinity Church, New York, believe that both registers can be used effectively, and the execution of the choristers at Trinity would seem to validate this claim.

The usual method is to train the head tones downward, carrying the thin register to G or F (first space in treble clef), the change in the ascending scale being made before A. The objection to the practice of the ascending scale is that boys will unconsciously force the voice, carrying the chest tones above the desired position. Forcing the voice is fatal to the development of head tones, and boys who have acquired the habit of shouting are exceedingly difficult subjects to reform.

The scarcity of good alto boys is recognized and lamented by every choirmaster. However, in this respect at least we have advanced over the mother country. The falsetto alto, or counter tenor, in general use in England, is but occasionally heard in America; and for this, I think, all true musicians are devoutly thankful. The male alto appears to have been evolved after the restoration of Charles II. At best it is an unsatisfactory makeshift for the natural alto voice, the quality of tone being shrill and unnatural.

Boys possessing a pure contralto voice, as we have said, are rare. The general custom is to employ boys with strong voices, but who are technically soprano, singing in the thick register. Boys nearing the period of mutation are frequently relegated to the alti, and being trained readers are of value, although questionable substitutes for the natural alto voice. In the majority of American choirs the alti are deficient, both numerically and in tonal volume, forcing the voice being sometimes permitted as a substitute for numbers. Purity of timbre is thereby sacrificed, and an example set the soprani which they are sure to follow.

In addition to the necessary ability, and the experience gained by long familiarity with choir work, the duties of the choirmaster require zeal, tact, and patience. In no branch of musical training are these qualities more necessary. To inspire enthusiasm in a choir of boys recruited from school, office, or workshop, and with minds bent on play, is veritably a herculean task. Rarely do boys have any appreciation of the composition in hand. The most effective climax is passed without a thought, and the sublimest effort of the greatest master rendered as indifferently as the most insipid composition of the novitiate. The choirmaster must lend his mental faculties to the choristers, and a delicate pianissimo, forceful crescendo, or vigorous fortissimo represents his faithful labor. It may be unreasonable to expect a boy of ten to execute with the intelligence and abandon of an adult.  Certainly, with few individual exceptions, the untrained boy sings with an indifference approaching contempt.

These and kindred reasons, notably the scarcity of solo voices, and the limited period in which they are available as vocalists, are advanced by the advocates—and they are many —of female voices as soloists, and even as auxiliary chorus singers. The church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York, was the first to employ women soloists, and at present in that city vested choirs composed in part of women are heard at St. George's, All Souls', St. Ignatius's, and elsewhere. In some instances these singers are regularly vested, and in every case some appropriate habiliment is worn.

Why women should be excluded from the chancel, or denied participation in the musical services of the church, is a question not easily answered. We certainly do not share in the opinion of St. Bernard that "woman is an instrument of the devil," nor believe that a voice which approaches most nearly our conception of the divine in music should be heard only on the concert or operatic stage. If the choral service is to be rendered by boys and men exclusively, the works of many of the greatest composers the world has produced must either be ignored or indifferently interpreted. In the writings of Lasso, Marcello, Durante, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Hasse, Graun, and their congeners—and the list might be almost indefinitely extended—boys are excluded, at I least in the conception of the composer; and the majority of compositions of the early English cathedral school require the male adult alto.  In the modern English school alone do we find compositions specially written for boys' voices, and this is certainly a limited category to draw upon.

But little definite knowledge as to the genesis of surpliced choirs in this country has come down to us. Ancient records show that boys were heard at Trinity Church on special occasions, as early as 1760. They were from the Charity School, not vested, and occupied seats at the front of the church.   During the regime of Dr. Edward Hodges the choir of boys was placed in the eastern gallery, but the solo work was intrusted to female voices.

Dr. Hodges returned to England in 1858 and was succeeded by Mr. Henry S. Cutler, who was an ardent advocate of boy choirs.  Upon his advent the women singers were superseded by boys, who were brought down from the organ loft and placed in front seats, and later in the chancel. Vestments, a determined opposition to which still existed on the part of many of the congregation, were not worn until October 14, 1860, on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales. A simple white surplice was worn at this time, the cassock and cotta replacing the surplice when the choir came to be regarded as a permanent institution.

Trinity has labored with success for the advancement of church music, and her influence has been widespread. More than half of the Episcopal churches in New York have surpliced choirs, and the list is being rapidly extended. The first pointed Psalter to be printed in this country, was the work of the organists of Trinity, under the patronage of the music committee and vestry of the church, and the work is in general use in America.

The choir at Trinity numbers thirty men and boys, skillfully trained by Dr. Messiter. The boys are divided into senior and junior trebles and altos.  Each of these classes meets for separate instruction, and a large probationary choir is maintained from which choristers are graduated into the regular organization. A full cathedral service is sung every Sunday, and on festival occasions a large orchestra assists the choir.

The seven churches belonging to the parish of Trinity, with one exception, maintain vested choirs. At St. John's Chapel, on Varick Street, the choir, under the direction of Mr. George F. Le Jeune, enjoys a high reputation for the character of its music and the artistic manner in which it is rendered. For several years past the choral festivals given monthly at this church have attracted much attention. Among the works rendered entire on these occasions have been Spohr's " Last Judgment "; "The Creation"; "Elijah"; "St. Paul"; Gounod's "Gallia"; "The Prodigal Son": "The Holy City "; "Ruth"; and Weber's "Jubilee Cantata."

Trinity Chapel, on West Twenty Fifth Street, maintains a large boy choir under the  direction of Dr. Walter B. Gilbert. Music of the English school predominates, although American composers are frequently represented.

At the latest addition to the chapels of Trinity, that of St. Agnes, on West Ninety Second Street, Mr. G. Edward Stubbs directs the recently organized choir. Mr. Stubbs has made a special study of the development of boy's voices; his work on choir training being a complete textbook for choirmasters. The choristers at St. Agnes's are chosen with care, receive individual tuition, and the upper register is thoroughly developed; the result being purity of tone, intelligent phrasing, and clearness of enunciation.

The choir at St. Chrysostom's Chapel, where Mr. W. A. Rabock is the organist and choirmaster, holds a commanding place for the excellence of its choral services.   St. Paul's, on lower Broadway, is the only chapel of old Trinity that has adhered to the mixed voice choir.

The largest vested choir in New York is heard at St. George's, Stuyvesant Square. The male choir numbers fifty five voices, and is assisted by an auxiliary choir of twenty female voices, the solos being assigned to the latter. The music is admirably rendered, the acoustics of the large edifice contributing to the stateliness of the musical service. Mr. W. S. Chester is the organist and  director.

The large choir of St. James's Church, on Madison Avenue, is noted for the high character of its musical programme, and the finished singing of the boy choristers. The questionable expedient of using male adult altos is practiced at St. James's, which appears to be the only drawback to a choral service approaching perfection in its finish. The choir has rendered thirty three festival services, at each of which a complete cantata or oratorio has been sung. The high reputation it enjoys is, in a great measure, due to the faithful labors of Mr. G. Edward Stubbs, now of St. Agnes's Chapel, ably succeeded by Mr. Alfred Stubbs Baker, the present incumbent. The boys at St. James's publish a choir journal monthly, devoted to reviews, criticisms, and choral interests in general.

The choir of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York, numbers forty voices, women being employed as soloists.   Perhaps the most striking and characteristic church music performed in this country is rendered at St. Mary's, where the services are at all times elaborate and impressive, and consonant with the church season.  A small orchestra is heard each Sunday, and the festival services, with full orchestra, are stately and artistic.   The musical library at St. Mary's is probably the most extensive of any vested choir in this country, including the masses of Haydn, Mozart, Gounod, Weber, Guilmant, and others to the number of thirty, besides the standard oratorios, anthems, special processionals, and so forth. Many of the masses sung at St. Mary's have been specially adapted to English words by Dr. George B. Prentice, whose labors in the field of church music cover a period of thirty years.

The choir of St. Andrew's Church, at Fifth Avenue and One Hundred and Twenty Seventh Street, numbers forty two voices, and gives evidence of skillful training. Music of English composers predominates; in justification of which Mr. Mallinson Randall, the choirmaster, says, with much soundness, "I am not prejudiced in favor of English music. If I see good and suitable music I buy it, whether it is written by an Englishman or a Chinaman; but it is not generally understood that the music written for a mixed quartette, or chorus choir of mixed voices, is, in many instances, entirely unsuitable for boys. Music that will display a woman's voice will often be totally ineffective if sung by boys."

Among other representative boy choirs in New York are those at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, directed by Mr. Henry Carter; All Souls', on Madison Avenue; All Angels', West End Avenue, and Calvary Church, Fourth Avenue. The last named, a recent convert to the boy choir movement, for years possessed a quartette which was ranked as one of the foremost in the city; the veteran musician, Joseph Mosenthal, being the  organist. Thirty odd years ago Mr. Mosenthal was forced out of St. John's by the advent of boy choristers, only to suffer a similar experience at Calvary four years ago.

Boy choristers have rapidly superseded the mixed voice choirs in the leading cities of this country. Brooklyn has no less than eighteen vested choirs; those having claim to particular recognition being St. Ann's, Brooklyn  Heights; St. Paul's, Clinton Street; Church of the Messiah, Greene and Clermont Avenues; Grace Church, on the Heights, and St. John's. The choir of the latter church consists of twenty six boys and fourteen men, the music being of the English cathedral school. Special musical services are frequently given, on which occasions a complete oratorio or cantata is rendered.

The first boy choir in Boston was heard at the Church of the Advent. Dr. Cutler, whose name is closely identified with the boy choir movement in this country, was one of the earlier organists at this church, and his successors have been Mr. Edward Mattson; Mr. Henry Carter; Mr. Hermann Daum; Mr. W. J. Coles, and the present efficient organist and choirmaster, Mr. S. B. Whitney, whose labors cover a period of over twenty years. The choir is a fine one, and the music, especially the festival services with orchestral accompaniment, are elaborate and effective.

St. Paul's Church, Boston, has a choir of twenty five boys and ten men under the direction of Mr. Warren A. Locke.

Mr. George L. Osgood directs the choir at Emanuel Church.  The scholarly tone of the selections, and the finish with which they are rendered, place this in the front rank of Boston choirs. The men form a four part male chorus, and are chosen on that basis. Unaccompanied singing is a feature at this church, and the artistic methods pursued in the training of the boys' voices produce a wonderful accuracy of intonation.

The Church of the Messiah—one of the first in Boston to organize a surpliced choir—is conspicuous for the excellence of its musical services, and for the number of boys possessing exceptional solo voices, who have been heard there.

As far back as the year 1816, a choir of boys was attached to Christ Church, Philadelphia, although it does not appear that they were vested. At present, in that city, several excellent choirs are heard; those attracting special attention being at St. Mark's, under the direction of Mr. Minturn Pyne, and the large choir at St. Clement's. At the latter an orchestra is commonly employed, and the musical services are elaborate and impressive.

The vested choirs of Chicago deserve a commanding place among the choirs of this country. In 1862 the first boy choir in the West was organized at Racine College, Wisconsin, and three years later Trinity Church, on Jackson Street, Chicago, joined in the movement with a boy choir, which, however, was not vested. In 1868 a vested choir was introduced at the Chicago Cathedral, and full choral services were established. The Church of the Ascension, Calvary, St. James's, Grace Church, and St. Clement's joined the movement in the order named, and at the present time the surpliced choirs in the diocese of Chicago number forty.

The choir at St. James's, under the direction of Mr. W. T. Smedley, is conspicuous for the extent and character of its music. A syllabus of the compositions rendered at St. James's would include composers from Palestrina down to Goss and Stainer. The choir has given twelve concerts, the proceeds defraying the annual encampment on the shores of Lake Michigan, a happy feature of choir work in the West. The Choristers' Guild, organized in 1888, has given ten musicales. At the latter each boy of the choir is given an opportunity to sing a solo, the selection being made by the chorister. The choir at Grace Church is the largest vested choir in the West, numbering fifty boys and twenty five men, under the direction of Mr. Henry B. Roney. The music is elaborate and effectively rendered.  Blatchford Kavanagh, the foremost boy singer that this country has yet produced, received his musical training at Grace Church. His voice was of an unusual compass, extending from low G to high C, and combined the mature perfection of the female voice with the timbre of a boy's. Breadth, dignity, and pathos marked his delivery; vocal difficulties were surmounted with ease, and the most intricate operatic recitative and aria, or the simplest ballad, was sung with the intelligence and finish of one far beyond his years.  In addition to a tour embracing the Pacific coast, Master Kavanagh sang, by special request, before Patti, and was rewarded by a chorus of bravos and a shower of kisses from the diva.

A word regarding the Diocesan Choir Association, comprising thirty two choirs from the diocese of Chicago, and aggregating one thousand voices. Four annual festivals have been given, at each of which the programmes have been of a high standard of excellence, and the artistic results eminently satisfactory. The association aims to elevate church music; to encourage young choristers in their work, and promote a reverential rendering of the best in church music. No musical association of this magnitude exists in this country, and its excellent work promises much for the cause of sacred music in America.

The choir of St. Paul's Church, Baltimore, numbering thirty voices, under the direction of Mr. W. H. Whittingham, was organized as a vested choir in 1872. For a large proportion of the boys a comfortable home is provided, and they are educated at St. Paul's Parish School.

The choir at St. Paul's Church, Milwaukee, organized in 1888, consists of twenty five soprani, eight alti, seven tenori, and ten bassi. Mr. Louis H. Eaton is the organist and choirmaster. Master Ralph Rowland was a soloist at St. Paul's, and has since developed into a talented violinist.

St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo, has a choir of twenty four boys and fourteen men, directed by Mr. E. Wesley Pyne, from Magdalen College, Oxford. A full choral service is sung on each Sunday.

The choir at All Saints' Cathedral, Albany, under the charge of Dr. Jeffries, is well known for the excellence of its choral work.

The fine choir at All Saints', Worcester, Massachusetts, was organized by the Rev. William R. Huntington, now of Grace Church, New York, and sang for the first time on Easter Sunday, 1868. Mr. I. N. Metcalf, an enthusiastic musician, was the first choirmaster, the rector acting as precentor. The present choir consists of twenty four boys and ten men; the standard of the musical selections is high, and the choral services are artistically rendered.

The large choir at Trinity Church, New Haven, is well drilled by Mr. Warren R. Hedden, a pupil of Dr. Messiter. The musical appropriation is liberal, enabling the choir to give special musical services, at which the best church soloists in this country have been heard from time to time. The choirs of Christ Church and St. Thomas's, New Haven, are also well trained and doing effective work.

Other representative boy choirs in Connecticut are those at Christ Church, Hartford; Trinity, Bridgeport, and Christ Church, Norwich.

The choir at St. Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire, is noted for the individual excellence of the solo voices developed during the past twenty years. Many soloists now occupying prominent positions look back upon their membership in this choir as a valuable aid and incentive to later successes in the field of church music. Mr. James T. Knox's connection with St. Paul's has lasted twenty three years.

The Cathedral at Denver maintains a large vested choir, under the charge of Dr. Gower, and a full cathedral service is rendered.

Boy choirs are no longer regarded as an adjunct of ritualism, and the prejudice fostered by this opinion is rapidly passing away, if not already dissipated.  If a ritualistic service is impossible without the vested choir, a boy choir is possible without any other adjunct of ritualism, as attested by the large number of such choirs in so called "low" churches, where no material changes in form or ceremonies have marked the advent of the boys.

Certainly, no well founded objection can be raised against the white robed choristers, who appear to have come amongst us to remain; and the appropriateness of their position and apparel alone would seem to justify their introduction.