"A boy sings ... a beautiful thing."

Richard Coker
And the rise of the Celebrity Boy Soprano

by Brian J. Pearson


Richard Coker


   “Trinity Sunday [22 May], 1864, was notable chiefly for the first appearance in the [Trinity Church] choir of Richard Coker, who on that day sang the solo half verses in the Benedicite; the solo part in the anthem, “Holy, Holy,” from Elijah, being assigned to [James] Hopkins. Coker, who was a Brooklyn boy, had been singing with Wood’s Minstrels, where he was known as Master Wood; ‘his voice was superb, enunciation good, and he succeeded respectably in his solo’; he was, however, an indifferent reader of music. Master Coker did not take kindly to Church music, and after he had sung for three more Sundays, without any more solos, his services were dispensed with. Six weeks later he was recalled, and then remained permanently. The recall was probably due to the fact that Hopkins’ voice was failing to such an extent that early in June he had to retire from the choir.”

   This is how A.H. Messiter in his book “A History of the Choir and Music of Trinity Church, New York” (1906) introduces a boy soprano who became a celebrity soloist in vaudeville and then in sacred and secular concerts in America and Europe.

   Master Coker was probably born in 1853 (see biography here) and for eight months from July 1863 to March 1864 appeared almost every day at Wood’s Minstrel Hall (1400 seats), 514 Broadway, billed as “Master Wood, The Musical Prodigy”, singing favourite ballads such as Henry Bishop’s “Bid Me Discourse”, Bochsa’s “Happy Bayadere” and Donizetti’s “Bay of Naples”. On 28 December 1863 he sang at a concert in the Dodworth Hall, 806 Broadway and on 25 April & 4 May 1864, when no longer under contract to Henry Wood but still using his pseudonym, he appeared in two concerts at the Brooklyn Athenaeum.

   Coker was not the first boy solo singer on the New York stage. He was preceded by Francis Leon  (the stage name of Patrick Francis Glassey, born in New York 21 November 1844), who had begun at Buckley’s Music Hall and when 14 had joined Christy & Wood’s Minstrels. In May 1861 he was with the troupe at Irving Hall, giving burlesque renderings of “Comin’ thro’ the Rye” and a scene from “Norma” in imitation of the soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887), known as the “Swedish Nightingale” who had toured the USA 1850-52. Master Leon, billed as “the wonderful Danseuse and Soprano Singer”, continued his opera and ballet burlesque act up to July 1862, when presumably his voice could no longer scale the heights to Jenny Lind’s D in alt. He continued to appear in vaudeville after forming Kelly & Leon’s Minstrels with Edward Kelly and probably as a falsettist performed in 1867 as “the burlesque operatic Lucrezia Borgia”.

   The emergence of classically trained boy soloists in the mid-nineteenth century can be traced to the Tractarian or Oxford Movement in the Church of England, which was set in motion by a sermon given at Oxford in July 1833 by the Reverend John Keble (1792-1866). Although essentially theological, it had a profound effect on church music and especially the music of the liturgy, at first in England but soon abroad as well, focusing anew the aims and ideals of worship through music, such as the restoration of the vested choir of men and boys to the chancel of parish churches, in a location corresponding to the cathedral choir stalls, and improving those choirs still in existence in the cathedrals. The 1840s saw an increase to the number and in the quality of parish church choirs, with the reestablishment of all-male choirs (men & boys) to replace the usual quartet of women (soprano & alto) and men (tenor & bass), often accompanied by various instruments as locally available. Soon the choirs were robed in surplices like cathedral choristers and moved from the West or Organ Gallery (where generally they had been concealed behind a curtain when not singing) to the chancel. At the same time the organ was usually relocated from the screen separating chancel from nave to a position behind the choir. These changes greatly increased the number and quality of trained boy singers, which in turn inspired composers and choirmasters to expand the choral repertory.


William J Robjohn


   The Protestant Episcopal Trinity Church in New York, where Richard Coker sang 1864-65, had been founded in the seventeenth century. Boy choristers were introduced in 1844 and sang in the mixed choir from the gallery until Dr Henry Stephen Cutler (1824-1902) was appointed organist & choirmaster. Cutler had studied in Germany and England, becoming interested in cathedral choirs, and after returning to his native Boston in 1846 he established a choir of men & boys at the Church of the Advent around 1855. Moving to Trinity Church in November 1858 he discarded the two remaining women from the choir (in March 1859) and moved the choir to the chancel (although still in secular dress until October 1860, when vestments were adopted). From Easter Day (24 April) 1859 boys sang the solo soprano & alto parts from the chancel. The first soloists were Henry Eyre Browne and the English-born William James Robjohn (1843-1920, the later composer, known as Caryl Florio). Robjohn received a salary of $200 at the end of 1859: “very high for that time, the largest amount ever paid for a boy”. Up to this time the boys had not been taught to produce high notes; Cutler had difficulty in finding boys who could sing above B, third line of staff, and it would appear that they sang entirely with “chest” voice. Under Cutler’s tuition the standard soon improved and boys were singing up to D in alt. The installation of a new chancel organ provided an opportunity to display the achievements of the choir and so in December 1864 a Choral Festival was held at Trinity Church, with a third performance being arranged at short notice due to the high demand for tickets at one dollar each. This appears to be the first use of trained boy singers in concert work other than vaudeville in New York City. The American Civil War (which had begun in April 1861) was nearing its end and there had been a great expansion of all forms of entertainment in the city, partly due to new railways for the movement of troops and supplies, which had facilitated the mobility of artistes and their audiences.

   At the Choral Festival Coker (now leading soprano of the choir and reputed to be on a salary of $1000), and the other boy choristers were placed on a platform outside the chancel. Solos were sung by Emil Ehrlich (who had come in November 1862 from the Berlin Dom Choir and who possessed “the most sympathetic and touching voice [which] was said to have tears in it”), Cullen P. Grandin (alto), Theodore Toedt (of whom more below), one Master Jameson and Richard Coker, who sang the solo “Hear ye, Israel” and in the Angel Trio and the quartette “O come, every one” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, as well as part of a Haydn Mass. The New York Herald reported that Coker “was listened to with great pleasure, the clear sweet notes of the little vocalist swelling richly through the church, above the heavy accompaniment of the chancel organ.” Pieces sung by the other boys included “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and “O thou that tellest” from Handel’s Messiah.



Dr Henry S Cutler

   Following further solo work, including an anthem by Flotow introduced into the church service specifically for the display of Coker’s voice, Dr Cutler took Coker and other choir members on a concert tour, starting in Boston in February 1865 with two concerts (7 & 8 February) in the “crowded to overflowing” Music Hall. The Choral Festival items were repeated with the addition of ballads and operatic excerpts. The Boston Post noted that “Master Coker possesses a voice such is not often heard; indeed nature very rarely produces a gem of such beauty and fineness” and called him “The star of the evening and a true child of genius”. A review in The Boston Daily Evening Transcript stated: “There was an eager interest, of course, to hear Master Coker, whose singing is certainly quite remarkable. His voice is clear, bright, pure, penetrating, of such range as to include a wide scope of performance, and so well cultivated as to give the finest possible effect to music of a high order and exacting character. His ‘Hear ye, Israel,’ was a very able performance that showed an instinct and breadth of style of delivery far removed from his youthful appearance or any boyish mannerisms or traits.”

   The following month Cutler took his forces to Philadelphia, but the two concerts planned for St Clement’s Church had to be deferred for a few days due to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. At the end of April 1865 Coker sang in a Grand Concert at Niblo’s Saloon (a 3000-seat theatre on Broadway, New York), together with George Ellard, who had been singing in the Trinity Choir as a mezzo soprano, and adult artistes.

   Dr Cutler and his young star returned to Boston in May 1865 to participate in a Grand Musical Festival, but things did not go well for them. Cutler found that his locally provided music was incomplete for one item and stopped playing; only a hasty improvisation saved the day. A review in the Transcript whilst praising Coker’s “very remarkable voice and good accomplishment” criticised his repertoire and his “immature style and undramatic conception”. When Cutler returned to New York he was dismissed from Trinity Church for absence without leave. Messiter comments: “The severe action of the Vestry was probably unexpected; one cannot say that it was unjust, but it would seem proper that, if the exclusive services of a professional man of skill and experience are desired, ample compensation should be made for them.” Cutler moved to Christ Church (still organising concerts) and Coker left the choir to become an independent concert artiste.

   After further concerts in New York during the remainder of 1865, Coker gave seven concerts in Baltimore during January & February 1866, appearing at the Concordia Opera House and the New Assembly Rooms. After a Final Farewell Concert on 17 February, in which he was joined by boys from New York directed by Dr Cutler, Coker sailed for Europe on the 21st.

    The London journal The Era reported on 1 April 1866: “Master Richard Coker.-- This is the name of a wonderfully gifted boy (thirteen years old), who has just arrived in London, after making a tour of the United States and Nova Scotia. He has a pure soprano voice of extraordinary power, sweetness, and compass, extending to three octaves. He sings with all the soul and fire of a first-rate artist, and all the brilliant scenas of Mozart, Meyerbeer, Bellini, Verdi, &c., also excels in the highest degree in the music of Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn. In Baltimore lately the [one dollar] tickets for his concert were sold at auction, and 600 of them were knocked down at five, six, and seven dollars each. Since his arrival here he has sung at Lord Ward’s and the Hon. H. Baring’s, accompanied on the piano by Mr. Benedict, creating a most profound sensation. . . . Not the least charm is his manly grace and extreme personal beauty.” His fee was said to be twenty guineas (£21) an evening, the sum a page-boy or office-boy might have received in wages at that time in a whole year.

   His first public appearance was with the renowned tenor Sims Reeves (1818-1900) and other artistes on 28 April at St James’s Hall in London, a 2500-seat concert hall between Regent Street and Piccadilly, when he was billed as “the great soprano boy from America”. He sang three pieces: “Robert, toi que j’aime” from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, Bishop’s ballad “Come, live with me and be my love”, and “Non fu sogno” from Verdi’s Il Lombardi. A review in The Musical World referred to him as “the best of the juveniles, native or foreign, whom we have had ‘put forth upon us’ for a long time. His voice is a pure soprano, or treble, of extraordinary compass.“ Shortly afterwards, on 11 May, he sang at London’s principal concert hall, the Hanover Square Rooms, tickets selling at 10s. 6d., 5s., and 2s. The Era reported: “This highly original young vocalist gave his first concert at the Hanover-Square Rooms. Master Coker’s singing is, in its way, a sensation. His voice is equal in power and range to the ordinary range of sopranos. He executes bravura passages rapidly, and with more correctness than could be expected. It is something new to find a boy of thirteen or fourteen singing the arias of operatic heroines, and the effect is curious, and apparently pleasing enough to command more applause than is usually indulged in by the select and genteel individuals who attend morning concerts. Master Coker deserves this encouragement for the manner in which he acquits himself, and in the course of the season will doubtless make many friends among the musical public. . . . He sings with fervent expression, and appears more at home in Italian music than that of our native school. [Verdi’s] ‘Ernani involami’ was his first solo, and he was encored in Mendelssohn’s ‘First Violet.’ In answer to the compliment, he gave ‘Home, Sweet Home.’ With Madame [Charlotte Helen] Sainton-Dolby [a concert contralto] and Mr. George Perren he sang in Curschman’s trio, ‘Ti prego,’ and the above tenor, probably for the first time, found a boy for his companion in Verdi’s duet from Rigoletto, ‘E il sol dell’anima.’ ”

   A few days later, in the evening of 18 May, Coker was one of the singers engaged to perform at a dinner party held at Marlborough House by the Prince & Princess of Wales (the later King Edward VII & Queen Alexandra), where the guests included the Duchess of Cambridge. He sang the air from Robert le Diable. After giving a further concert in London, on 1 June 1866, this time at St James’s Hall, he travelled to Ireland and on 4 June appeared in a concert at the Philharmonic Concert Rooms, Brunswick Street, Dublin. The Dublin newspaper The Daily Express  noted that he sang well up to D in alt “a feat ordinarily confined to your Anna Zerrs [recte Zerr; soprano, 1822-81] and Jenny Lind. . . . With this compass he unites a very brilliant organ, a good deal of skill in passage singing, and a capital shake [trill] that many a concert singer in petticoats might envy.” He was rapturously received and twice recalled by the audience.

    Coker returned to London at the end of the month and sang again at St James’s Hall and then on 2 July at the piano-maker Collard’s Rooms, where a review in The Musical World referred to him as “the American boy-soprano”. The use of the now familiar term “boy soprano” rather than the usual “treble” or “chorister” (both in use since the 14th-century) or the obsolete 17th-century “singing-boy” is interesting. (“Choirboy” dates only from 1843.) It seems to have originated with Dr Cutler to designate trained boy choristers when singing in public concerts. The very first printed reference is an advertisement in The New York Herald for Tuesday, 15 May 1866: “Trinity Choral Festivals of 1864 Repeated at Irving Hall To-night and Thursday, at 8 o’clock. Remarks on the origin, history and ceremonial usages of the English cathedrals, by Dr. Cutler. Choral Illustrations, by an antiphonal choir of One Hundred Male Voices, among whom are sixty of the finest boy sopranos in America. In fact, they are the only boys in the country capable of performing accurately the great works of Handel and Mendelssohn. A chorus of this description is incomparably more effective than one made up of mixed voices.” There can be little doubt that Dr Cutler drafted this advertisement. The first application to an individual, however, was not to Richard Coker, but to Theodore Toedt, then a chorister at St Alban’s Chapel. The Herald for 19 May has an advertisement for a matinee of “Dr. Cutler’s Grand Choral Festival” that day which mentions “Master Toedt, the wonderful boy soprano”. Dr Cutler’s hundred voice choir was known as the Cecilian Choir.

   In August that year (1866), Richard Coker gave a series of concerts in Birmingham (England), becoming “ a fixed star in our local musical firmament” according to one newspaper. His repertory now included “Comin’ through the rye” and the dauntingly difficult “Let the Bright Seraphim”. By December he was back in New York giving a series of concerts at Steinway Hall (1256 seats) as “the Celebrated Boy Soprano”. In the first, on 19 December, a “Grand Classic, Sacred and Popular Concert” arranged by Dr Cutler, the supporting talent included the Cecilian Choir, Theodore Thomas’s Orchestra and Masters Theodore Toedt, Frederick Bourne, Cullen P. Grandin & Somers [probably John Summers, a former English cathedral chorister]. Excerpts were given from Samson, Faust, and Elijah, with English glees and madrigals. The last mention of Coker relates to the Steinway Hall concert of 2 January 1867. He is referred to as the chief soprano of the Cecilian Choir. A review in The New-York Times the following day states: “Master Coker sang a difficult ballad ‘Sweet Nightingale’ with singular and most felicitous effect. His voice in fulness and quality has never been equaled. It filled the ample space of Messrs. Steinway’s beautiful hall to repletion. We know of no soprano except Parepa who could so thoroughly accomplish this result. The youngster’s bearing is interesting, and he evidently feels the purport of the words as well as the sentiment of the music. He is unquestionably the best concert singer now in this City.” (Euphrosyne Parepa [1836-1874] was a Scottish-born soprano with a two-and-a-half octave range up to D in alt. She made her debut in 1855 and had started an American tour in Boston on 26 September 1866, appearing at the Steinway Hall in New York on 21 November.)

   Of Coker’s further career we only have Messiter’s statement that he went abroad to study and remained there.

   Later boy sopranos who performed in New York included Master William Deverall (1868); Master Hageman (1869); Master Lewis Fink (1870); Master William Kellog (“soprano and female impersonator”, 1871); Master Walter Kellog (1873); Master Willie Bernstein (1877); Master William H. Lee (1878-79); Master Willie Mollenhauer (1879); English-born Master Harry Brandon (1885-88); Master R. Hyslop (1889); Master Willie Treneman (1892, billed as “Brooklyn’s greatest boy soprano”, memories of Richard Coker apparently having faded); Master Cyril Tyler (1892-93); Master Wilfred or Wilford Young (1893). The later clown Willie Howard (ne Levkowitz) made his debut in 1897 aged about eleven at Proctor’s 125th Street Theatre as a boy soprano, as did Joseph Edgar Howard (1867?-1961), the later song writer, also when aged eleven, in St Louis.

   Boys with good singing voices have been employed for many centuries to sing outside of their church or cathedral, as shown by a document of 1411 relating to the choristers of Notre Dame, Paris, which includes the direction: “We do not want the boys to go to any places or dwelling or church to sing unless by special license of the superiors.” At a London pageant during 1603 a song was sung by “two Boyes (Choristers of Paules) deliured in sweete and ravishing voyces.” In the opera house Mozart intended the roles of the Three Boys in The Magic Flute actually to be sung by boys, as shown by his use of Master Matthias Tuscher and Master Handelgruber for the 1791 premiere. (The third part was sung by the Papageno’s eleven-year-old niece, perhaps nepotism or faute de mieux.) It may also be noted here that the long role of the Woodbird in Wagner’s Siegfried was written for a boy’s voice (Knabenstimme), although at Bayreuth in 1876 and Munich in 1878 the part was taken by women. In England the tenor Joseph Maas (1847-1886) had been a chorister at Rochester Cathedral from the age of ten and was engaged by the soprano Louisa Pyne to sing as a “boy treble” at her concerts in the provinces until his voice changed. In all these cases the boys formed only part of the entertainment and it was not until Richard Coker came onto the scene that a boy soloist became the main attraction.

   The first English “boy soprano” seems to have been George Henry Elliott (1882-1962), who found early success as a child star in the USA, performing with a number of touring companies, including Primrose and West’s Minstrels. On 1 September 1894 he appeared at the Circus of Varieties in Rochdale (England) as “Master George Elliott, the wonderful boy soprano”, at the age of eleven. He later became a music-hall artiste performing as a black-faced minstrel.



 Walter Lawrence

   The record companies experimented early with attempts to capture boys’ solo voices on disc and cylinder in the pre-electric or acoustic (i.e., purely mechanical reproduction) days, when the frequency range which could be registered was at best E 165 Hz to C 2093 Hz encompassing few harmonics. Exact details are somewhat sketchy but these early recordists included Master Birny Birnside (USA 1897); Master John Buffery (UK 1898); Master William Cottam (UK 1905); the boy alto cantor Moses Mirsky (UK 1905 & USA 1909); Master Donald Hugh MacBride (USA 1907); the Chapel Royal chorister Master William Ivor Wright (UK 1907); the Eton schoolboy Master Hubert Langley (UK 1910). Probably the first really successful boy soprano on record was Master Walter Lawrence (born 1900?) of All Angels’ Church, New York, who cut seven 10-inch & eight 12-inch matrices for Columbia between August 1912 and March 1914, of which ten sides were issued in the USA and eight in Britain. Details of recordings traced for these boys are listed on the BCSD website. With the advent of electrical recording in 1926 at last it became possible to capture the art of boys and choirs with something approaching true fidelity, as recordings of the Temple Church Choir in London from that time testify. By 1929 a frequency range of 50 - 6,000 Hz was possible, with a dynamic range of about 35 dB (LPs have about 60 dB and CDs 90 dB); by 1934 30 - 8,000 Hz was achievable. During the 78 rpm era (roughly 1890-1951) well over one hundred boy soloists (unbroken voices) were recorded commercially, although few became internationally famous like Ernest Lough.

Brian J. Pearson, November 2006


An earlier use of the term "boy soprano" than the ones of 15 & 19 May 1866 noted above appeared in an advertisement carried by The Times (London) for 30 March 1866: "Master Richard Coker, the boy soprano, from America, has arrived, and will shortly make his first appearance."  It seems likely that the designation used by the London agents in March followed the current American usage (almost certainly originating from Dr Cutler), although no prior printed reference has been traced so far in the American press.


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