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Tradition or Progress?

The ongoing influence of the patriarchy in British choral music.

The basis of British culture and identity is founded in tradition and this is by no means necessarily a bad thing; but it has made it difficult for modern society to distinguish between a harmless succession from the past and the lingering oppression of the patriarchy. Since the granting of the vote in 1918, women have made extensive progress in their plight for civil rights, with the wage gap gradually decreasing and women holding esteemed positions in all sectors of society, including doctors, lawyers, cabinet ministers and even the prime minister, as would have been unthinkable for most only a century ago. But despite this, particularly in the sectors of society most imbedded in tradition, in religion and the arts, a fondness for the status quo has overshadowed our country’s ever-moving pursuit of equality.

In Shakespearian times, it was common practice to gain the traits of womanhood, for cultural and artistic uses, from a young boy, brutally castrated to retain the feminine qualities of voice which society could not bear to assume from actual women, who were destined only for the home, and of course had no place in music. While this now seems a ridiculous practice of the past, in choral music tradition has side-lined progression in its preference for top-lines sung by ten-year-old boys rather than sopranos. The debate of the status of choir boys has recently been addressed with the disproving of the commonly-proclaimed idea that boy’s voices are somehow more “angelic” than girls of the same age; in the words of Simon Langley; the choir-boy’s voice ‘is a sound which would have fallen soft upon the ears of Christ himself as he prayed in the temple.’ But with experiments such as in the blind-testing at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, to asses this backward notion, it became clear that when listening through a screen top music directors were unable to accurately distinguish gender. And it stands to reason that if highly experienced professionals cannot tell the difference, neither can the far less qualified audiences and congregations who plead the virtues of an all-male choir, whose preference stems not from music but the ingrained sexism tradition brings. Perhaps Christ did hear the voices of choir boys and not choir girls, but since it was highly unlikely he would have been able to tell the difference, such regressive ideals should be challenged, not maintained.  

Undoubtedly, progress has been made, with many choirs introducing young female choristers from the ages of eight to eighteen, although (only including daily-singing choirs) there are still eleven all-male choirs remaining in the UK and they remain to be the most widely publicised, retaining the prestige and wealth offered from years of practice and systematic oppression. Where progress has been made, for example at Birmingham Cathedral, it has demonstrated impressive promise without hindrance to sound, nor success. When speaking with both male and female choristers, practicing in separate gender choirs, it was clear they felt that they were treated equally in terms of treatment, publicity and payment, as is rightfully accordant with the age in which we live. But this idea of “separate but equal”, as demonstrated by the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, does not always ring true, and whilst some choirs have made the active decision to promote both genders, others continue to lag behind. The website for King’s College Cambridge quite freely advertises that male scholars receive a piano in their rooms, grants for sheet music, fully expensed tours and concerts, individual singing lessons and opportunities for “Regular television and radio broadcasts, concerts with leading orchestras and high profile solo opportunities”. At the bottom of the page in a throwaway sentence potential female scholars are invited to follow the link to the Mixed Voice’s page- resulting in the message “page not found”- though further research shows the position offers a meek subsidy for singing lessons and the opportunity to sing at “some” of the colleges formal dinners, and in the chapel once a week (where the male choir sings every day).

Whilst the issues of young choir boys versus young choir girls has been addressed to an extent, little to no thought has yet to be given to older sopranos, who are entirely ignored where their male counterparts are offered the opportunity to succeed. York Minster is progressive in offering equal opportunity for choir boys and girls, singing equally at eight performances a week, and male Choral Scholars, often from the University of York, are offered up to £4,000 a year to sing with the choir. However, there is no female counterpart, let alone one so generously paid. This trend is reflected across the country, and though space is being made for some, the wider problem has hardly been observed, with the general consensus being that traditional choral singing is not accessible for women. And some would ask, why should it be? But neither once was science, or politics, or sport, or academia, or anything that involved recognising women as equal counterparts for a society that would rather have ten year old boys playing the role a much more experienced and longer-trained adult woman could better provide. This issue is wider than choral singing. It is about the achievement of full gender equality and letting go of past restrictions and adapting tradition so that it represents society now, rather than condemning it to be eventually resigned to a backward aspect of the past. 

Undeniably, not all sopranos sound like all choir boys and girls; scientific studies conducted by Professor Howard from the University of York have observed a ‘particular “ring” happening above the normal speech area, in the region up around 8,000 Hz, where there is something appearing when you get this really shimmery sound’. There will always be room for top lines sung by younger choristers, but that is no reason to retain it as the norm. The very essence of progress is to move away from stagnation, with change by no means requiring the forgetting of tradition, but simply the addition and development of the new, where side-lining women need no longer be common practice. And in some exceptions this has already begun, with Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, advertising for counter-tenor/alto duties. Newer groups such as the acapella “VOCES8” are developing music to retain tradition, but also to build upon it, simultaneously brining new opportunity and proving that tradition and progress can amalgamate to retain what music, even British, religious and choral music, has always offered. Its important position in our culture can only be retained if it is allowed to move with the times, and the discrimination of the patriarchy is left to history, while tradition lives on.

By Seren Parri, DipLCM