The Lost Boys

Many readers will be forgiven for thinking that Ernest Lough's recording of Mendelssohn's 'O for the wings of a dove' is a unique survivor from an age when boys' voices somehow sounded different and lasted longer. But Lough was just one of a vest number of boy sopranos, many of whom were equally famous in their day. Stephen Beet has discovered a gold-mine of great recordings of the past, and here tells the story of a new CD which may well lead to a revival of interest in a forgotten sound.

During the course of a lifetime, much of great beauty seems to have been lost from our church and musical lives, but the demise of the boy soprano voice is perhaps the most significant. Not only have we lost the voices of professional boy sopranos such as Denis Wright (who was able to devote his life to singing after he left school at fourteen), but the number of boys singing at all has been falling sharply for the past fifty years. Not only are there fewer boy choristers and soloists these days, but those we have tend to be younger and to sound completely different from their forebears.

I set about trying to discover the reasons behind this post-war decline in the quality of boys' voices. Simply to suggest that voices are breaking earlier seemed a far from satisfactory explanation. Other factors are probably more responsible, one of the most important being the fundamental change in voice production: the sound that we now hear from our trebles bears little resemblance to what we all remember as the 'boy soprano' sound.

But how many do remember? At last we can recall those golden voices for, on 5 November, Amphion Records is due to release a unique CD: 'The Better Land: Great Boy Sopranos 1914-1944', featuring the voices of fifteen boys. Most of the tracks have not been available since those days, and several are heard for the first time.

The story of how the CD came to be is fascinating. It all started for me, as I suspect it did for many of the boys featured, as a result of one gramophone record: Ernest Lough's 'O for the wings of a dove'. The record made for Lough a place in history, and he became the inspiration for many choristers. One such was Sir David Willcocks, who described the effect the record had on him in Robin Lough's moving documentary about his father's life.

But it is a mistake to think that Lough's voice was unique. Many people believe this, perhaps because his is the only record they have heard from that period (it was recorded twice during the course of 1927, when Lough was fifteen and sixteen years old). Lough's voice stands as a shining example of an older and better tradition of voice production which, I suggest, was destroyed after the war by the new generation of choirmasters. (The sleeve notes to a 1972 recording of 'O for the wings' states: 'Hear My Prayer is only just beginning to benefit from performances which are stylistically appropriate'.)

What we hear today from boys is not the pure head-tone boy soprano voice of the past but a harsh incisive voice produced from the chest register, the voice of a small boy which fades quickly at the first sign of puberty. The old head tone (and there were several variations) is so unmistakable and distinctive that there can be no doubt that it is produced by a boy. This sound, capable of filling a large building, does not fade at the onset of puberty; and this is perhaps the most convincing explanation for the fact that many boys in those days sang on well into their teens. I recently heard this sound described as a falsetto, suggesting that it was in some way unnatural: it was certainly not regarded as such in the past.

Selecting the titles for the CD was a very difficult task. We had over 150 discs to choose from, most of them collected by Martin Carson of Ipswich. We tried to strike a balance between the classical and the sentimental, and, believe me, some of the discs were real tear-jerkers. However, we did discover some really outstanding voices and recordings of the highest quality. We thought it important to include as many different singing styles as possible: we were not able simply to classify them as either 'church boys' or 'light-music boys'. But one golden thread running through the collection is that all the boy's were trained to cultivate this 'pure head tone'. Some sang with much vibrato (Leslie Day in 'I hear you calling me'), others with just the slightest controlled tremor. There is very little evidence of the choirboy 'hoot', but a fine example of the old 'cathedral tone' is given in Gordon Carter's 'O for the wings of a dove', which he sings with Manchester Cathedral Choir.

I wanted to find out exactly how these boys were trained and by whom. One of the best Victorian choir training manuals, 'Boys' Voices' by John Spencer Curwen, contains much advice given by famous choirmasters of the day. The general opinion was to train boys to use the head register and to get rid of any trace of the 'rough chest voice'. A few choirmasters did acknowledge the use of the chest register for the lower notes, but they could not agree the pitch at which it should be introduced. Exercises were given for the correct cultivation of the head tone. Scales were practised downwards, never upwards. Boys were told to hum to get the voice into the head. Fingers were place between the eyes and on the top of the head in order to focus the tone. The correct position of the mough had to be gained by putting the thumb between the teeth or by holding a hand mirror. There was much practising of vowels, and not just the 'oo' sound which tends to produce the 'hoot' if over used.

Much expression and emotion was put into the singing. Dr Buck of Norwich, to get a boy to realize the words 'Without thee all is dark', would shut him in a cupboard. He also gave solo boys 'pocket pistols' containing port wine, which the boys injected just before their solos.

It was considered exceptional, even in those days, if a boy continued to sing treble until he was seventeen; thirteen was given as the age when a boy's voice would start to change. But Curwen states, and he is backed by others, that a boy's voice could be 'long preserved' by the correct cultivation of the head tone.

Iwan Davies was a chorister of the London Choir School, which was begun in 1894 by James Bates. When Curwen visited in 1899, over one hundred boys were on the roll. Curwen noted that 'the singing voice, or "head voice", Mr Bates would carry down to D, the note below the first line'. The college supplied boys to twenty-five London churches, but its main work was to provide solo and chorus boys for concerts, festivals and theatres all over the country. In this case, the same man who was training 'church boys' was also training boys for secular work. In fact, they would in many cases be the same boys. The sheer numbers of boys singing in choirs in those days (sixty boys at Marylebone Parish Church; large 'working class' choirs, etc.) would certainly throw up outstanding soloists.

We are fortunate that some of the best boy sopranos of this period are still alive, and it has been a privilege to have been able to interview three of the finest: Denis Barthel, the much neglected soloist of the Temple Church; Frederick Firth of Morecambe; and Denis Wright of Mansfiled who sang with the Kentucky Mistrels.

The dedicaton of what we must describe as the professional boy soprano was staggering. The Temple boys had a heavy, although immensely enjoyable, schedule under the great Dr Sir George Thalben Ball; Denis Wright practised for hours every evening with Harry Smith, his trainer, and was travelling miles during the war years performing weekly. Reviewers regularly cited Denis as an example to adults: 'the finest boy soprano I have heard, which many a famous woman soprano might envy and emulate,' said Sir Compton Mackenzie in 'The Gramophone'. So we make no apology for using the unfasionable title 'boy soprano' - it was by that name that many were proud to be known.

All the boys whom I contacted were thrilled to know that their recordings would once again see the light of day 'while some of us still tread this earth'. Some weeks ago I visited the home of Frederick Firth, and listened as he played his records for me. Sitting in his chair, he became transported back seventy-one years, his lips mouthing the words he had committed to wax so long ago. Major Denis Barthel and his wife were deeply moved as they listened for the first time to an umpublished duet he had sung in the early 1930's with his long-lost friend, Harold Langston.

The majority of boys included on our CD were between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, although Iwan Davies was thought by our reviewers to be older and 'pushing it a bit'. It may be that many had naturally unbroken voices, but the boys I have been able to interview are certainly of the opinion that the vocal technique they were taught did preserve the voice. Freddy Firth told me that he began to train his adult voice before he gave up singing as a boy soprano. 'I think it was the training Dr Ball gave us,' Denis Barthel told me - he was sixteen when he recorded 'He was despised', perhaps the best item on the CD.

I think we can now suggest some reasons why we no longer have boy singers of this quality:

1. The technique of training them has been lost, initially through deliberate neglect ('This pretty, fluting sound is an insult to boyhood,' wrote George Malcolm of Westminster Cathedral). Although there may be some evidence to suggest that voices change slightly earlier these days, I feel this is a greatly exaggerated claim. The cultivation of the head-tone seems to have preserved the voice beyond the natural break.

2. Fashions have changed: a more impersonal style is now called for.

3. The school-leaving age has been raised, and less time can be devoted to training.

4. There were far more boys in choirs in those days, and it was considered socially acceptable to go on singing for as long as possible. Boy singers were greatly in demand and sought after for major roles now taken by women.

Each of the boys interviewed was adamant that he would not have missed the chance of singing for the world, and that the experience has stood them in good stead for later life. 'My heart is still at Temple,' Denis Barthel said. 'I never really left; they were wonderful days.'

We hope this CD will be warmly received, and we offer it not only to the general public but also to the present generation of choir trainers in whose hands the future of our musical tradition rests. Wouldn't it be grand if we were to hear boys singing like this again!

...Stephen Beet, CMQ, October 1999

"Reprinted from October 1999 issue of 'Church Music Quarterly', the journal of the Royal School of Church Music, with permission of the author and the editor."

Copyright 1999 Royal School of Church Music

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