*** boys choir ; history

Boy Choir: History

ancient choirs
Figure 1.--There were choirs in the ancient world although we do not know much about them yet. This is a Egyptian tomb depiction showing a small choir. We do not know the details about the tomb yet. They look to be adult men, perhaps a blind choir. This is the earlies known depiction of a choir and reportedly dates to around 2700 BC.

Boy singers have been been making music such as antiquity. We have no information on the early River Valley civilizations. We know that early civilizations had choirs, We see Egyptian tomb paintings of choirs. We can not yet confirm, however, that they had boy choirs or any special apprciation for the music potentialof the boy voice. China had aarticularly rich music tradition and adetailed historical record, but we kno of no evidence of boy choirs. We do know that the boy choir tradution was firmly estblished in the musiclity and culture of classical Greece and Rome. Boys have also been involved with the Christian church from early in the church's history. They were an important pat of church services for centuries. New forms of music were developed as the choirs moved from Gregorian chant to polyphony. While the boy choir tradition was almost lost in the strife and warfare following the Reformation. The different Christian churches have viewd boy choir music differently. The tradition was further weakened by the anti-clerical direction of the Ennligtenment French Revolution as well as new secular musical tradition, including the reappearance of the female voice. Boy choirs survived in England and a few locations in Germany and Austria. American began to develop an intrest in boy choirs (late-19th century). At first this came out of the Episcopal (Anglican) Chutch, but subsequently we see many secular choirs forming (20th century). The boy choir tradition has been revived in the 20th century, by both church and secular choirs. Church figures began to revive the French boy choir tradition (early-20th century).

Ancient Civilizations

We do not know of boy choirs in the great river valley civilizations. Our information is limited. We have found evidence of choirs, but there is some indication that boys were part of choirs. We do not know of boy choirs in the great river valley civilizations. Our information is limited. We have found evidence of choirs. Here is an Egyptian tomb depiction (figure 1). Boy choirs are a differentb matter We have found no evidence of boy choirs in the early great river valley civilizations. Perhaps readers will know more. A good bit is known about these civilizations, including musical traditions. Despite the considerable scholarship on both Mesopotamia and Egypt there is no indication that spealized boy choirs were ever established, but there were choirs abd boys singers. And what became well-established in Egypt must have affected the musical traditions of neigboring socities, including Caanan. Egypt was an advanced culture at a time when many of the neigboing states were stll reaively primitive. Boy singers were known in Babylonia, Assyria, Judea and eventually, Greece. While we do not yet know of boy choirs, there is considerable ecidence that the boy voice was appreciated, apparently for both court life and religious practice. Much less is known about the Indus Valley civilization, but there is no known tradition of boy choirs. Ancient China had a very sophiticated musical tradition. Historians note references to 300-piece orchestras. The Qin Dynasty established the Imperial Music Bureau (221-07 BC). The Emperor Han Wu Di (140-87 BC) charged the Bureau with supervising court and military music and monitoring folk music for political oposition. The social status of musicians was low, beneath that of artists. Even so, music was believed to be important to the harmony and longevity of the state. Enuchs were involved with music, at least in the Imperial Court. Despite considerable available information on ancient Chinese music, we can find little about choirs and nothing about boy choirs.


Archeologists working in Mesopotamia have found Babylonian-Assyrian psalms employing repentance as well as religious hymns. This suggest that they were performed by a single or by several half-choirs. Some believe that they were performed by a priest (precentor) and the responding choir antiphonally. The musical tradition of Babylonia was the continuation of the earlier tradituon of Sumeria. [Neefe, p. 6.] In Babylonia are formed the origins of those fascinating legends which, passing through Jewish spirituality, become the basis of Christianity, and eventually, of European civilization. spite the considerable scholarship on both Mesopotamia there is no indication that all boy choirs were ever established.


Some limited information exists on the musical traditions of ancient Egypt. The Egyptians had a rich musical tradition. The Pharonic courts of ancient Egypt had royal music directors dating as far mack as the Old Empire (2778-2160 BC). There were clearly choirs in ancient Egypt. Here is an Egyptian tomb depiction from this period (figure 1). Egyptologists have even discovered the name of a court musician and inspector of vocal musicas well as a royal music teacher in Dynasty VI (2563-2423 BC). Boy choirs are a differentb matter We have found no evidence of all-boy choirs in the early great river valley civilizations. Boy singers are another matter. The earliest historical evidence of a boy singer comes from Egypt, Boy singers were apparently employed in the Necropolis of Thebes during the New Kingdom (around 1500 BC). This almost certainly meansthere must havebeen somekind of song school. The singing was performed by soloists and choral groups. Music scholars have to soeculre as to the singing. Some believe that the singing was done antiphonally by alternating choral groups or responsively, with a soloist starting and the the choir responding with a ritornello. [Hicknann] Dancing and musical instruments were also an importnt prt of part of the religious ritual in the Egyptian temple ceremonies. [Hickmann] In addition to child singers, there were also child dancers. Actual evidence is limited, but one source notes that the Dances of Ilia, performed by maidens and young boys were reportedly very popular. Dances by boys performing alone were often accompanied by girls clapping rhythmically. More information becomes availavble on Egypt suring the classical era. None other than Plato traveled to Egypt as an oil merchant (398-85 BC). He praised the melody and rhythm of the highly organized choir performing at festivals. {Plato, 138.] He describes the education of the preformers. He writes that the youth of Egypt were instructed in choral singing. A modern scholar reports that Of 24 surviving books on the subject of astronomy, sacred measures, and rites, "Two Books of the Singer" contain hymns, exclamations and doxologies; songs of praise to the gods and kings. [Wiedemann] Just how much Egypt influenced the rich choral tradition of Greece is unknown. There was known to be trade and diplomatic exchanges between Egypt and the neigboring states, Thus it is likely that Egyptiam musical traditions iknfluence the neigboring peoples.

Indus River

Much less is known about the Indis Valley civilization, but there is mo known tradition of boy choirs.


Ancient China had a very sophiticated musical tradition. Historians note references to 300-piece orchestras. The Qin Dynasty established the Imperial Music Bureau (221-07 BC). The Emperor Han Wu Di (140-87 BC) charged the Bureau with supervising court and military music and monitoring folk music for political oposition. The social status of musicians was low, beneath that of artists. Eve so, music was bekieved to be important to the harmony and longevity of the state. Enuchs were involved with music, at least in the Imperial Court. Despite considerable available information on ancient Chinese music, we can find little about choirs and nothing about boy choirs.

Classical Tradition: Greece and Rome

The classical cultures of Greece and Rome are the final phase of the ancient era. For them both Mesoptamoa and Egypt were ancient cultures. After the division of the Empire, the Eastern Empire developed into Byzantium which stradeled the ncient nd medievl world.


Athenian boys at about 6 years of age began formal schooling if the family coul afford it. Notably this is the sme year modern schooling befins in most countries. There were both gymnasium and palaestra. The curriculum consisted of letters (reading, writing, memorizing Homer), music (learning to play instruments and sing), and athletic training. Girls did not go to schooll, they remained at home acquiring domestic skills. Both Spartan boys and girls attended school, but less is known about the curriculum. Children played important roles in public religious services. Their roles included temple servants, choirs dancing and chanting poetry, participating in processions, or serving as priests or Vestal Virgins. Teenage boys as young as 14-15 years of age could enter into priestly service. In private religious observances like family funerals the participation of children was even more prominent. Scholars have speculated as to why and one leading explanation is that youth commonly was see as a symbol of purity. It is unclear to what extent Greek childen sung on these occassions, but it seems likely that this ocurred or was common. For some reason, the roles for girls in public worship seems more formalized than for boys. The Greek Chorus seems to have been a relatively common in that era. We see many depictions on pottery (5th century BC). The Choragic Monument to Lysicrayes was built in Plaka close to the Acrpolis (334 BC). Choragic was the Hreek term for choir master or leader. An incription at the monument mentions 'boys' choir'. Choirs both sang and played musical instruments. The composition varied. We note both male and female choirs. The classical Greeks appreciate boys' voices and did organize boy choirs. They performed both in religious ceremonies and public festivals. The dithyramb was an ancient Greek hymn sung and danced in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. Informatiin is limited, but e know that dithyrambs were sung by choruses at Delos, but most of the literary fragments that have been found are Athenian. Choirs of of to 50 men or boys dancing in circular formation as they sang dithyrambs. Modern depictions often costume the singers as as satyrs, but there is no cerainty of this. They were probably accompanied by the aulos. The thens were usually some incident in the life of Dionysus. A boy choir was often part of the ceremony at sacrificial ceremonies. Boy choirs also sung the peoples� entreaties to the gods in supplicatory processions. As far as we know these choir were almost always boy and not girl choirs. Boy choirs were such an important cultural phenomenon that singing schools were founded to formally train boy singers. We do not know much about these schools and choirs. They were more practical that modern choirs as puberty ocuured later than is now the case and this boys could sing for a longer period. Clssical authors addressed the subject. Lucian of Samosata wrote that a boy' voice is �perfectly delicate, not so deep as to be called masculine nor so fine as to be effeminate and lacking power, but falling soft, mild and lovely upon the ear.�


Well to do Roman children were titored at homev by paedagogus. Both boys and girls behan school at about 12 yers of age. The curiculum included music, but it is not alltogether clear what this involved. 'Given Rome's martial ethos, the arts (especilly music dance) are sometines seen as foreign, larely Etrscan and Greek imports. Some experts insist that music and dance had been a part of Roman culture from a very early point. [Naerebout, p.146.] Music was comoon at Roman funerals. The tibia was a woodwind instrument that the Romans customarily played at sacrifices in an effort to ward off ill influences. Song (carmen) was an expected part of almost every Roman social event. [Habinek] Roman culture was certainly stronly influenced by Greek traditions. The Romans also had choirs and like the Greeks appreciate the boy voice. A song school was founded in Roman Carthage built on the ruins of the destroyed city (117 AD). Virtually nothing is known about it, but it must have been to train boys to sing. They may have sung at both secular and state/religious occassions. Song schools were well estblished throughout the Empire. Unfortunately few details exist as to specific schools or their students and teaching methods. Augustus commissioned the 'Secular Ode of Horace'. It was first pubically performed by a mixed children's choir which mist hve had formal training (17 BC). The Romans saw music as reflecting the orderliness of the cosmos, a concept that string therorists can appreciate. The Romans stronly associated music with mathematics and knowledge. [Habinek, p. 90ff.]


We believe that the Romans did practice castration as aay ofpreserving the boy voice, but there is very limited information. We do not know how common it was and was presumbly a measure reserved for slaves. There are records of eunuch singers from the earlist period if the separate Eastern Empire. This would surely have been a continuation of an earlier Roman practice. The empress Aelia Eudoxia is known to have had a eunuch choir-master named Brison. The inference is that he had been a castrato boy singer and used castrati in the choir he conducted, but there is no evidence of this. He may have been part of a wider use of castrati in Byzantine choirs. This is suggested by his presence in the Emperess' choir, but there is no real upporting evidence. There is no evidence of the use of castrati in western choirs until a much later period. We are not sure hy this difference developed. It is known, however, that eunuch singers were well-known, including the choir of Hagia Sophia (9th century). This was probably the case earlier, but records on the earlier centuries is limited. The Bzantine tradition continued until Consntinople was sacked by the Western crusaders during the Fourth Crusad sack of Constantinople by the Western forces of the Fourth Crusade (1204).

Jewish Tradition

The use of boy singers in relgious ceremonies wa part of the Jewish temple tradition. Music became a documented factor in the Jewish tradition with David. His voice and lyre helped charm King Saul. The leaders of Judah assigning two choirs to offer thanks in some translations. [Nehemiah Chapter 12, verse 31] The Old Testament references to boy voices, however, are indirect. Early rabbinical literature contains much more definitive references. In the early period of temple music, psalm singing became the exclusive prerogative of professional Levitical singers in the capacity both of soloists and choristers. They may have even sing in the First Temple. The presence of boy singescis difficult to deny. A Levitical singer would have required considerable training to achieve professional mastery. [Sandreys] The Jerusalem Temple Cult in Judaism led to the formation of specialized musicians. THis meant that there must have been a song school. The singers were reserved for the men from the tribe of Levi. The Talmud refers augmenting singing with a few boys� voices to that of the men �to add sweetness�. This does not mean a there were Jewish boy choirs or formalized choirs of any kind. It does suggest, however, that in the Jewish culture tradition that there was a recognition of the special aethetic value of boys' voices. There are references to the singing of hymns and psalms from the earlt Christian church. Surely tis came from the Jewish tradition. Continuity is another matter. One author writes, "... this is not to claim direct continuity. Although Jewish practice, especially the practice of domestic worshiop, nay have been a model for some in the early church, the links between Jewish and Christian liturgy in the early Christian centuries were probably slight." [Mould, p. 1.] It seems to us that the Jewish musical tradition is very important generally in Western music. This includes both classical and popular music. Many of the great Jewish composers came from religious families whose fathers were rabbis. One of the most beloved American composers, Irving Berlin, was the son of an itinerant cantor. One reader is less convinced. He writes that he does not believe that the Jewish musucal tradition had any significant impact on the boy choir tradition or Western music tradition. We do not know enought about this yet to form any real opinion, but it is an interesting topic to pursue.

Early Church History: Roman Empire (1st-5th centuries)

The early history of Christianity for better or worse is primrily associated with the Roman Empire. Although Christians were percecuted by Rome, it was within the Roman Empire that Christianity grew from a Jewish cult to major religion. Boy singers have been highly valued by the Christian Church in its liturgy from an early stage in its history, but not at the very beginning of Christianity.

Imperial persecution (1st-3rd centuries)

The early Church had two important cultural roots, the classical tradition and the Jewish tradition. Both recognized the beauty of boy voices. Early Christian worship was at first highly congregational. There is little or no mention of differentiated choirs. And women participating in the sunging, dspite the Jewish tradition of male voices. The hymns sung were virtually always sung in unison by the entire congregation. This included both women and children. The lturgical idea was singing together demonstrated the unity of the Church in Christ. Christian worship for three centuries often had to be done surepticuosly. This restricted the infrastructure of the Church. And it did not create the conditions under which formal choirs could be organized, trained, and maintained.

Established state religion (4th-5th centuries)

The Church from a very early pont began to utilize music, it was not until the time of her emergence from the catacombs that the beauty of the mass could be openly display in sacred muic, meaning song. This began to occureven before Constantine because Christianity was becoming so widespread and increasingly ccoted. Even before Constntine legitamized Christianity, Pope Sylvester founded the first schola cantorium (song schools) in Rome to train boy singers (314 AD). Song schools were a well-established tradition in the Roman Empire. This was, however, the first known song school to train boys to sing in Christian services. The Emperor Constantine transformed Christianity from a growing, but persecuted sect to the established religion of the vast Roman Empire (325). As the Church was legitimized, a more formal eclesiatical structure took shape along with accepted theologians. Chritians once persecuted sect, set out to destroy other religions. This enabled the Church to begin to establish a sophisticated hierarchical structures which was dsigned to match the state structure. By this time the clssical tradition represented by St. Paul becomes increasingly dominant. Church figures begin to promote the active participation of children, primarily in Church music. Gregory Nazianzus wrote that the singing of children �excites compassion and is most worthy of the divine mercy (4th century AD).� We believe that he was primarily speaking of boys. Basil of Caesarea at about the same time describes the fervent singing of the children and contrasted their energy and enthusiasm to the often unemotionl participation of adults. Much of the available information comes fro theWestern Empire. We are less sure about the Eastern and Empire which evolved into Byzantium. The first Monasteries were founded (4th century AD). At the time with the support of the imperial state, the Church flourished in the cities of the Empire. The monastaries accepted boys among their ranks to educate them to be future monks. As part of their training, the boys sang the Divine Office with the monks. The establishment of Christianity as a state religion was also the turning point for the role of women in the Church. Just as women did not play a role in the state structure, Church leaders moved to disenfranchise women. This meant denying them an active role in the Church heirarchy and ministry, but even from singing in church. Church services sevolved away from the early communal singing. Church historians note Ephraim at Edessa who wrote large numbers of hymns for the Syrian church. They were sung by a women�s choir of virgins (presumably meaning girls) and a boy choir. This became the lastfemale choir we note outside of nunneries. The Church practice developed to train boys as lectors. This was the first step in recruiting and training future priests. From the beginning, music was part of Christin religious services. And singing was part of a lector�s duties. The training progrm involved groups of boys and thus the churches were these boys trained developed choirs and they became important in the Church�s liturgy. The first boys' choir was founded at Chartes Cyhedral (485 AD).

Medieval Era (6th-15th centurues)

Invading German and othertribes from the East poured into the Western Roman Empire (5th century). The Roman Empire had totally disintegrated (6th century). The stronger Eastern was also asaulted but survived. The social chaos of the resultung dark ages resukt in a colapse of formalinstitutions and many cultural activities of any kind. As a result, for centuries the monasteries were the principal surviving from the Roman Empire institution perseving culture in Europe. Education virtually disappered outside of the monastaries. Even the new ruling class did not educate their children. There were no schools, although some children were ducated at home. Only with the quickening of commerce and the development of more urban areas did sophisticated culture reappear in Europe, at first completely controlled by the Church. .

Dark ages (6th-10th centuries)

Pope Gregory the Great played a major role in the developing medieval Church. Gregory promoted both monasticism and the use of music in the litergy. For that reason, the monophonic plain song used in the church lierfy is known as Gregorian Chant. He mandated music standardization, including rules to be used by composers and musicians for both performing and writing music. He is believd to have founded the Schola Puerorum at St. John Lateran and St. Peter's Basilica (6th century AD). It trained boys in reading and singing. It became the model for similar institutions throughout Western Europe. Gregory initiated catholic ecclesiastical song. He also promoted the devlopment of mionastaries. He acted during his pontificate to ensure the conformity of liturgical styles as was demanded by Rome. By this time the Barbrian tribes had overrun the Empire and the large urban centers had disapated. Monastaries had become an important part of the Christian Church. Song became the due expression of the church service succeeding the discipline of lector which young clerics were taught at Cathedrals and monastaries until the age of 20. The earliest schools we know of are song schools at cathedrals and monestaries. Song schools served not only to provide coral singers to add to church services, but also to train priests. At first most of the boys in early song schools were preparing for a religious vocation. Pope Gregory dispatched Augustine to Britain (597). This was a former Roman Province now in the hands of the pagan Anglo-Sxons. Augustine plays a mjor role in Chritainizing the Anglo-Sxons and becomes the first Archbisop of Cantebury. England. As archbishop he founded a choir school. This is today the Kings School which continues to support an importahnt boy choir. The St. Albans Chour School is sometimes looked on as the first English school tracing its origins to the monestary song school (6th century). Clerics in the early church passed music on by memory and the tune was the vehicle for the words. Early music notations for choirs normally typically used only small notes sketched above words to indicate the fall or rise of voice, but no hint as to duration or itch. Choir music throughout the early medieval period was compsitions using Gregorian chant. It was not until much latr, however, that true progress was made in the notation of music (10th century). With the collpse of cukture and education, the monastaries were were the principal surviving from the Roman Empire institution perseving culture in Europe. Boys in the monastaries continued to sing the church liturgy with the monks and priests as part of their education and training program. Convents were also established and took in girls to educate much like the boys in the monasteries. The nuns of course were in a marginal position in the Church. Unlike the boys, the girls did not sing outside the monastaries. The nuns did, however, developed a notable cultural subculture that reached impressive levels, most notably in the writings and music of St. Hildegard of Bingen (12th century).

High medieval Europe (11th-15th centuries)

Europe slowly slow recovery from the Dark Ages as social structures began to reform and trade increased (10th century AD). Modern states began to emerge. The emperor and popes vied for control of temporal and church institutions. Urban centers ibegan to grow and often centered on cathedrals. Urban cathedrals begn to become important centers of education gradually replaing the monasteries. And this meant that boys were no longer with sung liturgy in remote rural molnastaries, but in great urban catedrls, expsing their music to the growing urban populations. One example of this shift was when Bishop Wolfgang separated his diocese from the Abbey of St. Emmeran Abbey and moved the Abbey choir to his cathedral in the center of the city (957). This was the creation of the Regensburger Domspatzen (�Cathedral Sparrows�), as they boys are now called. They claim to be the oldest continuing boy choir in the world. This was just beginning, several other important cathedral choirs were fonded over the next several centuries to sing in the magnificent Gothic Cathedrals that began to rise throughout Western Europe. The first choir school founded at old St. Paul�s Cathedral in London (1127). A choir was established at St. Thomas� Church in Leipzig--Thomanerchor (1212). A boarding school for choristers was set up at the Kreuzkirche (Church of the Holy Cross) in Dresden (before 1300). The Choir coninues today as the Dresdner Kreuzchor. These schools were among very few schools available to boys at the time. The two basic services in both monasteries and cathedrals in which boys participatd with theirmusic were the Eucharist and the Divine Office. The music sung by the boy christers throughout the medival era was plainsong, popularly referred to as Gregorian Chant, named after Pope Gregory I, one of the most important Roman Catholic popes. Monophonic chant dominated Church music for over a thousand years when polyphony apperd (12th century). Early composers were L�onin and P�rotin (12th century).


Singers with soaring, angelic voices were once the superstars of the operatic stage and performed an important role in religious services. HBC at this time has incomplete information on this phenomenon. It was, however, a way of preserving the beautiful voices of boy singers. At the very origin songs in the Catholic church were interpreted by the famous "castrati". The practice dates to antiquity, but was an importanrt in Baoque music which proceeded the development of music in the modern classical era. The phenomenon appears to have been introduced by the church which, however, viewed it with ambiquity. In the modern era it was practiced for about 300 years, starting in the mid-16th century until the unification of Italy and the papacy's loss of the Papal States. The role of women in the church, including song was restricted by the result of apostle Paul's epistle "Mulier taceat in ecclesia" (women silent in church). The castrati were embraced by Italian opera which during the Baroque era swept Europe. Then came the year 1498 story of Maximilien I replacing the castrati by singing boys.

The Reformation (16th-17th centuries)

Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door and without really intending to do so launched the Reformation (1517). The result was fundamental changes not only in relgious like, but in European society writ large. Among the many fundamental changes were a range of minor developments and one of those were boy choirs and choristers. Some of the effects were ngative, e but, over all as aresuly of the Reformation European music culture became richer amidst the resulting social tumult. The Reformation did not just divide Eirope among Catholics and Protestants. Protestnts encouraged people to read the Bible. They did and all kinds of new ideas and denominations appeared. Roughly speaking there were three principal Protestnt branches. Of these, the Reformed Church founded by John Calvin in Switzerland had much the most destructive effect on music in general, and church music in particular. Martin Luther in Germany had a much more open mind toward music. The diection of the Englisg Chirch has particularly important consequences. Music like the other arts before the Reformation was still largely the province of the Church. This changed with the Reformation. Boy sopranos were among the major actors in the developing music culture as Europe entered the modern age.

Musical Accompanyment

The music of the early church was without instrmental accompaniment which was considered pagan even though the harp, in the Old Testament, is considered to be the "acting soul". In this respect, for a young girl's education, Saint Jerome recommends: "May she be deaf to the organ, to the lyre, to the zither. May she not know why these were invented!" But the teaching of song was promoted. "Let God's ministers bring together not only the young of modest means but others as well. Let there be reading schools for children; let psalms, notes, song, arithmetic and grammar be taught in all monasteries and bishopries". Never did an emperor have such regard for children. "Alas," the schoolboys will cry. These recommendations were to contribute to the unification of an empire and brought about the development of a musical culture throughout Europe. Numerous schools were thus founded. Charlemagne had his, the "Schola Palatina" in Aachen, whose choir he conducted himself.

Tradition Fades (18th Century)


The tradition of boy choirs faded in many countries during the 18th centuries. The disorders and terrible wars associated with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation took their toll on the Cathedrals and churches. The physical decline was matched by the intelectual assault of the Enligtenment. The religious wars and resulting destruction and suffering significantly weakened the European faith in religion. No one identified themselves as atheist, but within elite we begin to see deists who come very close. This was certainly the case among many of the American founding fathers enbued with the intocicating spirit of the Enligtenment, most prominently Jefferson. Along with these religious nd intelrctul changes, musical tastes also changed. A new musical culture began to take hold, especialy in the later years if the century. This manifested itself as a new concert culture which flowered throughout Europe, especiially westen Europe where the boy choir tradition had been strongest. Europeans began organizing symphonic orchestras as well as community choirs including both men and women, but commonly no childen. And much of this new musical energy was expressed entirely outside of the Church which had previously diminated and controlled formal musical expression. The orchestras and adult choirs displaced the churches as civic venues for musical expression and enjoyment. Adult choirs with stronger voices were more suited for the large-scale works choral composers creaed during this area. Some of the most majectic works included Beethoven�s 'Missa Solemnis' and Verdi�s 'Requiem'. Boy singers were written out of these great works and thus did not participate to any extent in the new music of the 18th century. Some boy choristers still sung in chuches, but mostly music that had been eeated earlier and to little popular acclaim. Much more notble was that after more than a millenium. women were readmitted into church choirs. This varied somewhat by country and denomination. This obvious step forward in Christian worship, however, had the impact of diminishing opportunities for boys to sing in churches. The developing indifference to religion and in some cases actual hostility affected church attendance, often significantly. This further reduced opportunities for boy choristers. And even the smller numbrr of the faithful were affected by changing religious musical tastes. Church goers tended to want shorter services and less music. J.S. Bach became the cantor at St. Thomas in Leipzig (1723). The noted liturgical and musical life in that city shown brighter there than perhaps anywhere else in Europe. It declined shrply, however, after Bach. The Thomanerchor became noted for performing Bach's works, in part because no one follwed him that created works of comarable majesty.

The French Revolution (1789)

The French Reolution took a further toll on the churches and and royal families that had been supporting boy choirs. In France, the Church which was weakened by the Enligtenment was descimated by the Revolution. And boy choirs in the cathdrels and churches did not survive. The Republic which was less tolerant of ecclesiastical etiquette than the Germanic countries where choir schools declined only temporarily. There too, however, intellectual and artistic currents weakened the institution, which was then under the responsibility of Lutheran town councils which, little by little, let the boy choir tradition fall into decline. The relative stability of England left that country with many of the few current choirs which can date their foundation back many centuries. Even in England, however, boys' song was also at risk in the industrial and capitalist England of the early 19th Century.

19th Century

Cathedral boy choir sreached a low-point during the 19th century. The French Revolution abolished the cathedral choirs during its anti-clerical phase. Napolon's subsequent rampage through Europe and more than a decade of warfare further irreparable damage to church institutions, both Catholic and Protestant. Many of his battles were fought in Germany. Both the German Reformed (Lutheran) and Roman Catholic churches allowed their boychoirs to dissolve. Only a few of these choirs survive today. The Augsburg Cathedral Choir (Augsburger Domsingknaben) was disolved (1865) and not reinstated for more than a century (1976). The Riga Dom Choir in Latvia was founded (1240). They were not refounded until the Soviet Union had begun to disolve (1990). The decline of boy choirs on the Continent was mached by a similar declibe in Britain, although Britain did not experience the French Revolutuion and was not invaded by Napolelon. Britain was, however strongly affected by the Enligtenment and changing tastes in music. The impact on the country's manificent choral tradition was tragic. Many ministers showed little interest in choral music. One author reports, "With ministers seriously derelict in their duties, it was no wonder that there was little life in the choirs. Only a tiny repertoire of simple music was in use." At mid-century there were some important steps initiated to revive the decimated boy choir tradition. Sebastian Wesley described the sad situation, �No cathedral in this country possesses, at this day, a musical force competent to embody and give effect to the evident intentions of the Church with regard to music.� (1849) [Marr] Wesley lunched a personal crusade, dedicating his life to reviving the boy choir tradition in England. He set out to improve the salaries and working conditions of organists and choirmasters. Maria Hackett launched a five decade effort inspect and reinvigorate the choir schools. One source suggests that the choir schools had not only declined, but were suffering neglect and abuse. She took on bishops and deans about these conditions and their eclesistical responsibilities. She continued with her efforts until needed improvements were made. And it was no one stop effort. She visited the schools again and again to make sure improved standards were not meerly adopted, but energetically maintained. Her efforts were aided by a kind of renewed energy within the Churchas well as an Anglo-Catholic. The impact was to increase public interest in high-quality church choirs. None other than Prince Albert followed the revival of choir church music in England and begn to take an interest in the English cathedral choirs. English emigrants to America helped to revitalize the Episcopal (Anglican) Church. This included the establishment of several boy choirs, a new tradition in America. John Stainer was appointed choirmaster at St. Paul�s in London (1872). He energetically took up his duties. He enlarged and improved the choir and set a new standard for choir schools with the organization and discipline of his school. John Stainer while a gifted choir master, was not as talented as composer that he fancied himself to be. One author writes, "... he is mostly remembered for almost drowning the nascent choral revival in the molasses of the music he and other contemporaries composed." [Marr] Other composers (Charles Stanford and Charles Wood) rote some beautiful pieces for Anglican services. Their compositions as well as their students (Herbert Howells) created a rich library of new cretions to go along with imptoved musical standards at these schools.

historic choirs
Figure 2.--France has one of Europe's longest traditions of boy choirs, but the disorders following the French Revolution closed most choirs. All of the current choirs were founded in the 20th century.

20th Century

There was a concerted effort in the 20th century to revive boy choirs. Pope Pius X made a significant effort to return boys to their There was a concerted effort in the 20th century to revive boy choirs. This is process had begun in the mid-19th century. This process varied from country to country, depending in part on the existing boy choir tradition as well as the dictates of the totalitarian powers which seized control of much of Europe. Two choirs whch proved very important were the Les Petits Chanteurs a la Croix de Bois and the Wiener S�ngerknaben. They helped to introduce boy choir music to the wider public beyond the church going public in a single locality. Both choirs began concert tours first in Europe and then the United states ad other countries. The boy choir tradition was best estabished in England, but these choirs generally focused on church music and singing in chuch services and thus had a more limited impact on the world scene. Many choirs were silenced during World War II. The NAZIs after the Anscluss went after the choir master of the Wiener S�ngerknaben for resisting efforts to Nzify the choir (1938). A French Choir was standed in America after the fall of FRance. French Choristers sang to their coutries POWS, imprioned in the Reih. The result was both the revival of many religious choirs as well as the appearance of secular choirs. Many new choirs were formed in various countries round the world, especially in America. And we even see choirs being fired in Asia and Africa. Most of these new choirs are secular hoirs, but even secular choirs commonly srng the many cassical pieces created for the Church to be sung with boy voices. Some of these choirs played a role in the Cold War. The Schoeneberger Saengerknaben sang from Berlin, divied by the Communist Wall. The Drakensburg Boys� Choir School bravely defied Apartheid. A major development at the end of the century was the appearance of girl choirs.

21st Century

Now that we are in the econd decade of the 21st century we can begin to make some assessments on boy choir developments in the new century. We note some interesting TV progms and movies about boy choirs in both Englnd and France. Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint Marc became much better known as a result of the success of the movie 'Les Choristes'. We note an increasing expansion of girl choirs in the Anglican hurch. Many cathedrals now have both boy and girl choirs. There seem to be a diffeence of opinion about the reative qualities of the boy and girl voice. We are not sure if this deiscussion has reached any consensus on the matter. The girl choirs are very helpful to the cthedrals because more girls are interested in choral singing and the investment in thir training is more cost effective becaus their voices last longer. We note a rare traditional choir in France with mixed genders--the Man�canterie des Petits Chanteurs en Pays Yonnais founded in 2003. The world lost the onderful Polish Nightengles in the same year. While the Choir was able ro survice the Communist era, it apparently fell prey to the increased secularizatin of modern democratic Poland.


Habinek,Thomas. The World of Roman Song (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Hickmann. Musikgeschichte in Bildern Vol. 2 (Leipzig: 1961).

Mould, Alan. The English Chorister: A History (Hambledon Contnuum: London, 2008), 366p.

Naerebout, Frederick G. "Dance in the Roman Empire and its discontents," in Ritual Dynamics and Religious Change in the Roman Empire Proceedings of the Eighth Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Heidelberg, July 5�7, 2007).

Marr, Andrew. "Boys singing togther: A brief history," Boychoir: Past Present nd Future (2005).

Neefe, K.

'Nehemiah." Old Testament.

Plato, "Laws II, 138".

Sandreys. Music in the Social and Religious Life of Antiquity (1974).

Wiedemann. Die Religion der alten �gypter (M�nster: 1880).


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Last updated: 10:34 PM 11/29/2012