There are several different types of boy choirs that have existed in England. Some have since disappeared and others continue to operate, although they are no longer an exclusively boy domaine. The first boy choirs in England were presumably monastery choirs. Here early schools were founded to train novices and their voices added to religious ceremonies. These choirs disappeared, however, when King Henry VIII closed the monasteries in the 16th century. There were also cathedral choirs which disappeared during the Reformation and Civil War, but were revived in the 18th century. University choirs were similar to the cathedral choirs as the Church played a key role in the foundation and operation of medieval universities. We know less about the small number of royal choirs. There were also royal choirs. Some what forgotten today is the strong tradition of parish church boy choirs.
There are several different types of boy choirs that have existed in England. Some have since disappeared and others continue to operate, although they are no longer an exclusively boy domaine. The first boy choirs in England were presumably monastery choirs. Here early schools were founded to train novices and their voices added to religious ceremonies. These schools were referred to as song schools. These choirs disappeared, however, when King Henry VIII closed the monasteries in the 16th century.
There were also cathedral choirs. Boy choirs were an important part of medieval religious services. I do not have details at this time, but I believe that most if not all the important cathedrals had boy choirs. I'm not sure how this compared with practices on the continent. These boy choirs disappeared during the Reformation and Civil War. I'm not entirely sure about the process, but believe that they were mostly if not all gone by the time of Cromwell's Commonwealth. Here we would be interested in any historical insights readers might have. The boy choir tradition was revived in the 19th century. I recall reading that Prince Albert made a special point of attending sevices in which one of these revived boy choirs sung. Quite a number of the cathedrals established residential boys choirs with very rigorous training programs. A number of preparatory schools grew out of these cathedral choir schools. These cathedral choirs are today the best known English boy choirs. There has been a revival of boy choirs in Europe, but there the choirs are less associated with the cathedrals and residential choirs less common.
University choirs were similar to the cathedral choirs as the Church played a key role in the foundation and operation of medieval universities. Several university choirs still opperate at both Cambridge and Oxford. They maintain the samr high standards as the cathedral choirs.
We know less about the small number of royal choirs. There were also royal chapel choirs. This was perhaps a tradition imported from the Continent. We are not sure when the first royal chapel choirs appeared, but we note some by the 15th century. The Vienna Choir Boys, for example, were founded as a royl chspel choir. The choir at Windsor and Westminster Abbey are both renowned throughout Britain.
Somewhat forgotten today is the strong tradition of parish church boy choirs. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, together with a fall in church attendance there has been a similar decline in candidates presenting themselves for audition. For necessity, therefore, and for social and political reasons), girls choirs are being set up everywhere, which is causing further decline as boys see choral singing as a female activity. Whereas the cathedrals, in the main, are just about keeping the tradition of boys choirs going, most of the parish churches are losing them very rapidly indeed. Before the Second World War it was normal to have a robed boys choir in many parish churches, and somehow people still cling to the idea that churches have choirboys. The fact is, however, that they are very rare indeed compared with the past. A British reader writes, "My county, Norfolk, is unique in its very high concentration of mediaeval churches, over 690 of them, but only the cathedral
in Norwich, and two parish churches, boast a traditional boys robed choir. In the diocese of Bath and Wells, apart from Wells Cathedral and Bath Abbey, there are none. I am afraid it has pretty well bled to death. As recently as the 1970s the City of Norwich, which has itself over 30 mediaeval parish churches within its "walls", had a very fine choir in St Peter Mancroft. This rivalled the choir in the cathedral itself. They now have a small adult choir but there remains a handful of boys who at Christmas time dress up in Tudor costumes. If they still actually sing on these occasions it will probably be a much reduced spectacle."
We note a few schools in modern Britain that were choir schools. We do not know very much about them. There seem to have several before World War II. Some were even called song schools. Some of these were operated primarily as choir schools abnd the boys did their regular schooling at a nearby school. Others were preparatory schools with a very strong choral tradition. The last one we are familiar with closed in the 1980s. It becomes a little complicated as to just what is a choir school. There are many schools today which refer to themselves as choir schools. The Choir Schools Association website will presumably provide an updated account. Their annual annual magazine in 2004 had reports from the following members of the Association: Ampleforth College, Bristol Cathedral School, Cambridge King's College School and St John's College School, Canterbury St
Edmund's School, Cardiff St John's College, Chelmsford Cathedral School, Chichester Prebendal School, Durham Chorister School, Edinburgh St Mary's Music School, Ely King's Junior School, Exeter Cathedral School, Gloucester The King's School, Grimsby St James' School, Guildford Lanesborough School, Hereford Cathedral Junior School, Lichfield Cathedral School, Lincoln Minster School, Liverpool St Edward's College and its Junior School, Llandaff Cathedral School, London St Pauls Cathedral School and Westminster Abbey School and Westminster Cathedral Choir School, Manchester Chetham's School of Music, Norwich School, Oxford Christ Church Cathedral School and Magdalen College School and New College School, Peterborough King's School, Portsmouth Grammar School, Reigate Grammar School incorporating St Mary's Preparatory School, Ripon Cathedral Choir School, Rochester King's Preparatory School, Salisbury Cathedral School, Southwell Minster School, Tewkesbury Abbey School, Truro Polwhele House Preparatory School, Wakefield Queen Elizabeth Grammar Junior School, Warwick School, Wells Cathedral School, Winchester Pilgrims' School - for Cathedral Choristers and College Quiristers, Windsor St George's School, Worcester King's School, York Minster School. The schools and over 1,000 choristers who are taught in them would certainly feel, very strongly, that they are "choir schools". Only one of these, Westminster Abbey Choir School, has only choristers in it. All others, for financial and social reasons, take non-singing pupils as well. The term song-school today usually refers to a room, often in the cathedral or its precincts where the choir rehearses and the boys are taught their craft.
Quite a number of schools have choirs. Some do a very nice job with this, depending on the talents an interests of the individual working with the choir. This is a school activity, but one iof many. The choir training and the time devoted to it is much more limited than is the case at the cathedral, university, and royal chapel choirs.
There were also some commercial boy choirs. We do not have a great deal of information on these choirs.
A well know choir was "The Twenty Eton Boys" who of course had nothing to do with Eton School. They were organized by Tom Moss. One of the most important singers to come from this choir was Norman Vaughan.
It was "The Twenty Eton Boy" that may have given Arturo Steffani the idea of forming a boy choir. His choir, Steffani's 21 Silver Songsters becme well known in Britain before World War II. They were organized and directed by Arturo Steffani. They were based in Britain (I think Wales), but apparently performed throughout Briyain as well as the Continent. They toured music halls across the country, often supporting leading variety artistes. The Choir was renowned for its complex vocal and visual arrangements of popular songs. The boys mostly went into other trades afer performing with the choir. The boys
were about 12-16 years old. There were various specialties besides singers, including clog dancers. They made some records. One pstcard shows the Choir in 1936 while they were filming 'Dodging The Dole' for the Mancunian Film Company.
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