One of the main subjects of debate among those who care about
the quality of the liturgical music in the Church of England
is the state of cathedral choirs. And part of this debate focuses
on the use of boys or girls in those choirs. For a long time
most cathedral choirs consisted of boys and men. Over the last
decade or so several cathedrals have either made their choirs
accessible to girls or founded a girls' section which sings with
the lay clerks in alternation with the boys. The supporters of
the traditional Anglican church music are worried about this
as they fear this could undermine the singing of boys in cathedral
The reasons for the use of girls are twofold. First of all, singing
in a cathedral choir is a great experience which can have a lasting
influence on someone's musical development, or even the development
as a person. Quite a number of professional musicians have found
their membership of a cathedral (or college) choir very stimulating,
even making them choose a career in music. Why shouldn't girls
be given the same opportunity which for a long time has been
limited to boys? Secondly, many cathedrals find it increasingly
difficult to attract boys to replace those whose voices have
broken. In addition the age at which a boy's voice breaks seems
to drop consistently. As a result a boy's voice has less time
fully to develop and the boys have to be replaced sooner.
The Choir of Ripon Cathedral uses both boys and girls. The two
choirs are separate and Ripon Cathedral is one of the places
where the girls and the boys sing with the lay clerks in alternation.
From the perspective of those who fear the downfall of the boy's
voice in cathedral choirs this is perhaps the least unacceptable
solution. The reality shows that boys and girls singing together
doesn't really work. It is not easy for a boy to sing in a choir
anyway. But peer pressure makes it almost inconceivable to imagine
boys singing in a choir with girls. As a result mixed choirs
often turn into girls' choirs as the boys leave and there are
none to replace them. Another aspect is that boys and girls produce
a different kind of sound. It doesn't make sense to try to mix
them nor to force girls to sing like boys.
It seems that there are people who don't believe there is a clear
difference between the singing of boys and girls. They should
listen to this disc, where the girls sing with the men, and then
listen to a disc with an all-male choir. The difference will
become clear immediately.
I am a great admirer of the all-male college and cathedral choirs
and would hate to see the boys being replaced or overshadowed
by girls. I have nothing against choirs of girls and men, but
I just prefer the sound of boys' voices. I'll try to assess this
disc as objectively as possible, though.
This release has two merits. Firstly, this is no doubt a good
choir which sings technically very well. Secondly, on this disc
an attempt has been made to avoid the obvious. Even though many
anthems are rather well-known, in several cases arrangements
are sung which are different from what we mostly get to hear
on discs like this. One example is the hymn which has given this
disc its title. It is based on an aria from Hubert Parry's oratorio Judith
set to words by George Gilbert Stocks. "On this recording
the original musical content of Parry's aria is retained and
arranged for organ and four part choir by H.A. Chambers (...)",
Andrew Bryden writes in the booklet. And Alison Cadden's anthem
'Peace be to this congregation' is sung here in an arrangement
for unaccompanied choir by Harry Grindle.
I have to say that I don't find the arrangements any real improvement.
Yes, they result in a programme which is different from what
is offered in many available recordings, but the more 'traditional'
or 'original' versions are often preferable in regard to quality.
At the same time, some hymns are arrangements of much older musical
material. And if you know the originals the mostly 19th- or 20th-century
arrangements are sometimes difficult to swallow. Ralph Vaughan
Williams' 'The Old Hundredth', which is an arrangement of a tune
from the Genevan Psalter of the 16th century, is one of the better
examples. But 'In thee is gladness' from the Six Hymns by Stanford
is based on an Italian dance song - also used in Germany as the
hymn 'In dir ist Freude' - in Stanford's arrangements nothing
is left of its dance-like character.
The fact that the tempo is rather slow doesn't help. That is
a general problem with this disc: the tempi are sometimes terribly
slow. And as a result many pieces are boring. I found it very
difficult to keep my concentration in Harris's 'O what their
joy'. Joyful it doesn't sound here, also because there is very
little differentiation in the choir's singing. That is also noticeable
in other pieces, like Maurice Bevan's 'There's a widening in
You will have gathered from what I have written so far that I
didn't like this disc very much. I find the sound of the choir
rather uninteresting and dull. The way the various anthems are
sung is one-dimensional. And in addition to a difference in sound
between boys and girls - independent of what one prefers - boys
have a clear advantage over the girls in that, in the lower register,
boys have fewer problems in making themselves audible against
the organ. Here the lower notes of the girls are difficult to
hear because of the noise of the organ. In addition I don't like
the constant vibrato of the lay clerks.
In his programme notes Andrew Bryden writes about "an improvisatory-like
flute solo" in 'The King of Love my Shepherd is', but I
haven't heard a flute. And in Vaughan Williams' 'The Old Hundredth'
there are no trumpets, although the programme notes talk about "a
trumpet descant". The tracklist fails to give any dates
for composers' or arrangers' birth or death which is a serious
omission. I have tried to add these dates but couldn't find them
It is very unlikely that those who are sceptical about girls
singing in cathedral choirs will change their mind while listening
to this disc. It will rather confirm them in their view that
this is not the way to solve the problems regarding the singing
of boys in the liturgy of the Church of England.
Johan van Veen