The decision by St Paul’s Cathedral to appoint its first fulltime female chorister, Carris Jones, has led a leading counter-tenor and conductor, Grayston Burgess, to comment, “This ‘politically correct’ decision appears to have been taken without a thought for the musical aspect or its consequence —the next logical step is to appoint another female alto to ‘balance’ the two sides of the choir”. (The Daily Telegraph).
The indignation in this I find hard to understand. As a clarinettist my expertise admittedly is in passing an airstream through a wooden tube rather than across vocal cords but the amount of energy that is extended to keep tradition for its own sake continues to confound me.
I can understand from certain points of view that in order to be faithful to the sound of the forces for which the music was originally written, in this case, an all-male choir may be needed but surely that is unnecessarily restricting and shouldn’t be imposed unilaterally. Are all cathedrals across the country to be exclusive clubs?
Why should generations of excellent female singers be prevented from contributing to a musical choral tradition and denied the benefit of the excellent musical education which often comes as part of the package?
There is much discussion about whether boys voices do really sound different, given the distortions of many acoustics but does it actually matter so very much, whatever your point of view? What is needed is strong and growing choirs able to tackle contemporary works by living composers as well as sustaining the traditional repertoire.
There is nothing new in the classical tradition of women singing men’s songs and it is even questionable whether some of the staples of cathedral music such as Tallis and Byrd were sung by all male choirs at all.
From a personal point of view, I believe that there is a purity of sound from the all-male choir that can be used effectively for performances of relevant music just as early instruments are also used to good effect for certain music. However, with a vibrant contemporary 21st century music scene I firmly believe we should be able to take advantage of using the combined voices of male and female as well. (I don’t think the BBC Singers or Harry Christopher’s 16 would be quite the same without the ladies!)
The church is having to look at all aspects of its traditions in the context of modern life, particularly as the 21st century progresses. Music is an area where the church is always exploring and trying to move forward, so it would seem to make complete sense to avail itself of the strength and vitality that the quality of voice of both male and female provides.