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English Choral Tone


Guest Roffensis

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Guest Roffensis

This topic is actually related to organ tone in England, as both go hand in hand. We often speak of the typical English sound, and cite Elgar, Howells, Stanford etc as the composers who wrote for the English church, and who have enriched our choral and organ heritage of music. So how are they related? An example, the classic Christchurch, oxford scenario, hardly the ideal English vehicle, interesting as it is, as a sound. But what of our choirs? how do our English choirs reflect today what WAS done, anymore than the organ at Christchurch? In other words, in England, do we have a lot of continental organs or not? well no, we don't. Do we have a lot of "continental" tone choirs? well, yes we do. It all began with George Malcolm, who at Westminster Cathedral created a tone that shocked as many as it converted. Gone was the typical English tone, with a clear ringing head voice, subtle use of vibrato lending a passion and sincerity to the singing, to be replaced by a hard, forced chest tone, that is brittle and actually very thin. Like Oxford's organ, it was A sound, but it broke many trusted and established rules on choral training. It also provided the catalyst for a sound that is still with us today in many cathedrals, albeit in a reduced, but still recognisable form. Listen to recordings of Kings under Willcocks, and listen to them now, and the differences are startling. Kings made it name as THE finest choir in the world under Willcocks with THAT SOUND!!!, and he trained in the traditional method, as did Vann, McKie, and a whole host of others. George Thalben Ball was another great, and we desperately need another George, because, slowly the traditional boy tone is being lost. Purposely, as "old hat", "effected", "falsetto" "hooting"and many other insulting and derogatory terms. So is "hard" "forced""brittle" srceeching" "thin" "uncultivated" "childish" the option? When is the last time you heard a celebrated boy soprano? these days they are called "trebles", and none stand out, like in the past they did. The last to really use the true tone was Aled Jones, and have you ever heard a boy treble make his name as a soloist singing in a forced head tone? it is not really pleasant to listen to at all. You certainly cannot sing Stanford in the continental style, but many try. It sounds wrong. it's Christchurch organ, in another guise. So what went wrong? why have we done away so much with our true English vocabulary, something to treasure, and our true English tone? we have narrowed the gap between girls and boys voices, and girls tend to be more reedy, and a forced boy tone can come very close to that sound. Of course you can train a boy to sing like a girl, and a lot of choirmasters actively encourage that sound, but you cannot get a girl to quite imitate the boy tone of an Ernest Lough, it isn't going to happen. There is a difference, or was. Correct diction, subtle vibrato, head voice that IS head, are all part of a tradition that is all but eroded away, right before our ears. We cry about this and that organ being "classicalled" or "baroqued" but the sound that goes with the English organ, which complements it, has been allowed to go. The Americans think we are crazy. I personally train my choir to sing the old way, which I still consider the best. All the boys love it, and so do the people who hear them. It takes time and effort, and a intuitive ear of all involved to realise that sound, and yes it is hard work, but when choristers get it, when it "clicks" it sounds magnificent. That sound can reduce a grown man to a pulp of tears. It has a meaning, distinction, dignity, excellence, clarity, beauty, passion, that is unrivalled. It has a place, and it is OURS. Treasure it as much as the organs at St Pauls, York ,Salisbury etc. Many of my boys in my choir are about 8 years old, but they sound about 13! Many cathedral choirs boys are about 13 and sound about 6?! Something is clearly amiss, and we need to encourage and regain the truly great English sound, and hark back to Thalben Ball, Vann, Willcocks and that true order of great choirmasters who left us so much, that sadly today has all but been so readily destroyed, and replaced with a Emperor's Coat.

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This topic is actually related to organ tone in England, as both go hand in hand. We often speak of the typical English sound, and cite Elgar, Howells, Stanford etc as the composers who wrote for the English church, and who have enriched our choral and organ heritage of music. So how are they related? ...

 

(snip)

================

 

 

I'm not an expert or even a great choral-music enthusiast, but it seems to me that this topic is not unrelated to continental organ-tone v. English organ-tone.......sort of larynx and languid.

 

There is nothing quite like statements about this or that.

 

What constitutes "continental tone" I wonder?

 

Perhaps we are referring to the Vienna Boy's Choir....the Rieger of the choral world?

 

Could it be "Boni Pueri" in the Czech Republic....the Rieger-Kloss of the choral world?

 

Could it be St.John's College, Cambridge under George Guest; the chosen preference of Benjamin Britten?

 

Of one thing we may be sure, the thinner head-tones are actually a whole lot clearer in a great building than the rounder sounds of "traditional" Anglican choral-singing.

 

Frankly, with most of the English tradition now dead in the water outside the cathedrals, it possibly makes sense to book tickets to Latvia if one wants to hear great choral singing.

 

Ah! Those damned foreigners! They'll be winning medals at the Olympics soon.

 

MM

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Well,

 

I fear we shall need more than a truck in order to preserve

this british church music (I mean: the organs, the music and

the choirs) that seems to be at a bargain now. We need help

from the Royal Navy.

Had I imagined that thirty years ago, when as a boy I discovered

the organ while trying to learn a little of the english language

in Britain!

 

Best wishes,

Pierre

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Evolution. The organ has evolved from the blockwerk of hundreds of years ago to the instrument it is now, ebbing and flowing between the tastes and perceptions of the ages. Choral tone also has much to do with fashion. The most commercially successful choirs seem to be those which adopt a "continental" sound, for example New College Oxford, who seem to me to be the most musically alert and spontaneous group around at the moment. Howells, Stanford et al were themselves followers of fashion, not bastions of musical and moral stewardship; they had to give 'em what they wanted or they wouldn't have made a living. This is the generation that played Bach on tubas. Now, we have a generation of musicians very well versed in historical practices and able to inform current performances. New College will sing Stanford quite differently from Mozart and quite differently from Messiaen. Preservation seems to me to fall into a dangerous mothball and formaldahyde area of language, when surely stewardship would be a better word - using the knowledge and experience we have (much of which wasn't around 60 years ago) to inform spontaeneous, lively and appropriate musical performances? In other words, preservation in terms of breathing new life into old wood rather than harking back to a golden age which, to those whose names we remember, was fraught with the same arguments we worry over now.

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Guest Roffensis

The problem is partly to do with diction which today is very poor. It is compounded by the men of a choir who sing one way, with a battery of "continental tone" boys screeching at the top. If all choirs sang "traditional" the world would be a poorer place, and there should be a mixture of styles accross the board. But a revolution started in choral tone, and others believe it is actually worth copying, to a degree, and to the exclusion of all else. The contintal style should exist, but not to the domination of proven other styles. Voices can be damaged by such singing, as it is not a natural sound or a natural production. Its little more than a football crowd singing treble. It also causes voices to break earlier, as proven by choristers in the past lasting well into teens. Buildings have to be taken into consideration, a building with a "thin" acoustic will need a thicker tone. You still cannot achieve a thick tone by forcing the head voice up. It's not simply of case of harking back to a Golden Age, but the fact remains it was a golden age, and an age that has been badly eroded with no real justification. If all choirs were the same it would be as stagnant as organs being all by the same builder, and that is wrong. But by the same token the sound that is called "Traditional Anglican" should be fiercely defended in some quarters, which nowadays it isn't. It may be that Choirmasters do not have the same commitment, devotion or time to actually go over every single vowel and syllable, and one otes just how many Choirmasters do move around. These days the emphasis is on organ playingand conducting, but at the expense of singing. What exactly continental tone is, is in any case a red herring. We had a choral tradition that was second to none, and I do not honestly believe we have a single George Thalben Ball among us, but rather a lot of blind followers of a not very beautiful fashion. Of course it will swing back, things always do, and until that time, it is really up to Parish Choirmasters to set a trend, that hopefully will spread. It's not a case od preserving history for histories sake, it is about keeping alive a tradition that was faultless and incredibly fine to hear, which had a real emotion to it, and not just all singing forced, reedy unemotive notes on a stave, let alone the words!

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I wonder how many choirmasters out in the "ordinary" parishes have ever had a singing lesson in their life? Part of the problem is that many choirs are run by people who have absolutely no idea how to sing themselves.

 

I have assisted on several RSCM courses in the Bristol and Gloucester dioceses in the last few years and never cease to be shocked at the extremely limited vocal range of the majority of the youngsters that come along. Many struggle to sing above an E. I often try, tactfully, to ask whether they do any scales or other vocal exercises in their own churches (its difficult, one doesn't want to be seen to be criticising their own choir directors) and very few choirs seem to give any time to vocal training at all - they just learn the music.

 

In the cathedrals a different issue applies. Cathedral appointments generally work on closed shop basis - this makes it very difficult to bring in new ideas. Many cathedrals also give individual singing lessons to the boys these days, often bringing in teachers from beyond the organ loft to carry this out. This too may be leading to a different sound.

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Well,

 

I fear we shall need more than a truck in order to preserve

this british church music (I mean: the organs, the music and

the choirs) that seems to be at a bargain now. We need help

from the Royal Navy.

 

==================

 

 

I think you are being a little negative Pierre. I've done a bit of a logistics exercise on this, and I have worked out that using a double-deck 40ft trailer, with the smaller boys stacked horizontally inside Worcetser diaphone resonators at the top, and the remainder of the choir-members stood vertically, shoulder to shoulder below, one truck could move 10 cathedral choirs under better conditions than that experienced by animals in transit.

 

Obviously, the "grazing" breaks would incur additional expenses en route, but we could negotiate.

 

Four journeys, and we'd have the lot in Belgium within 48 hours.....£1,000 ballpark, plus additional fries and sardines in tomato sauce.

 

MM

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The contintal style should exist, but not to the domination of proven other styles. Voices can be damaged by such singing, as it is not a natural sound or a natural production. Its little more than a football crowd singing treble. It also causes voices to break earlier, as proven by choristers in the past lasting well into teens.

 

Voices can be damaged by any type of forced singing. Boys' voices are breaking earlier, I suspect, because of such things as a protein-rich diet - it is not possible to affect the age at which any given boy's voice will break simply by singing in a particular way.

 

It depends on what is meant by 'continental' tone. Personally, I would rather hear choristers sing with a fresh, un-plummy tone. Take, for example, St. John's. Cambridge - but under Christopher Robinson. To my ears, this is as near perfection we are likely to get this side of the Jordan (or the Styx, for those who like cinema organs...)

 

If any of our choristers began to sing as if they had a bowl of fruit in their mouths, I would probably suggest that they take up a career in show-business - or perhaps abseiling.

 

However, each to his own. Whilst there are naturally standards and types of vocal quality to which to aspire, in a sense there is no such thing as the perfect tone, or the perfect boy's (or girl's) voice - it is purely a subjective matter.

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