As they have done for the past nine centuries, the people of St. Albans will gather beneath the soaring arches of their ancient cathedral on Christmas morning to hear the sweet soprano voices of the choir celebrating the nativity: "Ding-dong merrily on high! In heav'n the bells are ringing . . . "
But here at St. Albans, and at several of Britain's other great cathedrals, the holiday anthems being heard this season reflect a sharp--and in some quarters, controversial--break with liturgical tradition. The young voices in the choir stalls will come from girls. After centuries of all-male choirs, St. Albans has created a new female ensemble to share the choral duties of the cathedral with the familiar boy choir.
About a third of the 64 Anglican cathedrals in Britain have organized girl choirs in the past few years, with membership open to singers from about 8 to 15 years of age. Like any revolution, the change has forceful advocates and angry opponents.
The reasons behind the trend are partly political and partly physiological. "The girl choir is all part of this equal-opportunity thing," said John Ewington, general secretary of the Guild of Church Musicians. "It's the same ethos, you see, that has prompted the Church of England to bring in female vicars. The feeling is that girls should have the same chance as boys to know the satisfaction of making beautiful music."
But the girls are also performing a necessary service for the cathedrals--filling empty chairs in the choir. "If you're the music master at St. Whatever Cathedral, you can't really depend on the boys so much anymore," Ewington says. "The chaps mature so much faster these days, you know. When I was in the choir at St. Paul's 50 years ago, a boy would keep that soprano tone until 16 or 17. Now, their voices break at 12 or 13, and suddenly you've lost one of your leaders."
To join the choir at one of Britain's famous cathedrals used to be the great dream of British boys blessed with a pure voice and a sense of music. In addition to the joy of singing, the young choristers could look forward to national and world tours, some compensation--a few hundred dollars per year--and full scholarships to costly schools, such as Eton and Rugby.
Nowadays, though, British boys seem to prefer Play Station to Palestrina. Even the most prestigious cathedrals and choir schools have trouble recruiting 7-year-old boys to undertake the long process of training and performance. The national Choir Schools' Association says applications have dropped by 30 percent over the past 10 years, largely because of competition from computer games.
Girls, in contrast, seem to be full of enthusiasm. "I was really jealous of Christopher and Alastair--my brothers," said Katharine Brayne, a 12-year-old in the St. Albans' girl choir. "They were both choristers, and I wanted to sing, too. So this is really great, even though it's tiring, because we have to get up an hour early for rehearsal before school."
"Girls are far more willing these days to take part in something like this," said Andrew Parnell, assistant master of music at St. Albans and director of the girl choir. "They work very hard, and, unlike the boys, you know they are going to be able to sing the soprano parts until they're 15 or older."
The upper register of vocal music is known as soprano in girls and treble in boys, but the vocal line is the same. Thus the girl choirs can use the same repertoire that the boys have sung for centuries.
There is considerable debate about whether there is any difference in sound between a girl and a boy choir. Some choral experts say the difference is clear. Parnell, of St. Albans, says there is none. At the Association of Church Organists' national meeting in Edinburgh last summer, a girl choir and a boy choir sang behind a curtain, and even the organists could not tell which was which.
But it is this very overlap, the fact that girls can step directly into the traditional male parts, that worries a conservative faction of church musicians here. Members of a national organization called the Campaign for the Defence of the Traditional Cathedral Choir are fighting hard to slow the growth of girl choirs. They don't want to block opportunities for girls, the members say, but they fear that girl choirs will quickly take over at all cathedral services.
"Is it not probable that the boys will begin to feel that it is not 'macho' to sing with girls?" argued John Saunders, former choirmaster at Gloucester Cathedral and head of the Traditional Choir campaign. "Should they begin to opt out and we lose the tradition of the boy chorister, from where will the expert altos, tenors and basses receive their initial training?"
"Moves to introduce girls pose an incalculable threat to the tradition," the campaign's manifesto asserts. "What has taken hundreds of years to perfect is in danger of disappearing within a generation. . . . On that day, we shall have achieved the equality we so desperately sought, for we shall be at one in mourning the loss of this pearl of great price."
"It's certainly true that the boy choir is one of the jewels of British worship," said Parnell, taking a break from a lively rehearsal for the St. Albans Christmas service. "But when you hear our girl choir, you know that that sound, too, is a thing of great beauty. What we have to do now is preserve the wonderful opportunity of worship through song for both genders."