Tuesday, 27 December 2011

In praise of girls and women

Although the title of this post could be general, I had something specific in mind - cathedral choirs. This time of year we get more than usual exposure to cathedral choirs and their college equivalents, and they look as if they're preserved in aspic. But recently there has been a small revolution which I heartily welcome.

Traditionally such choirs have been all male, with boys taking the top treble part. There are choirs with women at a good few of the cathedrals, but they tend to be a separate, 'second league' choir. Some believe that boys and men provide the best sound there is. There's even an organization dedicated to preserving the traditional cathedral choir. But I think it's a load of tosh, which is why I very much welcome the fact we're seeing the occasional female singer joining first rank choirs.

What the anti-women brigade argue is that women's voices don't have the same clear purity as a boy's. And actually, on the whole this is true. In part this is because most good female singers will have been trained by a wannabe opera singer and will have had vibrato introduced, which is all wrong for a cathedral choir (take note, Oxford). And in part this is because women's voices do break, just less obviously than men's - and women don't have the same sound as boys (or girls).

However I think there are two ways we can and should see mixed choirs flourishing. One is that the boys should be joined by girls, with the same age limits. I defy anyone to do a blind test between well-trained boys and girls of the same age and tell which is which, as long as there is an age cutoff. Younger girls also have that clear purity. And the other aspect is that I think we are long overdue replacing male altos with women.

Cathedral choirs traditionally use male altos. I'm not biassed against them - I was one for a while. But their tone is very harsh. They work well in medieval music, but for practically everything else a female alto (provided she doesn't have too much vibrato) has a much better, blending tone. So I not only think we should allow women to sing alto, but we ought over time to replace all male altos. Sorry guys.

With these changes cathedral music would be significantly better. Then all we have to do is work on the FA/FIFA to allow football teams to be mixed...

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