Happy holiday season! If you celebrate Christmas, you may have come across or heard the King’s College Cambridge broadcast of Once in Royal David’s City. This famous solo is sung by a boy treble every year and for many choral enthusiasts in England, it represents Christmas. While this solo is sung for one day of the year, King’s college choir sings services almost every day of the week and fills its' chapel with a constant stream of choral music. Historically, choral foundations provided evensong six days of the week with two or three services on Sundays.
King’s is just one of a few choirs around the UK which still use boy trebles to sing the soprano (highest) part. These choirs are called choral foundations and many of them are situated in Oxford and Cambridge. The first Oxbridge chapel to be built was between 1157 and 1245 for Jesus College, Cambridge. However, between the 14th and 16th centuries, seven colleges in Oxford provided for music in their chapels: Queens 1341, New college 1379, All Souls 1438, Magdalen 1458, Corpus Christi 1517, Christ Church 1546, and St John’s 1555. These foundational choirs allowed for three chaplains, four lay clerks (described as “singing men”) and six boy choristers.
All of these colleges, and now many more, have choirs to this day, but only three of them retain the boy chorister tradition, New College, Christ Church Cathedral, and Magdalen College. In Cambridge, there are two of these choral foundations using boy trebles, King’s College and St. John’s College. Most of these choirs now have 16 -20 boys and 12 -14 adults, divided up between paid “lay clerks” and undergraduate choral scholars.
The boys sing the top line as sopranos while the adults cover the alto, tenor and bass parts. This means there are 16-20 sopranos, and 3-4 adults on the rest of the three parts. The men who sing alto are called countertenors. They sing in the alto range, using falsetto on the higher notes, but often can also sometimes sing lower than many of the lowest basses.
The disparity in numbers reflects the amount of sound the singers are able to produce. The amount of sound boys produce is minimal compared to the fully developed and trained voices of adults.
In the 1970s, Cambridge began incorporating female sopranos into their choirs. Currently, chapel choirs are mostly mixed choirs with female sopranos, female and male altos, and male tenors and basses. Until very recently, the choral foundations retained a “no women allowed” policy. Now, however, it is increasingly common for female altos to secure positions as lay clerks or choral scholars in the choral foundations.
Seeing how many of these choirs have existed for over 500 years, the tradition of choral singing that continues in Oxford and Cambridge is incredibly strong. In future posts I will elaborate on the chapels that these choirs are associated with, the repertoire they sing, and the vocal techniques they use. I hope you enjoyed this little introduction to Oxbridge choirs!