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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

John Curwen Describes a Rehearsal of the Boys at St. Pauls, London in 1891

‘The Cathedral bell is striking two, and in the passage boys scud to and fro shouting “Practice!" and racing to their places in the schoolroom. This is a fair-sized room on our right, well lighted from the street through windows of ground glass. The boys sit with their backs to the windows, at three rows of desks, and they look towards a noble fire-place, with their lockers flanking it along the wall on either side. In the corner to their left is a grand pianoforte - a Broadwood whose hollowed keys show long service, and at this Dr. Martin takes his seat. The discipline is perfect. In complete silence the boys, about forty in number, stand waiting for the signal to begin their exercise. The jacket and trowsers [sic] of black shiny broad-cloth, and the white collar turned over the jacket, give a neat and uniform appearance to the choristers.

Now a chord is struck, and they begin. Slow scales, sung to "ah," come first, the range embracing two octaves - from the C on the first leger line below the treble staff to that on the second leger line above it. Each key between C and C' is taken, and the scale sung ascending and descending. The tone emitted by these forty picked voices is tremendously shrill. But, with all its shrillness, there is none of the clatter of the forced “chest " register so common with untrained boys. It is loud singing, but not shouting.

The scales are followed by what one may call "agility exercises," rapid solfeggios, scaling and leaping, sung again to “ah." In the schoolroom the tone during these exercises is overpowering. The high notes make the ears crack and the furniture vibrate. In the Cathedral all this power is needed to make an impression upon the vast space. The boys work with a will. The scene is animated; for most of them beat time as they sing, and the energy of elbow and hand seems to lend vigour to the voice. All these exercises are sung from memory, Dr. Martin putting in a light chordal accompaniment.

This is the daily "tuning up" of the vocal band. The voice exercises last about ten minutes; then the boys sit, and questions are asked, and instruction is given on musical notation and theory. A blackboard with a staff painted on it stands before the class, and one boy after another is called up to write a scale, place a clef, or write and bar a melody upon it. The educational value of this exercise is great. As the chosen boy begins to write, every other boy in the room becomes a critic, and if he trips or fails, a dozen are eager for permission to go up and set him right. The questions asked are replied to by the boy whom Dr. Martin chooses, generally from a score of upraised hands.

The boys' voices are now rested, and "practice," in the strict sense of the word, begins. The boy who is librarian quickly passes round the canticle which stands first on the service list hanging framed upon the wall. Continual singing has made the boys such good readers that they seldom try a new piece more than three times before it is heard at the Cathedral, and they sing to words at sight, never sol-faing. As four canticles and two anthems (for the afternoon and following morning service) have to be learnt or “brushed up " at each daily practice, it will easily be seen that there is little time to spare. The boys sing away with vigour and promptness to Dr. Martin's accompaniment, in spite of the long gaps in the treble which occur when the music is fugal or broken. They sit during rehearsal, except that they rise as they sing the Gloria Patri at the close of each canticle. This daily practice of an hour and a half is all the musical instruction that the boys receive.’


John Curwen, Studies in Worship Music: Second Series (London: J. Curwen & Sons, 1885).

The painting below is William Frederick Yeams’ ‘Choir Boys’ painted in 1891.


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