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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006, 13:15 GMT
Singing from the same hymn sheet?
Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir
Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir was formed in September

By Stephen Tomkins

A cathedral will break with 1,000 years of tradition on Wednesday when its new girls' choir sings its first evensong. Is this long overdue or sacrificing an ancient tradition for political correctness?

Now that the Church of England has opened its doors to women priests, and, on paper, to women bishops, it seems the tide of equal opportunities has caught up with Anglicanism. But there is a less obvious bastion of all-male culture in the Church - the boys' choir.

There is an ancient Christian tradition of boys singing, from providing the high notes in Allegri's Miserere, to the solo first verse of Once in Royal David's City. Is it now time for the girls to get a look in?

A manicured hand rests on choral sheet music
Some don't want girl choristers
In what has been called "a quiet revolution", an increasing number of UK cathedrals are starting girl's choirs. The latest is Ely in Cambridgeshire, where on Wednesday the cathedral girls' choir will sing its first evensong. The famous boys' choir there is 1,000 years old. Its female counterpart was formed in September.

Salisbury Cathedral led the way, starting a girls' choir in 1991, and others have followed since, including Wells, Southwark and Liverpool.

"It's not a break with tradition so much as creating a new one," says Sue Freestone, the head of King's School in Ely, who started the choir. "We're not replacing the boys' choir, we're adding to the richness and variety of musical tradition here."

Purity of tone

The advantage of girls' voices is that they do not break in the same way as boys. The Ely choir deliberately takes girls from the age of 13 - the time when things tend to go a bit wonky for the lads.

"They can sing the same kind of parts as boys, but you get a fuller sound instead of that beautiful purity of a younger child's voice," says Ms Freestone.

Not everyone appreciates that fuller sound however. The choirboys, for a start, seem to have reservations. Alan Thurlow, the director of music at Chichester Cathedral, says he introduced girls into the all-boys parish choir.

We are sacrificing a wonderful ancient tradition for political correctness
Dr Peter Giles
"The end result of that was I lost the boys," he told BBC Radio 3's In Tune.

The same thing has happened in many churches and cathedrals that have tried mixed choirs. Apparently the hormones that have not yet broken the boys' voices have also not made hanging around with girls an attractive option.

This is another reason why Ely have decided to avoid an overlap of boys and girls - not to scare off the boys.

Dr Peter Giles, of the Campaign for the Defence of the Traditional Cathedral Choir (CTCC), takes a different - but equally strong - stance against girl choristers.

"We are sacrificing a wonderful, ancient tradition of men and boys' choirs for political correctness," he says. "In 1963, there were 180,000 boys singing every Sunday in parish churches. Today there's hardly a boy singing."

Same difference

One might think getting girls singing would help make up that loss, but Dr Giles sees that as short-term expediency.

"It's a different kind of choral music, so we are losing the repertoire and the musical tradition is being weakened. Boys and girls are being trained in the same way and in time their choirs get amalgamated because cathedrals don't have the time or the money to run them both."

Ely boys' choir
A more familiar sight, the boys' choir
Which brings us back to the girls scaring off the prepubescent boys.

And yet, surprisingly perhaps, research has cast doubt on listeners' ability to tell boy and girl singers apart. A number of studies have been done in the 15 years since girls' cathedral choirs began, with varying results.

The most thorough and up-to-date is from Professor David M Howard of York University. He recorded 20 snippets of the boys' and girls' choirs of Wells Cathedral performing with adult accompaniment.

"So long as they are singing the same material with the same acoustics and have had the same training, people simply can't tell the difference," he says.

"It does depend upon the material though. If they are singing something that includes the notes from the C above middle C to the F above that, those can give the game away."

Can you tell the difference? Test yourself by listening to the recording on the top right of this page.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

As a former cathedral chorister, I can say from experience that very few people could tell the difference between the male and female sound - we did radio broadcasts for the BBC which did not mention that we were the girls choir, and would receive letters complimenting the excellent singing of the "boys". Another choir also meant that some of the heavy workload was taken off the boys - surely a good thing?
Susan, Cambridge

I sang in a male church choir in Oxford as a child but have been unable to find a similar choir local to me now. For my eight-year-old son, this means he is the only boy on the front row of a mixed (read female sopranos/altos) church choir. A great shame this tradition has gone & there is no chance of a choir football team either.
Richard, Wraysbury, England

I was a member of Bristol Cathedral Girls' Choir for several years and despite its fairly recent beginnings it was an extremely well established and respected cathedral choir. We would occasionally join with the male choir but would usually sing Evensong and Sunday services on our own. Saying that, political correctness is the only reason that girls' choirs are being established is simply wrong. We were certainly made to feel inferior to the boys' and men's choirs but we were nonetheless an important part of the musical life of the cathedral. This should not be underestimated simply because tradition states that it should be the men doing the singing. Bristol Cathedral deserves a mention for its hard work in being one of the first to establish a girls' choir and its efforts to make it as important and special as any other.
Ellie Brown, Aix en Provence, France

Equal opportunity for girls seems a fair ideal, but if this does involve losing the sound of the choirs of boys and mens' voices this does seem a great loss. It is sad indeed if this is to happen at a time when cathedral and college choirs have such a high standard. Separate choirs is a solution but an expensive one. I fear that musically we will be landed with a loss, a great loss. As Malcolm Sergeant said to Bernard Shaw, if I can tell the difference, that shows that there IS a difference; that you cannot tell simply shows just that you cannot tell!
Jonathon Horden, Brighton

I was a female chorister in a variety of churches from 1978 to 1987 and always sang in mixed choirs including taking part in musical events held at cathedrals. This really is not a new concept.
Jane Parry, Shropshire

In our village church we are grateful for anyone who comes to sing in the choir, male and female. Even if we had enough talent to be choosey, we would not be
K Gibbons, Aylesbury, England

Dr Giles' assertion that we are sacrificing tradition for political correctness is weakened by his sentence "Today there's hardly a boy singing." Is this not the real reason we are sacrificing the tradition? If we were to limit the singing to males then many churches would have no choirs. Is this what Dr Giles would prefer? How much further would he be prepared to go to preserve our glorious musical heritage - remove electric power from the organ and revert to bellows boys (or use the girls for this, leaving the boys free to sing in the choir)? Or perhaps limit the music to unaccompanied plainsong? Puritanism, as advocated by Dr Giles, can only result in the loss of the tradition. Moving with the times is surely the only way of preserving it.
David Sheppard, Romford

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Can you spot the difference between these choirs?

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