Music lessons

The right note: Why it’s time for male voice choirs to star welcoming women

Derbyshire police's male-voice choir is out of tune with the modern world in refusing to admit women.

Derbyshire Constabulary Male Choir has reportedly cut all ties with its associated police force after being asked to admit women or else – a request they refused. This story brings into focus another member of that group of particularly British institutions that only tend to crop up when someone is predicting their imminent demise.

Warnings of approaching extinction are regularly heard in relation to the traditional English pub, the rural church – and perhaps even the cycling maid heading to the latter to attend communion. The male voice choir is apparently facing a similar decline – although we tend to hear about their peril less frequently than that of the pubs to which the singers often repair after performances.

So, where did the male voice choir come from? The answer lies in the appearance, almost overnight, of towns and villages connected to the new industries of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the north of England, the mills were at the centre of the industrial revolution. In South Wales, the booming demand for coal meant that towns appeared around the pits. Streets and streets of poor-quality housing were thrown up with incredible speed. At the end of a hard day’s work in the ironworks or the pit, men would come home to their two-room cottages to find that there was literally no space for them to engage in any sort of indoor entertainment until their children were in bed.

Initially, the recreational activity of choice was drinking, with an enormous number of pubs springing up in the towns to cater for the hordes of thirsty workers. The social consequences were inevitable. To counter this, non-conformist chapels in the industrial centres preached temperance and self-improvement – and the demon drink was eventually pushed aside in favour of community music-making in the form of choirs and brass bands. The male voice choir was born.

But that was another world. What’s stopping male voice choirs from welcoming women to their ranks now? After all, to claim some sort of cultural exemption would be to place them in the sort of uncomfortable position recently occupied by private members’ clubs, golf courses and – closer to our topic – the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, none of whom convinced with their defence of: “It’s always been this way.”

A man’s world

The history of music is, like so many things, a history dominated by men. The small number of women operating with great success as composers, conductors and organists (to name three disproportionately male-dominated roles) leads us to suspect that inertia, rather than any genuine reason, is behind the disparity.

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We could examine the concert repertoire of any number of choirs good enough to make them available online – and if we do so we find arrangements of well-known songs from all sorts of genres, but very few if any originally composed for a choir consisting entirely of tenors and basses. So that argument doesn’t work.

What about the unique sound of the massed male voices? Surely that is something worth protecting. It’s certainly a sound that moves many listeners – and the thick texture of four or more low-voice parts is well worth listening to. Leaving aside the fact that many of these choirs are finding recruitment difficult (even after the boost of Only Men Aloud winning the BBC’s Last Choir Standing competition in 2008), there is a precedent for female voices taking over traditionally male repertoire and creating a whole new sound.

Girls aloud

The American vocal group Anonymous 4 is known for performing medieval sacred music – which was written for male-only performance – using female voices. The whole texture jumps up an octave, and the effect is most certainly different.

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Here, the physics of sound comes into play. If frequency doubles with every octave we move up in pitch, harmonics formed by the interplay of the voices will therefore be at a higher frequency too – so the harmonies will sound clearer to the listener. It’s all a matter of taste, of course: one person’s warm male-voice texture will be another’s muddy mess, but we can’t ignore the opportunities that open up from exploring a different pitch range.

If choral music is not your thing then, compare and contrast – for a similar level of controversy – the Elgar Cello Concerto with the version for viola created by Lionel Tertis. Those crying sacrilege tend not to realise that Elgar himself not only approved of the work, but even conducted several performances of it. The solo part is mainly an octave higher than the original, and the result is that, as the saying goes, you win some, you lose some.

Sound reasoning

To return to the question of male voice choirs, can we say that the TTBB (four-male) choir is a sound that embodies some of Britain’s most important heritage? Absolutely. Is the repertoire sacred to that combination of voices? Certainly not. Can we gain something by allowing female singers to bring a different texture to the table? Given declining participation (and increasing average age), it would seem to me a very good idea indeed.

Given that most amateur mixed choirs have real issues finding enough male singers to balance out the number of sopranos and altos, the protestation that Derbyshire Constabulary Male Choir could not find enough female singers seems rather unlikely.

Male-only pieces, female-only pieces and the full range of the SATB choir co-existing in a concert programme? As far as I’m concerned, variety is the spice of life and, as far as Derbyshire Constabulary Male Voice Choir is concerned, if you’ll pardon the expression, it’s a fair cop.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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