That has reverberated more than usual this year, ever since a British soprano, Lesley Garrett, wrote an article this month calling on King’s College to include girls in its choir.
“Every Christmas I sit down to watch Carols from Kings, which is broadcast around the world, and every year I wonder where the girls are,” Ms. Garrett said in a telephone interview. “So this year I decided to pose the question and see what would happen. And we got this great outpouring of passionate opinion.”
.. Some of the objections to Ms. Garrett’s call to admit girls were musical: The best boys’ choirs are cherished for a particular sound, sometimes described as pure, tremulous or ethereal. But how much of it is nature — is there a timbre unique to boys just before their voices change? — and how much comes from nurture and training is much debated. Some research, done with listening tests of recordings, has called into question how well listeners can tell boys’ and girls’ voices apart.
David Hill — who was the director of music at Winchester Cathedral in Britain when it introduced a girls’ choir in the late 1990s — cited the special sound of boys in advocating the preservation of the tradition, saying that there should still be room for separate boys’, girls’ and mixed choirs.
That sound is associated with early music; ensembles that embrace historically informed performance practice often use boy singers to evoke the time the music was written, just as they use period instruments. But it has also appealed to more recent composers, including Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein, both of whom wrote music specifically for boys.
“If we don’t have a specific boys’ group, we lose the boys at this age, except for a few,” Mr. Wirth said in an interview in New York, where the choir sang at Carnegie Hall this month. (The school of the Vienna Boys Choir is now coed, but only the boys tour.)
, except for a few,” Mr. Wirth said in an interview in New York, where the choir sang at Carnegie Hall this month. (The school of the Vienna Boys Choir is now coed, but only the boys tour.)