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  • Writer's picturePatrick Allies

Woman who wishes she had been a girl chorister opposes female membership of cathedral choirs

On reading Lucy Denyer's piece in today's Daily Telegraph I nearly spilt my coffee down my International Women's Day t-shirt.

Denyer's flawed argument opposing female membership of cathedral choirs (despite admitting her disappointment at not being allowed to be a cathedral chorister herself) opens with some Christmas card clichés before appearing to suggest that St Paul's Cathedral have appointed a women to sing the treble line (they haven't: Carris Jones has been appointed to the alto section of the choir).

It seems the only musician Denyer could find willing to speak against Jones' appointment is Grayston Burgess, an 84-year-old conductor and countertenor. I am not familiar with Burgess' musical work, but it is deeply unfortunate that Denyer failed to make reference to his role within the Campaign for Traditional Cathedral Choir (an organisation increasingly considered to be on the fringes of discourse on this topic, due to their die-hard opposition both to girls or women singing in cathedral choirs and to 'political correctness' in general).

On one technical point, Denyer betrays her profound lack of knowledge (Burgess, a professional, surely can't have supplied this line in good conscience):

"...when it comes down to it, Mr Burgess is right. As any choral singer knows, the perfect choir is not about individual voices, but about how it works as a whole. Blend and balance are key."

There is simply nothing to suggest that women's and men's voices cannot achieve a superb blend. I would suggest Lucy Denyer listened to some recordings by British choral groups (The Sixteen or the Monteverdi Choir perhaps) where male countertenors and female mezzo-sopranos sing the same part, with notable success.

If Denyer is inferring that Carris Jones will be less able to blend with the trebles of St Paul's Cathedral than a countertenor singers, she is again deeply mistaken. Professional singers of Jones' ability, both male and female, do not find that in the least bit challenging. I would refer Denyer also to the Jones' work as a member of Stile Antico, which has received praise in the same newspaper for its 'supreme blend of voices'.

Denyer closes with a misty-eyed appeal to nostalgia:

"...treble voices have a particular sound, a tone, that is completely unlike a female singer singing the same notes. It is a glorious sound, completely unique and utterly wonderful, made all the more so by the fact that it can only last a certain number of years before the voice breaks and changes forever."

It is of course a myth that listeners can make a distinction between the sound made by boy and girl choristers, as demonstrated by the work of David Howard:

One final note - it was a European Court of Justice decision in 1991 that opened the door to female members of British cathedral choirs. May it never be closed.

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