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  • Writer's picturePatrick Allies

Don't let the dinosaurs preach about extinction

Canterbury Cathedral

I read this article in the Spectator last night and felt that I wanted to write a response. Here it is:

Let me say this at the outset: I get it. I understand the power of cathedral choirs, the skilled voices of children and adults combining in beautiful acts of worship that are simultaneously everyday and extraordinary. As a boy I was lucky enough to be a chorister in a choir similar to those mentioned by Ysenda Maxtone Graham in this week's Spectator. I have a vested interest. I want these choirs not just to continue, but to thrive. This latest article might be well meaning in its desire to preserve this glorious tradition, but its arguments are deeply flawed.

The main assertion of Maxtone Graham's piece is that cathedrals and collegiate churches should not maintain a top line of girls alongside their top line of boys (the top line being the group of singers that sings the soprano part in a choir). To be clear, the author’s problem with this is not that these boys and girls would be singing together (as this is in fact very rare). The real problem, she suggests, is that when one of these institutions introduces a girls’ soprano line, it will automatically diminish the role, the calibre and the importance of the boys’ soprano line within that particular cathedral or church. The end result of this, according to Maxtone Graham, will be the extinction of all male choirs.

I disagree.

Here’s a list of counter arguments I’d like to make:

1. Keeping cathedral choirs all-male is unsustainable

Gender equality is not a ‘trend’. In 2018 it is ludicrous that girls should be excluded from, well, anything. But especially something as incredibly enriching as the musical education and experience of singing in a cathedral choir. If cathedral music programmes deny girls this opportunity they risk rendering themselves redundant. In my view this would lead to guaranteed extinction.

2. Having girl soprano lines does not mean getting rid of boy-soprano top lines

They can co-exist. They can sing separately (in my view this is preferable) and perhaps even sometimes together, sharing the immense workload of a cathedral schedule. Having both boys and girls requires a greater commitment from the institution, but the benefits surely outweigh the costs. Cathedrals with both boy and girl choristers can perhaps reimagine how to use their choirs. For example, if one top line is not needed for that day's service, it could be an opportunity for them to go out and sing somewhere else in the Diocese.

3. Please stop muddying the waters

Mixed-gender top lines in cathedral choirs are very rare. At institutions where they have a girls top line, it is generally kept separate from the boy’s top line, with a different leader and alternative schedule.

4. Having women in the back row of cathedral choirs is not ‘the thin end of the wedge’

Tenors and Bass Lay Clerks and Choral Scholars need not fear - women are not (with a few notable exceptions) after your jobs. Male altos can be wonderful. So can female altos. Let’s have both.

5. There would be other more drastic ways of making cathedral choirs equal - but some might not like them.

If Maxtone Graham opposes cathedrals having both boys and girls top lines, why not split the UK’s cathedrals 50/50? Girls at Westminster Abbey, Hereford and Norwich, Boys at St Paul’s, Worcester and Chichester. Or perhaps that would that be even worse...?

6. This isn’t just a battle for women or women musicians to fight.

I’ve begun to realise we all have a responsibility to speak out about this. Or we’ll never make any progress. I'm determined not to keep quiet about it, even if it means disagreeing with people I hugely respect.

One final point - personally I would be delighted if the Choir of King’s College Cambridge, under new leadership, decided to run a girls’ top line alongside its boys. I would also be completely devastated if at any point its top line of boys ever ceased to exist. I have a feeling I am not alone.

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