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Rare voices

The Church of England is not known for being tirelessly dogmatic in the face of shifting public opinion, just for being buffeted by it.

13 November 2010

12:00 AM

13 November 2010

12:00 AM

The Church of England is not known for being tirelessly dogmatic in the face of shifting public opinion, just for being buffeted by it. One such shift in recent years has been how acceptable women are in the scheme of official worship. Clearly, the time of equal rights for women is upon us, yet the issue of female bishops drags on without resolution, much as the issue of female priests did before. There will eventually be a conclusion, and it will be an enlightened one, but for the moment tradition seems to be fighting yet another rearguard action. How is it so easily overlooked that the head of this Church is a woman? At least the papacy is consistent in matters of sex.

It may only be a matter of time before we have women bishops, but the possibility of women layclerks in our cathedral choirs did seem to be a genuinely remote one. Two things militated against it. In our choral tradition it is only the top part that is sung by children, leaving the alto part to be sung by adults (male falsettists). In response to contemporary concerns about equal rights (and falling numbers of applicants) it has not been so difficult for some of our cathedrals to set up girl choirs alongside the boys, and have them sing some of the services. The most famous Oxbridge and London foundations have resisted it, but elsewhere girls are getting an opportunity to join in the action, with advantages both to themselves and to those of us taking part in the annual choral trials for the mixed collegiate choirs at Oxbridge. We are now interviewing young women with cutting-edge experience of singing the daily services, their expertise more or less on a par with the men.

In the current climate the issue of girl choristers was bound to come up, and is being slowly addressed. But the issue of women layclerks affects so few people that it might never have surfaced. In this category we are talking about only a handful of women who are genuine contraltos, this being a rare voice. We are not talking about adult sopranos, or even mezzo-sopranos, since as long as there are enough under-15 girls applying for choristerships public opinion will never demand that tradition be broken to the extent of having adult women on the soprano part. It isn’t necessary.

But there the alto anomaly has been so cast-iron that even the foundations that have set up girl choirs to sing with their men have not thought to appoint female altos, let alone the choirs that have only boys. Nonetheless, at St Paul’s Cathedral last week a woman was allowed to enter in open competition for an alto layclerkship, and as a result of the audition is to be placed on the regular deputy list — the first step towards a full-time position? So, unannounced and unfanfared, quite possibly at Evensong on one of those wet Tuesday afternoons so often invoked in choral circles, the choir will process in with its rows of boys, 11 men and the contralto Caroline Trevor, my wife.

For her, and for those who will surely come after her now the breach has been made, it is the realisation of a dream long deferred. She grew up in a large family, her father a clergyman. They all sang. She wanted to be a chorister, but in those days there was no opportunity for it. Her voice developed into the perfect instrument for sacred singing, as well as being blessed with an unusual range: falsettists notoriously have trouble at the bottom of the range (not to mention the top); a contralto will not have the same agonising gear-changes.

The range of a real contralto is supremely useful. The question of timbre is less certain. Can female altos make the ‘right sound’, since a warm, womanly timbre might well be thought the antithesis both of how falsettists sound and indeed how boys sound? In the end it is a matter of taste as to how the altos can best bind the boys’ timbre with that of the lower voices, but there is a concern that women altos might compromise the very particular Anglican cathedral sound we have all got used to. Well, the choirmaster is not obliged to take any one candidate. Every female candidate for the foreseeable future may be refused on the basis that she does not sound like a falsettist, but the significant step of allowing her to compete for a post in one of our most traditional cathedral choirs has been taken. For this reasonable advance we can thank Andrew Carwood and the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral. Now we await the hate mail.

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