at Cathedral of the Holy Name, April 19

Their monarchy may be in big trouble, and their economy may be in shambles. But when it comes to choral music, the sun still has not set on the British Empire. The balance of trade is definitely in their favor; through recordings and tours, England has exported such stellar groups as the Monteverdi Choir, the Taverner Choir and Consort, the Hilliard Ensemble, the King’s Singers, and the Tallis Scholars, all of whom have performed in the Chicago area. And recently the choir of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, made up of men and boys, joined this trade surplus, giving Chicagoans a sample of the very roots of British choral music. The centuries-old tradition of cathedral choirs like Saint Paul’s has created a widespread acceptance and understanding of choral music and is responsible for the high level of musicality in these more recent groups.

At the beginning of the Saint Paul’s concert I found myself on the edge of my seat. Would these boys sing in tune? Together? With discipline? As the concert went on, my uneasiness melted away. The boys–not to mention the choir’s men and director–exuded confidence. These are after all children who’ve passed a national audition and who spend several hours a day developing their musical abilities.

The boy sopranos are the heart of the English style of choral singing; their clear, high, vibrato-free sound is what gives the choir much of its unique character. Added to this are the familiar tenor and bass parts, plus another English peculiarity: the countertenor. Together, this choir of men and boys has a range like that of the more familiar mixed choir of men and women.

Maintaining cathedral schools is still a strong tradition in England. The boys chosen for the choir live at the cathedral and receive their regular schooling there along with individual musical instruction. Then, of course, they provide the music for daily services at the cathedral.

But English-style choirs or boys’ choirs–even children’s choirs–are a rarity in American cathedrals. At one time they were much more prevalent, but dwindling budgets, lack of a real boys’ choir tradition, and a general lowering of musical literacy in our society have meant that American cathedrals have let such institutions fall by the wayside over the past few decades. Locally the only choir that comes close to the English ideal is at Saint Luke’s Church in Evanston, but that’s strictly an after-school program.

It’s a rare treat, then, to hear a choir like Saint Paul’s. Those familiar with English choirs heard a boy-soprano sound very different from the hooty tone made famous in the 50s by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. The Saint Paul’s sound exploits the lower register of the boys’ voices more, creating a full, rich tone that balances well with the choir men. Director John Scott is to be commended for carrying on the Saint Paul’s sound, and for his choir’s great musicality.

The concert featured music from the Renaissance, the Baroque period, and our own century, mostly by English composers. Opening the concert was a setting of Psalm 121 by turn-of-the-century composer H. Walford Davies, sung from the back of Holy Name Cathedral. By alternating between solo phrases and choral responses written in simple harmony, Davies pays homage to medieval chant. The choir then processed solemnly to the altar for the remainder of the program–a subtle reminder that its reason for being is not, after all, to perform concerts but to provide music for worship.

The Renaissance period was represented by two motets, “Vigilate” by William Byrd and “Ave Maria” by Robert Parsons. Byrd, the more famous of the two, was a composer whose considerable talent brought him employment in the Chapel Royal and the favor of Queen Elizabeth I–very useful to a Catholic living in a Protestant country during a time of severe religious repression. It’s intriguing, and perhaps not too far off the mark, to imagine that the text of “Vigilate” (“Watch . . . for you do not know when the master of the house will come”) may have been to Byrd and his fellow Catholics, who were forced to practice their religion in secret in the homes of friends, as much a political comment as a religious statement. There isn’t much biographical information on Robert Parsons, who seems to have been notable mostly for drowning in the River Trent.

The Choir of Saint Paul’s sang both pieces splendidly. They gave the long, fluid phrases in the Parsons ample support and handled them with apparent ease. Scott’s subtle control of the shadings in dynamics and phrasing made this one of the highlights of the program. They sang the Byrd with tremendous controlled energy, retaining clarity in the piece’s many rapid passages, doing their best to overcome the cathedral’s dry and unforgiving acoustics.

Works of the Baroque period included Henry Purcell’s verse anthem “O God, Thou Art My God.” This allowed some of the men to shine in solo turns, and at the same time it demonstrated that the English choral sound need not be anemic. The men’s singing was exceptionally full-throated–not surprising when one realizes that they ordinarily have to fill a space so vast that the whole of the Cathedral of the Holy Name would fit comfortably inside.

They sang the other Baroque piece, J.S. Bach’s motet “Der Geist Hilft,” with grace, energy, and admirable accuracy. They faltered only slightly, at the line “sondern der Geist selbst vertritt uns,” a spot where the meter changes and Bach invites even the finest ensembles to stumble.

The audience came primarily to hear the choir, but the choir’s organist, Andrew Lucas, was a significant part of the performance, playing three solo pieces. Two of these were performed on the Cathedral of the Holy Name’s splendid Flentrop organ, an impressive Dutch instrument installed just three years ago. Lucas was most impressive in his playing of Louis Vierne’s “Carillon de Westminster,” a real showpiece.

Works from the 19th and 20th centuries made up the second half of the concert, beginning with S.S. Wesley’s “Blessed Be the God and Father.” Though sung well by the choir, it exemplifies a certain kind of overly rhetorical Victorian piece: its well-measured and well-meant attempts to bring the listener to a point of contemplation have the soporific effect common in much of the music from that period. (One high point of the piece, though, is a lovely soprano solo, which was sung beautifully and unaffectedly.) Edward Bairstow’s “Blessed City” has a bit more flair, but despite some flashy effects it also failed to excite.

The two most recent works were the most satisfying of this half. “My Beloved Spake,” by Patrick Hadley, uses a text from the Song of Songs–the circumstances must be rare in which the Choir of Saint Paul’s would sing what is essentially a love song, but they sang it nevertheless with delicacy and sensitivity. Even more impressive was their performance of “Like as the Hart,” by Herbert Howells. This piece is positively bluesy, conveying a wonderfully laid-back, cool feeling as the lyrics speak of brooks and longing. It is a difficult piece to perform, with phrasing that extends over organ interludes and a tempo that must walk a fine line: too fast and it will sound “pop,” too slow and the singers will die for lack of air. Scott led his choir with a sureness that made this a transporting experience.

Men and boys’ choirs are not without their detractors, in particular those who wonder why girls don’t have the same opportunities in this field as boys. Defenders of tradition cite a unique but ineffable quality in the boy-soprano sound as the reason for maintaining all-male choirs, but a gradual reformation in attitudes has brought many choral directors around to the idea that girls can replicate the sound, and both American and British choirs have begun to experiment with this girls-and-men arrangement.

In any case, the enthusiastic crowd in the Cathedral of the Holy Name and the continued support (so far) of the cathedral choir school in England indicate the great depth of interest in this kind of singing. The English choral sound has also had a profound influence on the way that many of today’s adult choral groups sing. Some mixed choirs of men and women actually try to sound like English cathedral choirs, but often simply because the “straighter” vocal production, without vibrato or other flourishes, means improved tuning and greater clarity.

What is painfully clear, though, listening to the Choir of Saint Paul’s is that America is a country that’s becoming less and less supportive of its own cultural heritage. There will always be an English cathedral choir. But not so choral music in America, I fear: it’s constantly underfunded by granters and outplayed on the airwaves by instrumental music. It’s wonderful when a choir such as Saint Paul’s comes to visit once in a decade (or a lifetime). But there is a great quantity of excellent choral music being sung on this side of the Atlantic. Go and hear it.