THE angelic sound of boy trebles in cathedral choirs up and down the country appears to be under threat from the increasingly early onset of puberty.
Whereas, in the past, boys continued singing treble until they were 15 or 16, now musical directors and choirmasters often find that boys’ voices are changing at 12 or 13.
A Danish study, carried out at Copenhagen University Hospital, has found that, over the past ten years, the voices of boys in a leading choir school have broken earlier and earlier. Researchers have linked this change to weight and diet, and an earlier start to puberty in both boys and girls.
The vice-chairman of the Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir, Dr Peter Giles, said that he had found that boys’ voices are breaking earlier: “I don’t know whether it’s linked to diet, or to a change in teaching methods, but boys’ voices aren’t lasting. I was still singing treble at 15½, but now boys are stopping at 13, on average.”
The director of music at Exeter Cathedral, Andrew Millington, said that the change to boys’ voices breaking earlier had occurred over the past 40 years, not merely ten. He said that he had three choristers between 12½ and 13½ whose voices were starting to change.
In Salisbury, the musical director of the cathedral choir, David Halls, said that he had noticed a change since he started working with the choir in 1985: “Some years there are blips and we lose a few boys before they leave the school, at 13.
“This year we had six boys singing in year eight [age 12/13], but one has already left. . . So I have five boys left at the top of the choir — but it’s only October. I don’t know how many of those boys will still be singing in July.”
Mr Halls said that he had started to integrate probationers into the choir earlier, as a way around the problem.
But Dr Giles insisted there could be some advantages in earlier puberty, which need not prevent cathedrals from asking their choristers to sing demanding music.
“If boys are maturing slightly earlier, then they are maturing in their minds, too, and can tackle complex music. The sad thing is, there is not so much time for them to do so.”