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High fliers past and present

21 April 2017

Ninety years after Ernest Lough’s famous recording of ‘O, for the wings of a dove’, Stephen Beet tells the story

Chris Christodoulou

Chorister of the Temple Church: Ebube Chiana, who has recorded the solo in Mendelssohn’s Hear my Prayer

Chorister of the Temple Church: Ebube Chiana, who has recorded the solo in Mendelssohn’s Hear my Prayer

ONE Sunday in 1926, Lord Justice Eldon Bankes, chairman of the Temple Church Choir Committee, congratulated the director of music, George Thalben-Ball, on the fine performance at Morning Prayer. Douglas Horton, the soloist in Mendelssohn’s Hear my Prayer, had been rather good, he thought. Ball replied that, if they were allowed to make a gramophone record, Bankes would be able to listen again and again.

At the time, the Temple Church choir was blessed with several fine voices. Microphone recording had just replaced the old acoustic methods, and HMV had invested in a recording van, so that records could be made on location. The soloist selected for the Temple recording was 15-year-old Ernest Lough, and on 5 April 1927, using just a single microphone, history was made.


THE Temple Church, hidden behind Fleet Street, had been built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century; after the Order of Templars was suppressed in the 14th century, their lands were eventually taken over by lawyers. The church remains the private chapel of the Inner and Middle Temple Inns of Court, and is not subject to episcopal jurisdiction.

Although there was a choir in the Middle Ages, it did not survive the Reformation, but in 1842 it was decided that a cathedral Service should be introduced. This caused little short of a sensation. Dr E. J. Hopkins was appointed Organist and Choirmaster, and it was he who began a tradition of choral training which was to continue for 140 years. The choir was to have the greatest influence on the English choral revival of the 19th century.

In 1897, Hopkins handed over to Henry Walford Davies, who soon enlarged the repertoire, and long before Lough’s time there had been a succession of excellent boy soloists.

Thalben-Ball came to the Temple in 1919, aged 23. George Dixon, then head boy, recalled his playing Chopin at the first practice. “I loved him from that moment,” he wrote.


ERNEST ARTHUR LOUGH was born on 17 November 1911 and entered the choir aged twelve. He became a pupil at the nearby City of London School, which then educated all the Temple choristers; every day except Wednesday they would rehearse after school. Before service, they would go down to the Temple gardens to run around, returning with sweat running all over their collars.

Hear my Prayer was issued in the June of 1927 and was an immediate success. Everyone was taken by surprise. Six presses had to be set aside to deal with demand, and by the end of 1927 the masters had worn out; so another recording was made. By then, Lough (known as ”Master Ernest Lough”) was 16 years old. This second disc is the one most commonly heard today, and by the end of 1929 it had sold 750,000 copies.

“It made for Lough a place in History. He was a modest boy, and we jolly well wouldn’t have let it go to his head, anyway!” remarked Jack Salisbury, a fellow chorister.

From the release of the recording until Lough left the choir in 1929, aged 17, tickets had to be issued by the Benchers for Morning Service. Queues stretched far out into Fleet Street. It was even rumoured that the boy had died recording the final phrase (“remain there forever at rest”); in fact, he went on to make several more records, including his own favourite, “Hear Ye, Israel” from Elijah, which he learned from scratch in 20 minutes, to fill a spare wax.

Lough went on to work in advertising, and during the war served in the Auxiliary Fire Service. He was on watch during the last night of the Blitz in 1941, when the Temple was grievously burned out: “The Thames was so low that we couldn’t run our hoses down to it; so we just had to watch the church burn!”

After the devastation of that night, the choir’s archivist and former chorister David Lewer recalled that Old Boys kept a song in the Temple every Sunday until the church was restored and boys were once again admitted in 1955.

HMV lost count of the actual sales figures, but in 1962 Lough and Thalben-Ball were presented with Golden Discs to mark the record’s 35th anniversary. Sales are now estimated to exceed six million copies.

The record has influenced many who were to become eminent musicians, including Sir David Wilcocks, who credited the record with inspiring him to seek a choral scholarship.


A UNIQUE feature of the choir was “the mystical Temple Tone”. Dixon said that it was passed down from generation to generation of choirboys: “Neither Walford Davies nor Dr Ball taught voice production. We just it picked up from the older boys.”

This “perfect, pure bel canto”, as the tenor Robert Tear describes it — with warmth, feeling, and slight vibrato — can almost certainly be traced back to the original choir of 1842, and probably had its roots in the Italian techniques taught by Dr Zechariah Buck at Norwich Cathedral in the early 19th century.

According to Lewer, Ball’s departure in 1981 marked the end of an era. “Lay clerks were then introduced, replacing the gentlemen who had been former boys, and the unique ‘Temple Tone’ quickly gave place to a more contemporary cathedral sound.”


NOW, 90 years after the issue of “that” record, as Lough often referred to it, there is to be a commemoration by the present Temple Church Choir: a new, filmed recording of Hear my Prayer (available online), sung by the 13-year-old boy soprano Ebube Chiana, accompanied by Roger Sayer, the present choirmaster, who agreed that both versions were excellent.

Whereas Lough’s voice is fruity and emotional with an easy production, rooted in the head tone of the past, Chiana’s is clean and straight throughout the range; as Dr Peter Giles, an authority on the alto (or counter-tenor) voice, and in the training of boys’ voices, comments, “It wonderfully demonstrates the bright, more open tone preferred today, with its thrilling power. It is something of a lesson in how a boy should present a solo.”

In Lough’s day, it was not uncommon for boys of 16 to be singing treble, mainly because the traditional techniques preserved the voice, and made singing high tessitura effortless. As Dr Giles points out, however, methods shifted greatly during the 1950s: “Now a younger, fresher, childish sound is preferred to the darker mature quality of the immediately pre-pubescent — and indeed pubertal — boy. Both timbres have their attractions, but this ‘fresher’ sound tends to rely on less use of the pure head register when the fundamental register is pushed ever higher. This approach not only encourages an earlier breaking age, but also, because it relies on a single register, there is no training in the essential concept of vocal adjustment as the boy matures.”

Reviewing The Better Land CDs of past boy sopranos, Paul Hale, former Rector Chori of Southwell Minster, wrote: “It gives me cause to reflect upon what we are doing with the training of our boys’ voices today (despite apparently knowing all about technique and employing singing teachers in many cathedrals) if we can but so rarely produce such rounded musicians as these, with their sumptuous beauty of tone.”

Anecdotal evidence lays the blame of supposedly earlier voice-break on diet and earlier puberty, but there is little evidence to back this up. Professor Martin Ashley of Edgehill University agrees that the early termination of the boy’s voice is more the result of a combination of social change, training, and peer pressure, which encourages boys to reject the treble voice at around 11 years of age — just the age when Lough’s contemporaries would have become probationers.

Ashley, who has recently completed a project at a leading paediatric clinic on the relationship between voice and adolescent growth, writes: “It is entirely wrong to imagine that the onset of puberty marks the end of a high singing voice. It is perfectly possible for an adolescent to maintain a soprano singing range throughout puberty, well into the time of full sexual maturity.”

Indeed, Lewer recalled that as recently as 1981 two Temple boys were over 16 years of age, and one was 17; and Paul Hale cites the example of a boy who, in the 1970s, asked Ball for leave to sit his A levels.

As to the ages at which boys’ voices broke in the distant past, data is scarce, but a passage from The Problemes of Aristotle (London, 1597) states that “boyes [are] apt to change their voice about fourteene yeeres of age.” And in 1987 Roger Bowers of Cambridge University wrote: “Neither physically nor vocally can the early Tudor chorister have differed very much from his present-day successor.”


THE demise of head-tone voice is generally attributed to the influence of George Malcolm at Westminster Cathedral, who described it as “an insult to boyhood”; but in fact the decline had begun in earlier times. John Curwen criticised choirs for their harsh production, and head tone was particularly difficult to obtain in the 19th-century United States. By the 1950s, tastes were certainly changing, and the recording of Hear my Prayer by Alastair Roberts and the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, set a new standard, which others followed.

Today, choral trainers generally rely on research that suggests that head tone is “falsetto” and, therefore, “unsupported”. Some hold that there is no difference between the voices of boys and girls. Whether girls can be trained to sing head tone has not been established; nor whether it is wise for them to do so.

Dr Patricia Howard of the University of Oxford argues that the head voice of a boy is not the same as falsetto, and that head tone was taught by the Italian masters. “Today the utmost confusion exists over the definition of the terms ‘falsetto’ and ‘head tone.’” She cites passages by the vocal tutor and composer Tosti (1654-1732), who made a clear distinction between voce di testa and falsetto.

Today, based on the research of John Cooksey, connections are made between the speaking voice and vocal range; and it is believed that if a boy speaks in a register below a certain pitch he should not be singing soprano. This is related to the view that the vocal range of a boy is confined to the fixed registers of a woman soprano.

Sir Sydney Nicholson and other choirmasters of the past would have disagreed, specifically pointing out that the voice of a boy was “plastic” and could be moulded and stretched in a way that would be dangerous in the case of a girl’s or woman’s voice. If it be the case that the trained head-tone of a boy is safer, “possessing a strength, beauty and range which can exceed that of any woman” (Edwin Stubbs, 1894), there would indeed seem to be a strong case for returning to past methods.

Ashley poses this very question, adding: “Heard live in the flesh, the boy soprano voice was almost certainly more powerful, assured and possessed of greater presence than that of today’s smaller ‘treble’ voice.” His research continues.

Master Chiana’s fine performance, together with Lough’s enduring original, serves to celebrate the long tradition of boys singing in choirs. In 1948, the Archbishops’ Committee on Church Music made a “strong and urgent plea for the retention of boys in choirs wherever possible”. It would be a tragedy if this heritage were to be lost.


Stephen Beet is the author of The Better Land: In search of the lost boy sopranos (Rectory Press, 2005), and A Voice for Boys, to be published later this year. He has also compiled The Better Land and The Glory of the Temple Church Choir CD volumes.

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