How is the alto part, in a church choir consisting of males, to be sung?
In our cathedrals this part has been given, ever since the Restoration,
to adult men, generally with bass voices singing in their "thin"
register. For this voice our composers of the English cathedral school
wrote, carrying the part much lower than they would have done if they
had been writing for women or boy-singers. For this voice, also, Handel
wrote, and the listener at the Handel Festival cannot but feel the
strength and resonance which the large number of men altos give to the
harmony when the range of the part is low. The voice of the man alto,
however, was never common, and is becoming less common than it was. It
occupies a curious position, never having been recognised as a solo
voice. I have heard of an exceptionally good man alto at Birmingham who
was accustomed to sing songs at concerts, but this is an isolated case.
The voice seems to have been generally confined to choral music.
This voice is entirely an English institution, unknown on the continent.
Historians say that after the Restoration, when it was very difficult to
obtain choir-boys, adult men learned to sing alto, and even low treble
parts, in falsetto, in order to make harmony possible.
Let us concede at once that for music of the old cathedral school this
voice is in place. The churches are, however, getting more and more
eclectic, and are singing music from oratorios, cantatas, and masses
that was composed for women altos, and is far too high in compass for
men. We may admit that because the alto part lies so much upon the break
into the thick or chest register of boys, it is very difficult to get
them to sing it well. The dilemma is that in parish churches, especially
in country places, the adult male alto is not to be had, and the choice
is between boy altos, and no altos at all.
There is no doubt, moreover, that the trouble of voice-management in boy
altos can be conquered by watchfulness and care. At the present time
there are, as the information I have collected shows, a number of very
good cathedral and church choirs in which the alto part is being
sustained by boys.
* * * * *
The following is from Mr. James Taylor, organist and choirmaster of New
"New College, Oxford, Dec. 13, 1890.
"Dear Sir,--In reply to your letter, I can confidently recommend boy
altos in parish or other choirs, provided they are carefully trained. We
have introduced them into this choir for more than two years, and the
experiment has fully come up to my expectations. We still retain two men
altos in our choir, which now consists of the following:--Fourteen
trebles, four boy altos, two men altos, four tenors, and four basses. I
find boy altos very effective in modern church music, such as
Mendelssohn's anthems, &c., where the alto part is written much higher
than is the case in the old cathedral music.
"Yours very truly,
Dr. Garrett, organist of St. John's College, Cambridge, writes:--
"5, Park Side, Cambridge, Dec. 12, 1890.
"Dear Mr. Curwen,--I have had boy altos only in my choir for some years.
I introduced them of necessity in the first instance. The stipend of a
lay clerk was too small to attract any other than a local candidate, and
no suitable man was to be found. If I could have really first-class
adult altos in my choir I should not think of using boys' voices. At the
same time there are some advantages on the side of boys' voices.
"I. Unless the adult alto voice is really pure and good, and its
possessor a skilled singer, it is too often unbearable.
"II. Under the most favourable conditions it is very rare, according to
my experience, to find an alto voice retaining its best qualities after
"III. The alto voice is undoubtedly becoming rare.
"On the other side you have to consider:--
"I. The limitation of choice in music, as there is a good deal of
'cathedral music' in which the alto part is beyond the range of any
"II. A certain lack of brightness in the upper part of such trios as
those in 'By the waters of Babylon' (Boyce) 'The wilderness' (Goss), and
many like movements.
"As regards the break question, the advantage, in my experience, is
wholly on the boys' side. A well-trained boy will sing such a solo as 'O
thou that tellest,' or such a passage as the following without letting
his break be felt at all:
This passage,[B] which is from the anthem, 'Hear my crying,' by Weldon,
I have heard sung by an adult alto, who broke badly between E flat and
F. The effect was funny beyond description. In fact, if a boys' break is
notation] is never allowed to practise above that, there will be no
question of break arising. My alto boys can get a good round G, and five
notation] The advantage of this in chanting the Psalms is obvious. What
can an adult alto be expected to do in a case where the reciting note is
close to his break? These are considerations which may fairly be taken
into account even when the decision is to be made between possible
courses; when there is a choice. In many cases there is none. It must
be (as you say) boy alto, or no alto. I am quite sure that careful
training is all that is needed to make boy altos most efficient members
of a choir. Or rather, I ought to say that careful selection and
training are both needed. To take a young boy as an alto because he
happens to have three or four raucous notes from, say, B flat to E flat
I prefer taking a boy whose break lies higher, and training his voice
downwards. If, as a probationer, he can get a fairly good round B
certainly be produced as he grows older.]
"Yours very truly,
[B] I have transposed the passage from the alto clef.--J. S. C.
* * * * *
A remark may be interposed here that from a physiological point of view
we must expect voices of different pitch in boys, just as in girls,
women, and men. Boys differ in height, size, and in the pitch of the
speaking voice, which is a sure guide to the pitch of the singing voice.
There is thus no physiological ground for supposing all boys to be
* * * * *
The following letter is from the Rev. W. E. Dickson, Precentor of Ely:--
"The College, Ely, October 30th, 1890.
"Dear Sir,--I have much pleasure in replying to your note. If I
resolved to do so in a few words I should be obliged to say that seldom
indeed do I hear boy altos sing with sweet voices and true intonation,
either in my own country, or in those foreign countries in which I am in
the habit of taking my holidays.
"But I should like to be allowed to explain that, in my opinion, the
coarseness (at any rate) of boy-altos in English choirs is due to
mismanagement by the choirmaster. His usual plan is to turn over to the
alto part boys who are losing their upper notes by the natural failure
of their soprano voices. This saves trouble, for such boys probably
read music well enough, and they are simply told to 'sing alto,' and are
left to do so without further training, until they can croak out no more
ugly noises. Surely this is quite a mistake. Am I not right in
maintaining that a perfect choir should consist of
FIRST TREBLES TENORS
SECOND TREBLES BASSES
well balanced as to numbers, and all singing with pure natural quality?
If I am, then it follows that the second trebles should be precisely
equal to the firsts in number and strength, and should include boys of
various ages, as carefully selected and as assiduously trained as the
others. I cannot but think--and, indeed, I perfectly well know--that
where this has been done by a skilful teacher, whose heart is in his
work, boy altos have been made to sing with sweetness and accuracy.
"You will probably agree with me--though this is quite by the way--that
secular music should be largely used by such a teacher. The part-songs
of Mendelssohn, for instance, should be trolled out by the two sets of
boys, who may even interchange their parts at practice with the best
results. But of course this is said only in reference to choirs of a
"I do not deny that even the best teaching and the best management will
not secure quite the same timbre which you get in choirs with falsetti
in the alto part. A certain silvery sweetness is obtained from these
voices to which our English ears have become accustomed, and which we
should miss if boys, however well-trained, took their places. In the
Preces, Versicles, Litany, &c., of the English Choral Service, we should
be conscious of a loss. In cathedrals, too, the complete shelving of
some or even many compositions, favourites by long association, if not
by intrinsic merit, would be inevitable. But I am unable to doubt for a
moment that when the change had been made, and time had been given for
the new order of things, under a thoroughly competent musician, we
should not regret it.
"At Ely we have ten men in daily attendance; fourteen on Sundays. We
keep twenty boys in training. If this vocal body were thus
10 FIRST TREBLES 5 TENORS (6 on Sunday)
10 SECOND TREBLES 5 BASSES (8 on Sunday)
we should certainly be stronger and healthier in tone and quality than
we are now, with a disproportionate number of trebles, thus:--
20 TREBLES 3  TENORS
3  ALTOS 4  BASSES
As to rustic choirs in village churches, I fear the case is hopeless,
and I myself should be glad to see editions of well-known hymn-tunes and
chants in three parts only--treble, tenor, and bass. Handel wrote some
truly grand choruses in three parts in his 'Chandos Anthems.' But his
tenor part is not for every-day voices!
"Believe me, truly yours,
"W. E. DICKSON."
* * * * *
The following, from Dr. Haydn Keeton, organist of Peterborough
Cathedral, is against boy altos:--
"Thorpe Road, Peterborough, December 12th, 1890.
"Dear Sir,--I have had about eighteen years' experience with alto boys,
and although I have had some exceedingly good ones, one or two as good
as it is possible, I think, to have, yet I must say that, in my opinion,
it is a bad system to substitute boys for men, especially in cathedral
music. The reason why the change was made here was that about the year
1872 three of our men altos were failing, and I happened to have three
boys with good low voices, who took alto well. In consenting to this
change I had no idea of its being a permanent one, but owing to the
agricultural depression our Chapter have been quite prevented doing what
they would like to do with the choir. The general effect of the change
has been this--that I have been always weak in trebles. We are limited
to Peterborough for our choristers, and, as a rule, there is not one boy
in a hundred who knows even his notes when he enters the choir. It
takes from eighteen months to two years for a boy to learn his work, and
it is not until a boy is at least twelve that one can turn him into an
alto. The result is that four of my senior boys have to be turned into
altos, and I am left with a preponderance of young, inexperienced boys
as trebles. At the present time I have twelve trebles, eight of whom are
"In addition, see what extra work is involved in teaching the boys to
sing alto. Some boys do not take to alto very easily, and the extra work
given to the altos means that quantity taken from the trebles. I am
unable, in consequence, to give the necessary time to the elementary
work that one ought to give. We can only get one hour's practice in the
day, owing to the boys going to school.
"Then, again, as to tone. The tone of a choir with men altos, if they
are at all fairly good, is so much superior to one with boy altos. In
cathedral music so many anthems and services have trios for A.T.B. There
is not one boy in a thousand who can sing the trio in 'O where shall
wisdom' (Boyce) with a tenor and bass effectively. And how many there
are similar to that!
"I do not see how boys could work at all in ordinary parish choirs, for
here there are not the opportunities of teaching boys to read well at
sight. It is only by daily practice that one can make anything of boys.
Dr. Frank Bates, organist of Norwich Cathedral, has favoured me with a
copy of a paper on the boy's voice, in which he says:--
"The compass of a boy's voice when properly developed is from
The chest or lower register extends from
The head or upper register extends from
No fixed compass can possibly be given to the different registers, as
the older a boy becomes the lower the change occurs; the head register
often being used as low down as A."
In a letter to me Dr. Bates says:--
"I quite think that, for ordinary parish church services, the effect of
boy altos, if properly taught, is all that one can desire."
In reply to my remark that the break comes in so awkwardly for boy
altos, Dr. Bates says:--
"I fail to understand the reason you quote for the non-usage of boy
altos. There is no change whatever in a boy's voice, in its normal
is made lower down all the brilliancy is taken out of a boy's voice. As
a boy gets older he uses the upper register much lower down. I have
known boys at the age of eighteen with lovely top notes but very poor
chest register. In such cases, when a boy's top register commences at
There is evidently some conflict of nomenclature here, as the limits of
the registers as given by Dr. Bates differ considerably from those which
are usual. I am glad to learn that Dr. Bates is writing a book on "The
Voices of Boys," which will no doubt clear up the subject. In the paper
before me he recommends practice of the scales to such syllables as La,
Fa, Ta, Pa, in order to bring the tone well to the front of the mouth,
and reinforce it by means of the soft upper palate. He recommends the
teacher to train the boys to use the upper register by making them sing
over and over again, very softly, the following notes:--
Here again the transition seems to me to be taken much too high.
Mr. Frank Sharp, of Dundee, trainer of the celebrated children's choir,
which has sung the treble and alto parts, both solos and choruses, of
Messiah, St. Paul, and many cantatas, writes to me:--
"In part-singing where there are boy trebles, the adult male alto voice
has its charms. The contrast in quality between the open tone of the
boys' voices and the condensed, sometimes squeaky sweetness of the man
alto does not affect the blending, and helps the distinctness of parts.
Considering the growing scarcity of this latter voice, why not use boy
altos? They can be made as effective as ordinary women altos, but they
are as short-lived and need more attention than the boy trebles. Their
chief drawback is a tendency to produce tone without the least attention
to quality or effect save that of noise. Nevertheless, there is nothing
to hinder boy altos doing all that is necessary, or, indeed, all that
can be done by the adult male alto. I have trained boys to sing alto in
Messiah, St. Paul, and equally trying music, during the past twenty
years, and anyone else who keeps the girl's alto voice before him as a
model can do the same. The boy alto voice may be said to have a husk and
a kernel: the one strident, harsh, and overpowering; the other sweet,
and, with use, rich and round. The average healthy boy, with his
exuberant love of noise, will naturally give the husk, but the skilful
voice-trainer will only accept the kernel, evolved from right register,
good timbre, and proper production. Seeing and hearing a process in
voice-training is, however, more satisfactory than much writing and the
* * * * *
Mr. W. W. Pearson, master of a village school in Norfolk, who is
well-known by his excellent part-songs, writes to me:--
"I succeed very well in getting boys to sing alto because I always use a
large number of exercises in two parts, making each division of the
class in turn take the lower part. I do not choose boys for altos on
account of age. That, in my opinion, has nothing to do with it. I choose
them by quality of voice. There is no break in the voice of the natural
they are novices, by hearing them trying to sing with the others, and
dropping down an octave in high passages."
* * * * *
The following interesting notes are by Mr. W. Critchley, organist,
choirmaster, and schoolmaster in the village of Hurst, near Reading:--
"I do not choose the elder boys as altos, as I find that treble boys, as
a rule, are at their very best just before the change of voice. And
moreover, when that change begins, the voice is so uncertain in its
intonation that if the boy were put to sing alto he would be certain to
drag the others down. At present I have one or two boys with round,
mellow voices, who are very effective. Unfortunately, most of the alto
parts in hymn-tunes and chants hover about the place where the break in
the voice occurs, and it requires a lot of practice to conquer the
difficulty. As a rule, I get the alto boys to sing in the lower
register. It is very seldom they get a note which they cannot take in
this register, so I train it up a little, thus--
d1 t2 l2 t2 d1 r1 m1]
I do not see any other way of getting over the uncertainty in the boy
alto voice. It is merely a matter of time and trouble."
* * * * *
Mr. J. C. E. Taylor, choirmaster of St. Mary's, Penzance, and
head-master of the National School, says:--
"I have had one or two pure alto voices, and these are the best, but
notation] (D) have often become fair alto voices, and my present solo
alto boy is one of these. The trios in the anthems are taken by boy
alto, tenor, and bass. These alto boys are practised from lower G to
f's. My trebles, as a rule, last until fifteen years of age, and altos
until sixteen, and even seventeen."
* * * * *
Mr. A. Isaac, choirmaster of a church in Liverpool, says:--
"For the last twenty years I have been continuously engaged with male
voice choirs in connection with churches too poor to pay for adult help,
and, as you may readily guess, I have never yet had the good fortune to
secure, for any length, the services of gentlemen who could sing
falsetto effectively. I have had, therefore, to rely solely upon my boys
for the alto part. At the present time my choir, which is allowed to be
up to the mark amongst local Liverpool churches, is made up of 22 boys
(18 treble and 4 alto) paid, and 14 adults (5 tenors and 9 basses)
voluntary. There is, I find, no royal road to the alto part. My course
is as follows. I obtain my boys as soon as they are eleven, by which age
they have been made fairly familiar at my school with the old notation
on the movable do plan. Theoretical instruction is continued side by
side with special voice-training exercises. Occasionally I meet with a
boy who has a true mezzo-soprano voice, and he is a treasure, but in the
main my selections are boys with treble voices. As soon as a treble
shows signs of voice breaking, I let him down into the alto part. The
transition is not very difficult, for by this time the boy has become a
fairly good Sol-faist and reader. I have but to adapt the voice-training
exercises to him in company with his fellows, and I have no reason to
regret the issue. I take my boys always together, with two-part
Mr. Stocks Hammond, organist and choirmaster of St. Barnabas, Bradford,
in a published paper on "Boys' Voices," says:--
"During many years of choir training, I have experienced very great
difficulty in supplying the alto parts with good men's falsetto voices
(especially in voluntary choirs), and I have therefore been compelled to
have that part sung by boys, and experience leads me to prefer the boys'
voices to men's, unless, indeed, they are real alto voices, which are
seldom to be met with. I have never yet had any great difficulty in
finding boys' voices capable of sustaining that part, and can always
fill up any gaps that occur by the following means. Whenever I find a
treble begins to experience a difficulty in singing the upper notes, and
that in order to sing them he must strain his voice, immediately he is
put to sing alto, which he is in most cases able to do for one or two
years, and during that time he is thus retained as a useful member of
the choir; for otherwise he would very soon have been lost to it
entirely, for nothing hastens so much the breaking of the voice as the
habit of unduly straining it."
Mr. T. H. Collinson, Mus.B., organist of St. Mary's Cathedral,
Edinburgh, writes to me:--
"Boy altos are a fraud and a deception, as a rule, though occasionally
one meets with a natural contralto at an early age. Even then he can
generally be worked up to treble by gentle treatment, developing the
middle and falsetto registers."
* * * * *
In order to get to the bottom of this subject, I invited correspondence
in the Musical Standard (until recently the organ of the College of
Organists), and several interesting letters were the result. Mr. R. T.
Gibbons, F.C.O., organist of the Grocers' Company's Schools, where
excellent performances of operettas are given, wrote:--
"As soon as a boy's voice reaches only E[b] he is drafted into the
altos, and that preserves his voice much longer."
To this statement Mr. Fred. Cambridge, organist of Croydon Parish
Church, took exception. He said:--
"I do not wish to appear to dogmatise, but I should say 'as soon as a
boy's voice reaches only E[b],' it is quite time he left off singing
altogether, i.e., if his voice has previously been a treble. I know it
is the custom in some choirs to make a boy sing alto as soon as his
voice begins to break. In my opinion, such a course is utterly wrong. It
is not only injurious to the boy's voice, but very unpleasant for those
who have to listen to it.
"In a school of 500 boys, there ought to be no difficulty in finding
sufficient natural altos, without having to rely on broken-voiced
"In my own choir I frequently admit altos at 10 or 11 years of age, with
the result that I get five or six years' work out of them, and the
latter part of their time they are available for alto solos.
"I think (and I speak from upwards of 30 years' experience) that if Mr.
Gibbons will try this plan, he will find it much more satisfactory than
drafting his trebles into the altos as soon as their voices begin to
"I do not enter into the question of men versus boy altos, because it
is my experience that in a voluntary choir, especially in the country, a
really good adult alto is such a rara avis, that one is obliged to
rely on boys, and if they are carefully chosen and trained, they are, I
think, quite satisfactory. The only place when one misses the man alto
voice is in anthems with a verse for A.T.B., such as 'Rejoice in the
Lord' (Purcell), 'The Wilderness' (Goss), &c."
Mr. C. E. Juleff, organist of Bodmin Parish Church, wrote:--
"Allow me to say that I have found men altos infinitely preferable to
those of boys. In short, one good man alto I have experienced to be
equal to half-a-dozen boy altos as regards tone; and in respect to
phrasing and reading I have found men altos decidedly superior. The two
gentlemen altos who were in my choir at SS. Michael and All Angels,
Exeter, were acknowledged by London organists to be 'second to none' in
* * * * *
On the other hand, Mr. Thomas Ely, F.C.O., of St. John's College,
Leatherhead, gave a warm testimony to boy altos:--
"I may say that in my choir at this College I have four or five very
good boy altos. One is exceptionally good, possessing a natural alto
voice of remarkable richness and beauty. In our services and anthems he
takes the solo alto parts, and in my opinion he is far superior to a man
alto, except in such anthems as Wesley's 'Ascribe unto the Lord'
(expressly written for choirs possessing men altos), in which he cannot
take some of the lower notes. The compass of his voice is from F to
* * * * *
In these letters and experiences there are evidently two underlying
ideas. First, that the boy alto has a naturally low voice; second, that
the boy alto is a broken-down soprano. For both these notions there is
some physical foundation, because there is no doubt that the lower notes
of boys of 12 to 14 are rounder and fuller than those of boys of 9 to
12. Herr Eglinger, of Basel, to whose mastery of the subject in theory
and practice I can testify, from personal intercourse, distinctly
recognises this. He says:--
"It is only when boys and girls approach the period of change, say a
year or two before the voice begins to break, that a clear chest-voice,
corresponding to that of women, is perceptible. In boys at this stage,
the head-voice rapidly declines in volume and height; and what there is
of middle register is not much, nor of great service much longer. On the
other hand, the chest-tones acquire a resonance, and in boys a certain
gruffness, which, mixed with other voices, imparts a peculiar charm to
Thus although here and there a boy may be found with a naturally low
voice from the first, the majority of altos will be obtained from older
boys, who are approaching the period of change. It is, however, of much
importance to watch these boys, and stop their singing when their voice
really gives way, because it then becomes uncertain in its intonation,
and is apt to spoil the tuning of the choir.
* * * * *
The idea that boys must not use the thick or chest register is also a
mistake. It is the straining of this register, which produces a hard,
rattling sound, that is objectionable. Boy altos have as much right to
use the chest register, in its proper place and with proper reserve of
power, as women altos.