Friday, April 24, 2009

Once Were Angels

I had seen a CD offered on Amazon for a long time and finally got around to ordering it. This turned out to be a good idea because it not only has some great singing but the liner notes have a lot of interesting history about boy choirs.

Back in the 1950’s Harry Mudd built a steel-tape recorder from parts which he had to order. It took three years to get them. With his friend Philip York he began recording boy choir performances. They started with New College but then lots of other choirs wanted to be recorded.
They eventually created the Alpha label and began to make albums. The first was Christmas Carols From New College, Oxford.
Records didn’t sell very well but, and I’ll quote a passage from the text, “The later ‘Alpha Sound’..., which Harry helped create and publicise, is historically tremendously important - it being so different from the cultivated full head tone so popular until the 1950’s. This sound, recorded first of all in Oxford by Harry has today become ‘the’ accepted English chorister tone…”
I don't know exactly what that means but I'll go along with it.

Before WWII boy singers were referred to as boy sopranos by the record companies but Harry Mudd helped change that to Treble Soloist, which is still the more accepted term.
There was a change in English Cathedral music. The ‘English Sound’ was being replaced by the ‘Ely Sound’ which was influenced by the music of Benjamin Britten. The choirs of Oxford and Cambridge were leaders of the new sound.

This CD features recordings that were made before digital recording technology but the music and voices are perfectly clear and beautiful. Here are 24 tracks sung by 13 boys such as Andrew Wicks, Paul Dutton, Michael Ginn, Dara Carroll, Thomas Hunt, Peter Davey and lots more.

They are singing a variety of works like I Will Give My Love An Apple, Mozart’s Alleluya, Pie Jesu, and the Skye Boat song so there is something for everybody. The liner notes tell a bit of history about all of the singers but I won’t go into them here.

I’m very grateful that someone was around to make quality recordings of these boys so that their voices were not lost to us completely.


  1. There is another in that series called "Once Were Christmas Angels" produced in 2006. Also you might want to check out "The Better Land" series. This is 6 Volumes with recordings dating back as far as 1914 I believe.

  2. I definitely will, thanks for the tip.

  3. Berlin Classics has been recently putting out some dirt cheap CDs of the Thomanerchor and Dresdner Kreuzchor that were cut in the mid-50s...back when the full, robust, massed-voice sound was still trendy in Bach and Baroque's not exactly the same as Once Were Angels but the sound is hard to beat--the Dresdner Kreuzchor is one of the very best of its kind and, combined with the Thomanerchor (at 1950s' numbers), that's more treble voices than a person can shake a stick at!

    Obligatory Plug:
    Something worth checking out--this is a video of the Kolner Domchor (Boys' Choir of Cologne Cathedral) giving the opening movement to the Johannespassion...even in the spaciousness of the church--the largest Gothic cathedral on the Continent, the trebles' sound stays generally distinct.
    If anyone is familiar with CDs or CD-quality audio available of this group, I'm listening.

  4. thanks Kelsie,
    Berlin Classics sounds like something really good. I'll check out.
    I didn't know the Kolner Domchor before but I like that a lot.