Robin Lithgow, former director in charge of arts education in Los Angeles public schools, has written an engaging series about the history of “boys’ theater companies.”

This is Part 1. 

She begins:

“Harken, I do hear sweet music: I never heard the like” and “we shall hear [in the choir of Saint Paul’s] the fairest voices of all the cathedrals in England … and to tell the truth, I never heard better singing.”

— Claude Desainliens, a French visitor to London in 1573

“Mom, I was just in Westminster Abbey, and there was music falling from the ceiling—the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard. I thought it was angels, but then the choir door opened and out walked a whole lot of little boys!”

—My 18-year-old daughter, calling from a phone booth on her first day in London, 1995, having just heard the Westminster Boys Choir in rehearsal

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A Bit of Little-Known History From My Book:

“In England, the training of boys’ voices for royal entertainment goes far back in history, deep into the Middle Ages. Sometime in the 12thcentury, probably earlier, an ecclesiastical body of musicians and singers was organized to meet the spiritual needs of the England’s reigning sovereign. It still exists. Called the Chapel Royal, it is today considered the oldest continuous musical organization in the world. Traditionally it has been comprised of from twenty-four to thirty-eight men and from eight to twelve boys. Besides the Chapel Royal and the Westminster Boys’ Choir there are dozens of boys’ choirs throughout Britain, the Chapel Royal only being the oldest.

“No one knows when boy singers were added to the Chapel Royal or other church choirs, but they were probably present from the very beginning, their treble voices being thought to be the closest to the voices of angels. There was a religious pursuit of this purity of tone. Churches, abbeys and cathedrals were designed acoustically to capture it: massive sound boxes that amplified these “fairest voices.” Choir schools, attached to churches and training children for church choirs, played a role in the pre-reformation history of British education. They offered free education to able students. Their purpose was to assure a sufficient number of well-trained voices to supply the needs of the church. As we shall see, Erasmus himself attended a song school in Utrecht, perhaps because it was an opportunity for a free education. The earliest choirmasters were usually almoners, the men who distributed alms to the needy.