Period Singers: Our Fascination With Boy Trebles in Bach

If you’d like to lose faith in humanity, open the YouTube comments section. Just ask any classical music fan. Nazi trolls under Wagner’s Lohengrin prelude, bitter religious disputes under renaissance motets – and then there’s the baroque enthusiasts to be found under hourlong videos of Bach’s oratorios. Even excluding matters of personal taste, they have plenty to argue about. The use of period instruments is a widespread debate. Less well-known but just as fervent is the discussion on what one could call “period singers” – the practice of allotting oratorio solos to preteen boys in a more radical step to recreate historical performances as they would’ve happened in Bach’s time.

Many can’t imagine Bach without boys’ choirs. Their voices are very frequently involved in a performance in some way, be it by carrying the most famous choral segments or merely singing the nigh-unnoticeable cantus firmus in the opening chorus of St. Matthew Passion. Bach himself famously wrote for the St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig, an all-boys choir world-renowned for their performances of his music, which still constitutes the majority of their repertoire. But in recent times, other choirs have staked a claim to the gold standard of Bach interpretations. Compared to the St. Thomas Choir’s centuries of tradition, the Tölzer Knabenchor – Tölz Boys’ Choir – is a very young emergence of post-war Germany. Founded in 1956 in the small Bavarian town of Bad Tölz, their rise to the top of the choral world has happened at warp speed. Their defining feature until today remains the demanding individual training of every single voice. Boys receive weekly solo lessons for years – and with great success. Tölzer soloists sing children’s roles from the Three Boys in Mozart’s Magic Flute to Yniold in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and countless others in opera houses all over the world. This rigorous soloist training shapes the combined choir’s sound into something intense, gleaming, and voluminous, far different from English treble voices.

It also predestines them for performances of grand oratorios like Bach’s passions. Little surprise, then, that they’ve recorded both St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion under the renowned conductors Sigiswald Kuijken and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, respectively. More recently, they’ve performed both live at the Lausanne Bach Festival and in a series of concerts around Germany and Italy. Especially in these later live performances, the Tölz’ Boys Choir provides a sound distinct from other choirs, moving away from slower tempos and contemplative airs that emphasise the divine aspect of the passion and instead creating a wildly expressive interpretation full of contrasts, occasionally extremes, but highlighting the human aspects of the story. It’s notable that in all mentioned recordings as well as live performances, young soloists of the choir sang the soprano and alto solos. No other choir employs this practice so regularly and to such acclaim, and its merits are worth considering not only in the YouTube comments section.

Soloists of the Tölz Boys’ Choir after performing St. Matthew Passion at the Lausanne Bach Festival on 11.11.2016.

It’s often claimed that Bach preferred writing for boys’ voices. This may be true or not – regardless of what Bach preferred, it’s a fact that in his time, women were not allowed to sing in churches [1]. Bach simply had to write for boys’ voices whether he preferred them or not. Interestingly, this applied to both sopranos and altos. Countertenors existed at the time, but were primarily used in operas [2], which explains how Bach’s contemporary Handel was able to write so many well-known opera arias for alto. By contrast, in Bach’s oratorios, the alto solos were again sung by boys [3]. The choir Bach had available for his performances was no group of musical prodigies either. The mere schoolboys of St. Thomas in Leipzig – the same St. Thomas Choir that is still a major force in Bach performances today – premiered his oratorios, cantatas, and motets [2]. This raises a doubtful question. Bach’ music is, simply put, really hard. If the choristers were not awe-inspiring wunderkinder with superhuman voices, how were they able to sing Bach’s music? Part of the answer is that they sang for Bach for years and presumably quickly became used to the composer’s style and expectations [2]. But more importantly, it’s highly likely that puberty and voice changes in the 18th century happened much later – around 16 or 17 for a boy [1]. Young singers had two or three more years to train their voices, which was sure to improve their technique and interpretation by leagues, considering how rapidly young musicians learn at that age [1]. Nowadays, much has changed. Earlier puberty for boys and more rights for women have greatly decreased the reliance on young, high voices. Yet “period singing” remains a fascination. The question to ask, then, is not: are female sopranos qualified to sing Bach from a historical viewpoint? That would be thoroughly inappropriate – female sopranos have set standards of musical and interpretative excellence again and again and deservedly so. The question is rather: is anything gained by having boys sing? And for that, it’s worth delving into matters of taste.

Female singers undoubtedly have time working in their favour. They’re able to polish their voices for decades to a high technical standard and to solemn artistic perfection. In the excerpt below, soprano Gundula Janowitz sings Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben from St. Matthew Passion under conductor Herbert von Karajan. Vocally, Janowitz displays a thoughtful maturity and languishes in the aria’s long phrases. Karajan can afford a particularly measured pace for this very refined declaration of grief – occasionally, he stretches the limits of slow tempo, but it’s fair game thanks to Janowitz’ perfected legato and technique.

Boys, on the other hand, are working against time – and against their own smaller lung volume. However, that doesn’t have to be a disadvantage. What seems like a limitation allows for more experimentation with tempo, often yielding astonishing results. Boy sopranos trained to near-perfection acquire a rich sound that is, while not decidedly female-sounding, far removed from angelic piping. Such a performance is less measured than an adult’s, with a particularly raw emotional feel. It has a note of immediacy and urgency to it, unrestrained compared to more ‘refined’ adult feelings, and often emphasises passionate phrasing. Particularly standout in that sense are boy altos. They’re used most infrequently as adult altos often have a more secure grasp of lower notes. The few that are trained to perfection, though, manage a timbre unique among all alto voices – dark, heavy, and melancholy, almost like a child singing bass. Countertenors sound soprano-like in comparison. It’s a rare voice and performance type perfectly encapsulated by boy alto Panito Iconomou of the Tölz Boys Choir singing Es ist vollbracht from St. John Passion under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, arguably the high point of the passion.

(If curiosity persists to compare these two performances with a boy soprano and adult alto, respectively, these are two more listening samples. The first is boy soprano Christian Fliegner, also a Tölzer soloist, singing Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben under Sigiswald Kuijken:

…and the second is countertenor Andreas Scholl performing Es ist vollbracht.)

In the wake of this flood of examples, notice that there’s no mention of what can be considered “best” – simply because no option can be strictly considered “best”. In the end, conductors choose the artist whose interpretation and technical skill level best suits the piece, and this practice should persist. Finding boy singers up to standard is extremely difficult, but not impossible. Employing such a young voice as a soloist is certainly worth it – it’s a rare phenomenon that deserves to be heard and celebrated. But never force historical accuracy just for the sake of accuracy. Always choose what’s best for the work.

Should I have now interested you in a “period singing” performance of a Passion, which was unsubtly my intent, here’s a 2017 performance of St. Matthew Passion by Christian Fliegner, the Tölz Boys’ Choir, and the Münchner Hofkapelle. The comments section underneath isn’t even so bad!

Lynn Sophie Guldin, January 2021

[1] Labadie, Bernard. “The Male Voice and Bach • Orchestra of St. Luke's.” Orchestra of St. Luke's, July 15, 2020.

[2] Paton, John Glenn. "Who Sang Bach's Church Music?" The Choral Journal 25, no. 9 (1985): 9-14. Accessed January 14, 2021.

[3] Labadie, Bernard. “The Male Voice and Bach, Part II • Orchestra of St. Luke's.” Orchestra of St. Luke's, July 15, 2020.

Lynn has also written:

Wagner’s Das Rheingold by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer

Wagner’s Die Walküre by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer

Wagner’s Siegfried by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer

Wagner’s Götterdämmerung by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer



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