If anyone has ever had the pleasure of hearing a great boy soprano, or treble if you don’t like colloquialisms, you’ll understand the tone of this post, because its unlike anything in the music world, which is why I felt compelled to write about it.
The origin of the boy soprano goes back to Pre-Christian times, when boys were used to sing chants in Jewish services, and continued through the rise of Christianity. Bach was considered a great boy soprano, which frankly should only serve to depress us even more considering he towers over us musicians anyway.
There are but a small handful of works calling for boy soprano in the repertoire. The most famous is probably either Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hear My Prayer” or “O For The Wings Of A Dove” or the “Miserere” of Gregorio Allegri, but there are a couple other examples that hold a special place in my heart.
One is the Symphony no. 4 of Mahler. The soprano solo in the finale was originally conceived for boy soprano (as it is supposed to be a child’s view of heaven), however it is virtually never performed this way. To the best of my recollection, there are only two recordings of the piece that use boy soprano. One is Leonard Bernstein’s DG recording with the Vienna Philharmonic with soloist Helmut Wittek, and the other is the woefully underrated Anton Nanut’s performance with the Ljubljana Symphony and soloist Max-Emanuel Cencic. It’s worth hearing both performances for a variety of reasons, but to hear the music sung by a true boy soprano is reason #1 to me.
My perception is that the music is simply too difficult to pull off for such a young soloist, which is probably why you don’t hear it very often. Both of these now-no-longer-boys certainly sing the part well, but it lacks the refinement that the music warrants, child’s view or not. They simply cannot bring the nuance and color to the music that the Dawn Upshaws of the world can, and, ironically, cannot convey the childlike innocence of the movement to the same degree, at least in my opinion.
However, there is a work in which a boy soprano is preferable to their grownup counterpart, and it’s the Faure Requiem. One of my favorite pieces of music, made even better when sung with a boys chorus and boy soloist on the Pie Jesu. Perhaps it associates itself better with the old St. Paul approach of mulieres in ecclesiis taceant (which is to say silence from the women) when choirs were almost exclusively male, but whatever it is, it works like magic. The Pie Jesu goes from being a beautiful creation to a life-changing experience, IMO. There is a great recording with George Guest conducting the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge on Decca that everyone owes it to themselves to hear. Do it.
Now, this has been a poorly written, kind of generic post, but there’s a reason for it. I’ve been listening recently to a fine Naxos recording of a Jewish First S’lihot service with celebrated cantor Benzion Miller. And in this recording is a boy soprano who absolutely makes my hair stand on end, and I mean in the good way. I’ve pieced together a little sample of what he sounds like for those that care to take a listen (about 2 1/2 minutes).
I wish I could tell you his name, but he goes uncredited on the recording. But what a haunting sound. It’s no exaggeration to tell you that this has been stuck with me for over a year, and I still can’t shake it. Nor do I want to.