CAMBRIDGE, England — At 8 a.m. one recent Thursday, the boys of the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, stifled yawns as they began their first rehearsal of the day with some vocal exercises. Soon, the room was filled with a host of “Ooo” and “Zah” sounds.
Once the choir was warmed up, Andrew Nethsingha, its music director, called upon boy after boy to sing a couple of lines of a psalm solo.
Then, the director did something none of his predecessors had, in the choir’s entire 350-year history: He called upon a girl to sing. Amelia Crichton-Stuart, 10, quickly pushed her glasses up her nose and sang, high and pure, two lines about how God’s “right hand is full of righteousness.”
“Very good,” Nethsingha said, with a smile. After one of the other choristers pointed out that Crichton-Stuart had sung one word incorrectly, not lengthening it as in the notation, Nethsingha said he preferred what she had sung. “We’re going to change the choir to do your version!” he told Crichton-Stuart, who beamed with joy.
For centuries, British choral music has been a largely male space, with the country’s cathedrals and chapels filled with the angelic voices of boy choristers, who perform daily services with male singers supplying the bass parts.
In the 1990s, a host of cathedrals in Britain set up separate girls’ choirs to perform services, too, but the recent move by the Choir of St. John’s — generally considered one of England’s best — to mix genders has been greeted by choral insiders as groundbreaking. Some have celebrated it as a long overdue step toward equality, and others have agonized that it may herald the demise of boys-only choirs.
Shortly after Nethsingha announced the change last October, three other choirs said they would be mixing girls and boys too, including St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle (a place of such tradition it has hosted numerous royal weddings, including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s in 2018).
Nethsingha said in an interview that he knew the move was bold, but he also felt “rather late to the party,” since a couple of less prominent choirs, including the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, mixed their choristers in the 1970s. Nethsingha received some complaints about the decision, he added, mostly on the college’s Facebook page.
Other choirs who have decided to mix boys and girls said they had similarly received a few negative reactions. Charles Harrison, the choir master at Chichester Cathedral, said he was sent “half a dozen” letters of complaint, including one from a regular donor who announced they were withdrawing their support.
But Nethsingha said he didn’t regret the move. In April, he admitted Crichton-Stuart, alongside Martha Gritten, 9, and Ingrid B., also 9 (Ingrid’s parents did not want her surname included in this article for reasons of privacy). The girls began boarding at the choir’s associated school just like the boys. In the same month, Nina Vinther, 24, joined the choir’s adult ranks.
Britain is not the only country whose choral world is agonizing over whether to include girls. In 2019, a German court blocked a 9-year-old girl’s attempt to join one of Berlin’s oldest choirs on the grounds that artistic freedom was more important than equal treatment — despite studies having shown that differences between young girls’ and boys’ voices are slight, and even professional singers can’t always tell the difference.
Opponents of mixing choirs insist there are many good reasons to exclude girls. Alan Thurlow, a retired choral director and a vice president of the Traditional Cathedral Choir Association, which offers grants to men’s and boys’ choirs, said in a telephone interview that he worried if choirs admitted girls, it would mean fewer boys would be able, or want, to join.
“You’re not making the choir bigger, you’re reducing the opportunity for boys,” he said, adding that boys can only sing high vocal parts for a few years before their voices change. A drop in the number of boys trained would also mean fewer bass and tenor singers for adult choirs, he added.
Nethsingha said his choir was increasing the number of choristers from 20 to 25 to avoid reducing opportunities for boys. He hoped separate girls’ and boys’ choirs would continue to exist, he added. “I don’t want to be remembered in 100 years time as the chief destroyer of boys’ choirs,” he said, with a nervous laugh.
At least one part of the choral world isn’t deliberating the implications of mixing: the children doing the singing. Last year, when Nethsingha told his boys that girls would be joining them, he said he braced himself for a “barrage of complaints.” Instead, the boys asked just four practical questions — including one about whether they had sufficient toilets for new joiners — then “went bouncing off to their lessons,” Nethsingha said.
“They didn’t have any of the baggage that adults have,” he added.
In an interview after the recent rehearsal, the girls seemed equally undaunted by joining a famed choir, with daily performances, international tours and recordings. Asked if they felt like pioneers, Gritten said, “Sort of, but sort of not!” She then looked at her fellow choristers and giggled.
Crichton-Stuart said the boys had been “really welcoming,” and they played together in their dormitories. The best part of choir life so far, Gritten said, had been Ascension Day — commemorating Jesus’s rise to heaven — where the entire choir climbed up to the top of the college’s chapel, via a spiral staircase, and sung from its roof.
Many major choirs here have made it clear they will not be mixing choirs on a daily basis. In May, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London announced that it would introduce a separate girls choir from 2025. Andrew Carwood, its music director, said in a telephone interview that the cathedral needed to raise 7.5 million pounds, nearly $9 million, to pay for choristers’ school fees and make changes to buildings to accommodate 30 new female singers. Boys and girls would likely sing together for major services, he added.
At St. John’s, the girls were already fully involved in all services. About eight hours after their morning rehearsal, 18 of the choir’s child members and 13 adult choral scholars walked into the college’s grand chapel, to sing that day’s traditional evensong service. Stood in the stalls, their voices soared and echoed around the vast space.
At one point, the choir walked to the front of the chapel and performed an experimental piece involving an electronic backing of whale sounds, the girls’ red outfits standing out among the boys’ white robes. But many of the 60 worshipers in the chapel had their eyes closed, so absorbed in the music bouncing around them, they weren’t looking at who was making it.