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Although a treble, or choirboy, may also be considered to be a boy soprano, the more colloquial term boy soprano is generally only used for boys who sing, perform, or record as soloists, and who may not necessarily be choristers who sing in a boys' choir. Usage of the term "boy soprano" is more prevalent in North America, and "treble" is used in the UK.
In the liturgical Anglican and English Catholic traditions, young choristers are normally referred to as 'trebles', rather than boy sopranos. The term "treble" derives from the Latin triplum, used in 13th and 14th century motets to indicate the third and highest range which was sung above the tenor part (which carried the tune) and the alto part. The term "treble" itself was first used in the 15th Century. Trebles have an average range of C4-A5.
The use of trebles (and falsettos) in Christian liturgical music can be traced back to pre-Christian times. Saint Paul's dictum that "women should be silent in churches" resonated with this tradition; the development of vocal polyphony from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and Baroque thus took place largely, though not exclusively, in the context of the all-male choir, in which all voice parts were sung by men and boys.
The term "boy soprano" originated with Dr Henry Stephen Cutler (1825–1902), Choirmaster of the Cecilian Choir, New York, who used the term for both the choir members and soloists, who were church choristers, when giving concerts in public halls. The earliest use is traced to a Choral Festival at Irving Hall, New York, in May 1866.
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Most trebles have a comfortable range from the A below "middle C" (A3) to the F one and a half octaves above "middle C" (F5). This ability may be comparatively rare, but the Anglican church repertory, which many trained trebles sing, frequently demands G5 and A5. Some trebles, however, can extend their voices higher in the modal register to "high C" (C6). The high C is considered the defining note of the soprano voice type. For high notes see, for example, the treble solo at the beginning of Stanford's Magnificat in G, David Willcocks' descant to Mendelssohn's tune for the carol Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, the even higher treble solo from Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere", and the treble part in the Nunc Dimittis from Tippett's Evening Canticles written for St John's College, Cambridge. Many trebles are also able to reach higher notes by use of the whistle register but this practice is rarely called for in performance.
As a boy approaches and begins to undergo puberty, the quality of his voice increasingly distinguishes itself from that typical of girls. Before and as the voice drops, a uniquely rich tone develops. This brief period of high vocal range and unique color forms much of the ground for the use of the boy soprano in both liturgical and secular music in the Western world and elsewhere. Occasionally boys whose voices have changed can continue to sing in the soprano range for a period of time. This stage ends as the boy's larynx continues to grow and he becomes unable to sing the highest notes required by the pieces of music involved: see voice break.
While the girl's voice tends to develop gradually into the richness of the adult female voice, the voice of the boy is subject to the effects of the dropping of the larynx, also known as the breaking of the voice. The ultimate result of this profound change is that a new set of vocal ranges become available (see bass, baritone, tenor, countertenor, sopranista; see also castrato).
It has been observed that boy sopranos in earlier times were, on average, somewhat older than in modern times. For example, Johann Sebastian Bach was considered to be an outstanding boy soprano until halfway through his sixteenth year, and Ernest Lough was 16 when he recorded his famous "Hear My Prayer", but for a male to sing soprano with an unchanged voice at that age is currently fairly uncommon. In the developed world, puberty tends to begin at younger ages (most likely due to differences in diet, including greater availability of proteins and vitamins). It is also becoming more widely known that the style of singing and voice training within Cathedrals has changed significantly in the past century, making it more difficult for boys to continue singing soprano much beyond the age of 13 or 14.
The fact that boys are no longer trained to sing in the head voice is a significant factor in the demise of the older boy soprano. In times past it was common for boys to sing soprano well beyond the changes at puberty and it was common (and entirely correct) to refer to a choirboy's voice as 'breaking' as the singing voice had been preserved by methods now generally lost.
Famous boy sopranos
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- Roy Goodman became internationally famous as the 12-year-old boy treble soloist in the March 1963 recording of Allegri's Miserere with the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, under David Willcocks.
- Peter Auty sang "Walking in the Air" in the animated film The Snowman.
- Andrew Swait recorded and appeared on more than 14 CDs, both as a chorister and soloist between 2003 and 2009 (including as part of the The Choirboys) and is now a bass/ baritone.
- David Hemmings started his career as a boy soprano for Benjamin Britten and, most notably, originated the part of Miles in Britten's opera, "The Turn of the Screw".
- Andrew Johnston rose to fame after his participation in the second series of Britain's Got Talent.
- Aled Jones was a world famous Welsh boy soprano who is now famous again as a baritone.
- Ernest Lough sold millions with his rendition of "O for the Wings of a Dove" in 1927, recorded when he was 16.
- Jean-Baptiste Maunier starred and sang in the French film Les Choristes.
- Joseph McManners is known for his renditions of "Bright Eyes", "Circle of Life" and "In Dreams".
- Paul Miles-Kingston sang in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem with Sarah Brightman
- Paul Phoenix sang the theme to the BBC's “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” as a chorister of St Paul's Cathedral, and is now one of the King's Singers.
- Anthony Way starred and sang in the hit mini-series The Choir, which was based on a novel of the same name by Joanna Trollope.
- Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones sang as a boy soprano for Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey.
- James Westman was the first boy to perform and record Gustav Mahler's 4th symphony. He was a member of the American Boychoir, Vienna Boys' Choir and Paris Boyschoir. He recorded a solo album titled Jamie Westman-Treble.
- Michael Jackson released his first solo single "Got to Be There" in 1971, at the age of 13. As he entered his adult years, his voice descended from boy soprano to high tenor, which was the voice type he had by the time of his death.
- Frankie Lymon was a famous treble singer from the time he recorded "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" with 1950s boy band quintet The Teenagers and into his solo years after 1957. By the mid-1960s his voice became a deep tenor or light baritone as he matured into adulthood.
- Liam McNally, a boy who placed in the top 10 for Britains got talent series 4.
The recent emergence of liturgical choirs including girls has led in these traditions to both a more inclusive definition of treble that includes the higher voices of children of either sex and to the qualified expression "girl treble", though such usage has met with opposition.
- Taylor, Eric (1991). The AB guide to music theory (Reprinted 2011 ed.). London: Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. p. 106. ISBN 978-1-85472-447-2.
- Westrup, Jack; Wilson, F. Ll. Harrison ; revised by Conrad (1985). Collins encyclopaedia of music. (Completely revised [ed.] ed.). London: Chancellor. p. 556. ISBN 0-907486-50-9.
- Skeat, Walter W. (2005). An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. p. 662. ISBN 0486440524.
- "The Boy Choir & Soloist Directory - Featured Boy Sopranos and Trebles". Retrieved 2008-03-07.
- Willis, Elizabeth C.; Kenny, Dianna T. (2008). "Effect of Voice Change on Singing Pitch Accuracy in Young Male Singers". Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Sudies 2 (1&2): 111.119. Retrieved 9 February 2015.
- McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Genovex Music Group. ISBN 978-1-56593-940-0.