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Although a treble, or choirboy, may also be considered to be a boy soprano, the 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. Another term for that range is superius. The term "treble" itself was first used in the 15th century. Trebles have an average range of A3 to F5.
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.
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 to 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, with the breaking of his voice, he becomes unable to sing the highest notes required by the pieces of music involved.
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, for example bass, baritone, tenor, countertenor and sopranist.
It has been observed that boy sopranos in earlier times were, on average, somewhat older than in modern times. For example, Franz Joseph Haydn was considered to be an excellent boy soprano well into his teens and Ernest Lough was 15 when he first recorded his famous "Hear My Prayer" (on April 5, 1927), with his voice not getting deeper until 1929 (at age 17 or 18). However, for a male to sing soprano with an unchanged voice in his mid-to-late teens 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.
On the other hand, some musicologists dispute that earlier onset of puberty occurs. They contend that there is no reliable evidence of any significant change in the age of boys' maturity over the past 500 years or even beyond that. Indeed, The Problemes of Aristotle (published in London, 1595, from Problemata) state that "boyes [are] apt to change their voice about fourteene yeares of age," and Ashley's research seems generally to concur with this.
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