What Counts as a Male Voice Choir?

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An interesting debate around the definition of the ‘male voice choir’ arose at Llangollen, and it got people thinking about the relationship between ensemble membership, repertoire and performance style. The question was whether the term should be simply understood as a choir of male voices, or whether it should be understood to include the histories and practices of the major male voice choir traditions.

For people from Wales and Cornwall in particular, the idea of the male voice choir has very specific connotations. There is a traditional core repertoire (what one of my fellow adjudicators referred to as ‘19th-century warhorses’), a distinctive robust and forthright style of vocal production and a strong folk memory of the genre’s roots in the mining communities. Elsewhere in the UK you’ll find male voice choirs in areas that had strong mining industries, but you’ll also get male voice choirs associated with other workplace communities (such as Police choirs) or as enclaves of Welsh culture maintained by people who have moved to England (or indeed other parts of the world - there are several Welsh MVCs in New Zealand).

But, unlike some genre labels (like gospel or barbershop or show choir), it’s not clear from the label itself that the term ‘male voice choir’ is freighted with all these associations and expectations. So one can’t be entirely surprised when choirs of male voices with no particular adherence to a specific MVC tradition enter the competition; equally one can’t be entirely surprised when audiences steeped in genre expectations are perturbed by this.

There were two variants on the theme at Llangollen, each bringing slightly different issues. The first was a choir made of the male voices from a mixed choir from an American university. Their repertoire showed a reasonably strong relationship to the Welsh tradition, with a piece by Mathias to open and a popular tune of the 1930s to finish. And whilst you won’t find too many Welsh choirs singing music by 18th-century American composers, stylistically it was perfectly appropriate, since Billings was writing in an era before composers got all self-conscious about their origins and were happy to share an international musical language.

The objection to this group’s appropriation of the label ‘male voice choir’ was consequently not framed in terms of musical content, but in the nature of the ensemble. Half a mixed choir, it was argued, does not constitute a male voice choir. ‘If you are building an equal-voice choir,’ another adjudicator remarked over coffee, ‘you are building a different type of ensemble from a mixed choir. It is a different instrument.’ In effect, this was questioning whether a specific subset of a larger choir can count as a choir in its own right. Comparisons come to mind about whether if you cut a worm in half you have two worms, or two halves of one dead worm…but the comparison isn't entirely fair, since these guys did sing very well, which worms usually don't.

The second issue arose from a barbershop chorus that competed in the male voice choir class. Two thirds of their repertoire again looked quite orthodox for the genre: the Schubert would likely have been written for the German Liedertafel tradition, and while Eric Whitacre isn’t quite the standard fare in the rest of the world that he is in the US, the male voice choir tradition does embrace contemporary music seemingly quite happily. (How much that is forced by festival syllabuses I don’t know, but there seems to be plenty of new music available.)

Their final piece was a spiritual that, while not core barbershop, was arranged for them by a barbershop arranger, and both their presentational style and interpretation strategies spoke strongly of the barbershop tradition. This was the piece and performance that had people asking about genre and appropriateness for this competition. The choreographic extravagance alone was in stark contrast to the serried ranks and military bearing of the Welsh tradition.

Having said that, had they performed the Schubert with a greater sense of style, they would probably have won the class, since they sing very very well indeed. Indeed, possibly that was what brought the question to a head. It may be okay to have a choir that doesn’t fully understand the connotations of the genre label in the competition, but it would be more problematic to have them win.

As it happened, the winners were Ysgol Gerdd Ceredigion, a young choir from Wales that I thought did a really nice job of recognising and connecting with the tradition without being boxed in by it. They sang a new piece in Welsh with the robust, clarion tone that is so characteristic of the tradition, but without the inflexibility and ‘shouty’ feel that it can sometimes acquire. They balanced this with a sensitive piece of Mendelssohn and finished with an arrangement of ‘Seasons of Love’ provided by their accompanist. They didn’t have quite the cleanliness of sound of Westminster, but I suspect that the other choirs they beat to take the trophy would be happier to lose to them than to a barbershop chorus.

And that might be quite a good way to define a genre pragmatically. You belong to a genre if other members of it would be happy to celebrate you as a worthy winner when you defeat them in contest. It only works for those genres that compete, of course, but then that’s usually the place where people get most exercised about it.

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