Boys' voices, lads' voices: Benjamin Britten and the Ragazzo sound

Jim Coyle, Lecturer, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, The University of Sydney, Australia

Issue One | Page 71 | May 2020


Over 20% of the opus-numbered compositions by Benjamin Britten involved the sound of young voices. In thirteen of these pieces, he stipulated a chorus of trebles. Britten is known to have had a preference for what he perceived as a natural singing sound, rather than the refined and pure tone of a cathedral choir. This study analyses these works for five musical parameters: pitch range, pitch proximity, mean pitch, phrase length, and notated dynamics to demonstrate that Britten had two distinct styles when writing for treble chorus. One is for the traditional English cathedral sound and the other is for the 'continental' voice produced by certain choirs for whom he wrote. There are some transitional works composed in the late 1940s and early 1950s that show characteristics of both of these styles. These conclusions will help in interpreting Britten's works and as technical guidelines for composers seeking particular effects when writing for the treble choir.

Key words trebles, cathedral choir, Benjamin Britten, boys, continental tone, ragazzo

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