The tradition of boy choirs in France's great cathedrals had disapperared when a new choir was founded in 1906. That choir was the forerunner of the many wonderful boy choirs now operating in France. La Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois is today alonf with the Parios Cathedral Choir, the most famous boy choirs in France. Since the turn of the century, the approximately 100 Small Singers have followed a formal musical education at their chateau near Paris. Recruited from the general population, they are trained to a very high standard. The current director is Rodolphe Pierrepont. As well as sacred music, the choir performs popular French fare. La Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois are according to a HBC contributor one of the ten best boy choirs of Europe and compare with the Wiener Sängerknaben or Tölzerknaben in Germany and the Escalonia de Montserrat.
The name of the choir translates as The Small Singers with the Wooden Cross. The word "Manécanterie" although it's part of the official name of les petits chanteurs à la croix de bois is no longer commonly used in the French language. It is coming from latin "mane" = morning and "cantare" " to sing and was used only for church choirs. It mean that the boys wouls sing in early morning services.
Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois often cause curiosity. Who are these children whose life seems exceptional? They travel throughout the world, sing in front of the large audiences, meet famous people, while preserving the simplicity and the freshness of
their age. Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois are children like any others. During one moment of their youth, they form part
of this extraordinary adventure. They belong to a family which is proud mission that it set.
The history of modern French boy choirs is relatively recent. The chaotic history of France, especially the Revolution in 1789, as well as two Napoleonic Empires and a series of republics has meant that many national institutions and traditiions have been affected. This is especially true of institutions dependent on the Church. Thus during the Revolution the tradition of boys' choral music was lost to France and not revived until the 20th Century. That tradition was revived by the founders of Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois, the best known French choir. During the summer of 1906, two young students, on holiday at the Abbey of Tamie, in Savoy, form a project which seemed at the time to be a dream: to form a group of children which would go from church in church in various cities to carry the living testimony living of the authentic sacred music. This dream was actually realized in 1907. Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois were born. The quality of their songs, the purity of their voices, in opposition with the accepted musical style of the day, raise astonishment and enthusiasm. The white cassocks and the small wood cross fixed on their neck
appear, in their sobriety, like the signs of this revival. The history of Manécanterie of Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois starts. It faced the test of World War I (1914-18), which devastated its ranks. But nothing can end the faith of the founders and young singers. Manecanterie continued, more determined than ever, after the War. In 1924, the direction of Manécanterie was entrusted to young priest, Abbé Mallet. orld War II (1939-45) was for the Small Singers, as for everyone, a long period of tests, with its sufferings and its deaths. After several months of relative quiet in the West, the Germans launched their long-awaited Western offensive (May 1940). After the War, Mgr Maillet played a major role in reviving the boy choir tradition. He died in 1963. Abbé Delsinne, succeed him as director of the Choir. During 15 years, until his death in 1978, he lea the Manécanterie with talent and determination as begun by Mgr Maillet. The current director is Rodolphe Pierrepont.
The residence of the Small Singers is in Glaignes, close to Crepy-in-Valois, with an about 60 kilometers of Paris, set among beautiful green scenery. The Choir's 110 children live there in boarding school, with a family atmosphere. They live and study in a pallace given to the choir by Baron Bic. Their school looks like a historic building, but we do not yet know the details.
One of the major supporters of the choir was the rich industrialist Baron Bic. He is known for his low-cost ballpoint pen. The Conseil général de L'Oise was another major contributor. Noël-Noël, an important French actor during 1940-60 was very close to the PCCB. President Pompidou and his wife were great admirers of the PCCB in the 1970s .
One of the reasons the PCCB chiristers achieve such a high level of excellence is that they persue their music studies as part of a boarding school education. This allows the boys to devote a far greater amount of time than the boys who only practice a few times a week. While there are quite a number of boy choirs in France, very few perue their musical studies at a boarding facility like the PCCB facility at Glaignes. This allows the choiristers to devote the time needed to practice requited for such a high standard of choral music.
The choristers begin at the chateau at age from 9-10 years, most are 9 when they arrive. All these boys can claim to become Petit Singer with the wood cross, subject to a school examination and of a motivation for the song. Recruitment proceeds in March, each year. The date of April 20 is especially important for the choristers. Each year at this date new young singers are selected to choin the choir. These boys are about 9 years old and come from the CM1. This is a primary school grade (form) level--Cours moyen, 1ère année (CM1). This is comparabke to the American 4th grade in elementary school. They do not board their first year with the choir. Most boys stay with the Choir untill they are about 14 years old. As most arrived when they were 9 years old, they stay an average of 5 years. The PCCB adds 2 or 3 older boys (former choristers) to sing the contre-alto passages in the music. There are no adult members of the choir.
The boys receive a general education in conformity there with the official programs, CM1 with 3rd. The musical and vocal training is ensured by five professors. It includes instruction in polyphony, the musical theory and of the individual and collective courses of song. The choral training required an enormous effort on the boys' part. A reader tells us, "At the PCCB boarding house, the boys in the 1950s had 3 hours of music training each day, focusing heavily on chant. Soloists received even more training. When one considers that the boys also had school work you can see the tremendous effort that the choristers put into the program. You can see that the children had little time to play with their frends. Thus was my exoeriece as well, but I must say that I never sufferd from it." The staff is carefully chosen and extremely competent. The children take part in trips only after one period of preparation. The teachers accompany the choristers when they go on tour and conduct lessons on a well established half-time basis which requires real discipline on the boys' part. The life of the Small Singer finishes with adolescene and the change of voice, about 13 or 14 years of age. The boys then continue their studies in a school of their choice. A small moment of nostalgia, quickly surmounted, can accompany this departure, but the Small Singer approaches a new rich existence of an experiment and an exceptional broadmindedness.
The PCCB as one of the best known choirs in France has been invited to perform in countries all over the world. This extensive travel began in the inter-war period, but has become much more extensive since the Worl War II and the advent of easy air travel. For many of the boys this is one of the most interesting aspects of participating in the choir. The choir travels in their trade-mark blue sweater, shorts, and white kneesocks. They choristers have best a host important and well known persons throughout the world during their various trips. There were many trips to perormances both within France and in neighboring countrie. There were also trips to more distant countries. The PCCB visited China in 1986, the first European boys choir to do so. There were many trips to America, 1931 35 47 50 53 55 57 and so on.
The Choir and other boy choirs in France were founded with the expressed purpose of brnging music back to Catholic churches. This the focus of the musical training and repotire of the Choir is church music. The Choir is not, however, limited to church music. As well as sacred music, the choir performs popular French fare at its masny concerts..
A reader asks, "I understand that they have a secular uniform as well as a religious alb. During tours and overseas concerts, how are these used? Do they have costume changes in the middle of a concert to sing a particular song that is religious in nature?" A former chorister tells us, "For the concerts: Since 1907, the principle has never changed, Concerts take place in two stages and last approximately one hour and a half: In the first part, we sing the sacred pieces. We enter and we are dressed in white alb. At intermission we change our alb for the second part, which are for singing secular songs, so we are dressed in the PCCB uniform
and we remaim so. For religious occassions: Inside the sacristy we put our alb on our PCCB uniform, and
we remain dressed so all time the ceremony. Then at the end we put of our alb and can people see us dressed in our uniform."
A reader writes, "I also observe a strict sense of discipline in the choir. During two-hour long concerts, they stand straight without fidgeting, and with their hands behind their backs. Even when walking up and down and stage, and while bowing to their audience, their hands remain behind their backs. How did this practice come about? Is it a regimental practice, or is it a practice that improves the singing (by expanding the lungs or otherwise)?" A former chorister tells us, "Yes, the sense of discipline has a major role for the best result of the performance. People expect some perfection. In fact the concerts last twice a half hours. It's a tense moment for boys. We see all eyes are fixed on us. Then the Choirmaster observes us and we can not deceive him. At the end the concerts, we always got long applause. I remember, before all, our preoccupation was abbot Maillet who directed us and we were asking if he had been satisfied with us. In France, hands in the back are a polite way for a child to appear in front a person or the public, this attitude is not difficult to keep."
The great French composer Darius Milhaud wrote: " Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois is a miracle of faith, tenacity, enthusiasm and talent ". This miracle, perhaps is due it quite simply to this spirit "Mané", which is transmitted from generation to generation, like the "baton" in a relay race. Whatever the evolutions necessary, the heart remains the same one. The Small Singers of today resemble "étrangement" to the Small Singers of yesterday, as with those of tomorrow. Anonymities in
their white cassocks, they have constituted for almost 80 years the great family of the Small Singers to the Cross. The Small Singers over time, and often without knowing it, created followers who appreciated their beautiful voices.
Some boy choirs include both boys and young men. In contrast, the PCCB Choir is only composed of boys, Soproni, contre alto. When the boys' voices break, unfortunatly they must leave the choir. This happens today earlier than in the past. Today the boys' voices normally break 13-14 years of age. So in the PCCB there is constant turn over. This some boys may enter at 10 years of age and leave 3 or 4 years latter. Most stay about 5 years. They receive an intensive program on the music by very competent teachers. The boys work very hard to raech an impresive level of performance. The whole process is very costly given the short period in which the boys can perform. The stay with the choir used to be 1-2 years longer in the early years, but modern boys are maturing earlier as a result of diet and other factors.
The PCCB is known throughout France. Their performances held in mant French cities are very popular. One HBC reader reports, "It is difficult obtaininhg a seat at one of their concerts. They are always booked up well in advance. The PCCB and the Viener Sangerkanaben (VS--Vienna Choir Boys) are probably the two most famous boy choirs in the world. There are English choirs of comparable quality, but the English choirs do not appear to travel as much as the PCCB and VS.
After visiting any specific, in France and abroad, the Small Singers spontaneously created interest in organizing local choirs. These new "Manecanteries" needed Abbot Mallet's help. As a result, he decided to found the International Federation of Small Singers. The Federation was desgned to help unites these fledgling choirs and is opened to children's choirs sround the world animated with the same ideals. The movement became very extensive as choirs around the world joined.
The boys wear both a religious costume, a white alb and a secular uniform of blue seaters and short pants, depending on the nature of the performance. This uniform is now associated with French choirs becuse many have adopted it, or one very similar to it. The reason is that the PCCB was the choir that initiated the rebirth of boy choirs in France. Many of the other French choirs were inspired by the example of the PCCB. They have also incluenced choirs in other countries, including Belgium and Canada. The costume of blue sweaters and blue short was also worn at some French catholic colleges (schools) as a school uniform.
The choristers of the PCCB participated in the making of the only important French film which HBC knows of focusing on a boy choir. The choir depicted, however, was a fictional film. The French movie La cage aux rossignols ("The cage with the nightingales") used choristers from Les petits chanteurs a la croix de bois. The scene here shows the choristers in an informal momment. It shows casual clothes commonly worn by French boys in during the mid-1940s. The story line involves a young professor who is employed in a house for delinquent children. He is a musician and decides to create a choral group to develop the children who are mistreated in the home. The pictures on this page are the choir mememberrs meeting to practice. The movie has a contemprary setting, the mid-1940s.
After the death of Mgr Maillet, the PCCB choir held a special service to honor the anniversary of Mgr Maillet's death (February 27, 1963). At the end of the Mass the choir sang the " Ave Verum corpus Mozart ".
A French reader writes, "I well know the PCCB and I love much this institution. The PCCB choristers sow through the wold a message of peace, love, and purity coming from little boys' hearts."
The foundation of Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Boisis proved to be so important and inspired the foundation of so many other choirs that Mgr. Maillet decided that an international association was needed to promote choral muic and assist the many choirs that were in many cases still struggling to operate. He help found la Fédération internationale des Petits Chanteurs. Most of the member were Fech, but there were choirs from several other countries as well. In 1949, about 3,000 boys from 15 different countries gathered in Rome. Pope Pie XII celebrated a mass for them. In 1956, a much larger group of 6,000 boys gathered for the Federation's International Congress in Paris under the presidence of Mgr. Maillet.
A Swiss HBC contributor provide the following information on Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois. HBC has translated the information, but thought it mighgt be helpul for French readers to retain the French text.
Suscitent souvent la curiosité. Qui sont ces enfants dont la vie semble exceptionnelle ?
lls voyagent à travers le monde, chantent devant d'innombrables publics, rencontrent des personnages illustres, tout en conservant la simplicité et la fraicheur de leur âge. Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois sont des enfants comme les autres. Pendant un moment de leur jeunesse, ils font partie de cette aventure extraordinaire. Ils appartiennent à une famille qui est fière de la mission qu'elle s'est fixée.
Durant l'été 1906, deux jeunes étudiants, en vacances a l'Abbaye de Tamie, en Savoie, forment un projet qui semble tenir du rêve: créer une Maîtrise d'enfants qui irait d'église en église, de ville en ville, porter le témoignage vivant de l'authentique musique religieuse. Ce rêve devient, dès l'année suivante, une réalité. Plus riches d'enthousiasme que d'argent, nos deux jeunes gens s'installent dans une masure d'un faubourg parisien et accueillent les premiers enfants.
Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois sont nés. La qualité de leurs chants, la pureté de leurs voix, en opposition avec le
style musical alors répandu, soulèvent étonnement et enthousiasme.
L'aube blanche et la petite croix de bois accrochée à leur cou
apparaissent, dans leur sobriété, comme les signes de ce renouveau.
L'histoire de la Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois
commence. Elle connaitra bientôt l'épreuve de la guerre 1914-18, qui fait des ravages dans ses rangs. Mais rien ne peut entamer sa foi. La
Manecanterie continue, plus determinée que jamais, après la tourmente.
En 1924, la direction de la Manécanterie est confiée a un jeune prêtre,
I'Abbé Maillet. Cela ressemble a un nouveau départ. Homme d'une stature
exceptionnelle, animé d'une foi débordante, I'Abbé Maillet ne tarde pas a imprimer sa marque dans la vie des Petits Chanteurs. L'Abbé Maillet conduit la Manécanterie hors des frontières, d'abord dans les pays voisins puis, dès 1931, avec une audace incroyable pour l'époque,
en Amérique du Nord. Les Petits Chanteurs reçoivent un accueil triomphal aux Etats-Unis et au Canada. C'est le vrai début de leur croisade internationale. lls ne cesseront depuis de parcourir le monde: quatre-vingts pays visités et trois tours du monde à ce jour.
La guerre de 1939-45 est pour les Petits Chanteurs, comme pour tout le monde, une longue période d'épreuves, avec ses souffrances et ses morts. Pourtont, la paix revenue, en 1945, I'Abbé Maillet prend une initiative capitale qui va bientot transformer et élargir le rôle des Petits Chanteurs.
La résidence des Petits Chanteurs se trouve à Glaignes, près de
Crepy-en-Valois, à une soixantaine de kilomètres de Paris, en pleine verdure. Cent dix enfants y vivent en internat, duns une ambiance familiale. Ils y recoivent un enseignement général conforme aux programmes officiels, du CM1 à la 3ème. La formation musicale et vocale est assurée par cinq professeurs. Elle comprend l'enseignement de la polyphonie, le solfège et des cours de chant individuels et collectifs. Les enfants ne participent aux voyages qu'après
une période de préparation. Des professeurs les suivent en tournée et
dispensent leurs cours selon une formule de mi-temps, bien rodée, mais qui exige des élèves une certaine discipline. La vie du Petit Chanteur se termine à l'âge de la mue, à 13 ou 14 ans. ll continue alors ses études, dans une école de son choix. Un petit moment de
nostalgie, vite surmonté, peut accompagner ce depart, mais le Petit
Chanteur aborde une nouvelle existence riche d'une expérience et d'une
ouverture d'esprit exceptionnelles.
Le grand compositeur français Darius Milhaud écrivait:
"La Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois est un miracle de la foi, de la ténacité, de l'enthousiasme et du talent".
Ce miracle, peut-être tient-il tout simplement à cet esprit "Mané", qui se transmet de génération en génération, comme le "témoin" dans une course de relais. Quelles que soient les évolutions nécessaires, l'âme reste la même. Les Petits Chanteurs d'aujourd'hui ressemblent étrangement aux Petits Chanteurs d'hier, comme à ceux de demain.
Anonymes dans leurs aubes blanches, ils constituent depuis presque
quatre-vingt dix ans la grande famille des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Ceux-ci avaient, depuis plusieurs années, souvent a leur insu, fait des émules.
Après leur passage dans telle ou telle ville, en France et à l'étranger, des groupes de Petits Chanteurs s'étaient spontanément crées à leur image. Ces "Manecanteries" nouvelles demandaient à l'Abbé Maillet de les aider. Il décide alors de fonder la Fédération Internationale des Petits Chanteurs, qui reunira tous ces groupes et sera ouverte à tous les choeurs d'enfants animés du même idéal. Le mouvement prend une ampleur considérable et les adhésions arrivent du monde entier. En 1963, Mgr Maillet quitte ce monde et laisse les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois orphelins. Son second, I'Abbé Delsinne, lui succède. Pendant quinze ans, jusqu'à sa mort en 1978, il conduira la Manécanterie avec talent et détermination sur la voie tracée par Mgr Maillet.
Les Petits Chanteurs sont revenus depuis à la formule de leurs debuts, avec une direction collegiale La résidence des Petits Chanteurs se trouve à Glaignes, près de Crepy-en-Valois, à une soixantaine de kilomètres de Paris, en pleine verdure. Cent dix enfants y vivent en internat, duns une ambiance familiale. Ils y recoivent un enseignement général conforme aux programmes officiels, du CM1 à la 3ème.
La formation musicale et vocale est assurée par cinq professeurs. Elle comprend l'enseignement de la polyphonie, le solfège et des cours de chant individuels et collectifs. Les enfants ne participent aux voyages qu'après une période de préparation. Des professeurs les suivent en tournée et dispensent leurs cours selon une formule de mi-temps, bien rodée, mais qui exige des élèves une certaine discipline.
La vie du Petit Chanteur se termine à l'âge de la mue, à 13 ou 14 ans. ll continue alors ses études, dans une école de son choix. Un petit moment de nostalgie, vite surmonté, peut accompagner ce depart, mais le Petit Chanteur aborde une nouvelle existence riche d'une expérience et d'une ouverture d'esprit exceptionnelles.
Tous les garçons de 9 à 10 ans peuvent prétendre devenir Petit Chanteur à la croix de bois, sous réserve d'un examen scolaire et d'une motivation pour le chant. Le recrutement se déroule au mois de mars, chaque année.
Barber, Noel. The Week France Fell (Stein and Day: New York, 1976), 321p.
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