French Boy Choirs

Figure 1.--Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Francois de Versailles wear the standard French choir uniform, bkue sweaters, white shirt worn without a tie, blue shorts, white kneesocks, and black leather shoes. This is the uniform worn at many private French and Belgian colleges.

Many countries of Western and Central Europe have a long tradition of church boys' choirs dating back to the medevil era. One of the longest traditions is that of the French boy choirs. The choirs were associated and continue to be associated with the the Catholic Church. After the French Revolution (1789) the tradition was lost for many years because of the secular, anti-clerical development of the Revolution. The tradition was revived in the early 20th century with creation of La Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois. There are now quite a number of active boy choirs that perform at ahigh standard. I do not know of any secular boy choirs in France. The French tradition has influenced the development of boy choirs in several other countries, including Belgium, Canada, Haiti, and others.


We have no information on early French choirs at this time. Presumably the choral tradition in France was similar to that of other European countries. Choral music like Gregorian chants play an important role in the life of the early Church. France, unlike Italy and some other Europan countries, never used castra. The soprani always involved boys from 9 to 14 years old. While most current French choirs are relatively new choirs, there are some with traditions spanning mpore than a millenium. One of the oldest boys choir in catholic church is the " Choeurs d'enfants de la Cathédrale de Paris " created in the 7th century. The choir still functions today. The history of early European choirs is a topic HBC hopes to persue in the future. The choral tradition was significantly affect in France as a result of French Revolution which began in 1789. The Church was a sdtrong supporter of the ancien regime. As a result, the Revolution developed as a secular, anti-clerical movement. The strong anti-clerical thrust of the Revolution weakened and changed the character of the French Church. The Cathedrals and the institutions surromding them were greatly weakened. The boy choir traition was weakened along with the Church's control over education. The boy choirs were unable to survive the establishment of the Republic which was less tolerant of ecclesiastical etiquette than the Germanic countries where choir schools declined only temporarily. There too, however, intellectual and artistic currents weakened the institution, which was then under the responsibility of Lutheran town councils who, little by little, let it fall into decline. As a result of the anti-clerical thrust of the Revolution, as far as we know, no boy choirs survived. None of the French choirs can thus trace their roots back to early church choir schools like several British and German choirs are able to do. We know of no boy choirs in France during the 19th century. A revival of boy choirs began in Britain after the mid-19th century. We see nothing similar in France, but our information is still very limited. Afactor here is that choral music and singing in the church was generlly more of a Protestant than a Catholic tradition. Most of our current information comes from the 20th century after World War I. The boy choir tradition in France was not revived until the 20th century. The first activity HBC has noted occured 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. The result was La Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois. Their activity helped reintroduce boy choir music to France, especially after World War I (1914-18) in the 1920s and 30s. This single choir had a profound impact on the French boy choir movement. The moveement was interupted by World War II (1939-45) and the German occupation. After the War, however, several boys choirs were inroduced throughout France. Most of the choirs were Catholic choirs, founded by private French colleges (schools). We do not yet have much information about Frenh choirs in the 21st century. We know that several boy choirs coninue to function. There are now girl choirs as well. We are not yet sure about their relative p[revalence and popularity. Musical experts disagree as to the musicilogical merit of the boy and girl choirs.

French Law

French law was changed in 1901 to make it easier to organize choirs and other such associations. Choirs are organized pursuant to article 5 of the law of July 1, 1901. It deals with non-profit, cultural and educational goals. I'm not sure what the difficulties were previously, perhaps there were restrictions placed on the Catholic church. This requires further investigation.

Figure 2.--Here we see the First French Boy Choir Congress in 1947. The boys are in a procession through the streets of Paris. Here they are in front of the Eustache Church. The boys are all wearing white albs.

Choir Parts

A French reader who was a choir boy tells us that he now sees the treble boys' voice as a treasure of nature. Hesays that there are two types of boys' voices. First is "le soprano" (the best). The plural is "soprani". Second is "l'alto". He reports, "All boys less 12 years old have a soprani voice, some keep it even longer. Many Aria are written for the soprani. My voice broke when I was 14 years old and at 15 it was terrible. I was no longer able to sing the Aria. Later it was possible to sing in a haute-contre voice.


Many French boy choirs in the 20th century were called are called 'Petits Chanteurs'. A former chorister tells us, "You may also have noticed that it is common for choir names to have the word 'Petits Chanteurs'. It means Little Singers. We are often addressed as petits chanteurs (in a groupe) or petit chanteur (one person), for exemple, "Bonne nuit (good night), petits chanteurs." The term was very coomonly used and continues to be used in the 21st century. The term first appeared in the name of the first revived choir of the 20th century--La Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois. It is, however, not the only term used for boy choirs. We also notice the term Maîtrise and Manécanterie. We thought at first the terms were used to identify different types of choirs. These are terms of historicl origin, but as far as we can determine, the terms convey nothing about the nature of the choir itself. THey simply are different names used for boy choirs. The terms have also been used for childrn's and girls' choirs. La Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois mixed the two terms, 'La Manécanterie' and 'Petits Chanteurs'. Most choirs chose on of the terms. 'Petits Chanteurs' proved be especially popular.

Figure 3.--This is the Prise d'Aube, the formal entering ceremony for new choristers at a French choir. The new boys wear the school uniform outfit while the older choristers wear the white robes.

Joining the Choir (Màne)

There is a formal creremony when the boys and now girls enter their choirs (the Màne). The ceremony is called Prise d'Aube. The same term is used for new altar boys. This literally meands 'taking dawn'. I am not sure just what this means, but 'dawn' is normally a metaphor for a beginning. So it presumably means taking are lauching into a new phase of a child's life. Prise d'Aube is a very formal, solemn ceremony. The children's whole families will attend the ceremony. The precise details of the ceremony will vary from choir to choir. Commonly the boys wear the choir school-type uniform. There are remarks, usually by the choir director. The older boys then help the new boys put on the white robe that many of the French choirs wear. After this the choir will come together and sing for those attending the services.


Concert Performances

Choir performances varied. The major focus was the choir sining en masse, but there were other presentations. Some of the boys were chosen to do solos, duets, or pieces where selected boys stood out from the rest of the choir. This is an honor, but requires extra work. There might also be skits. The Vienna Choir Boys were famous for skits. We think this was less common for the Frebnch choirs, but do not hve a lot of information. The performances are done in two parts divided by a short intermission. The boys are well schooled in not only their music, but also stage craft. There hair is nicely combed. There is a uniform cehck before the concert begins to make sure they look smart. They file into the auditorium or other performnce setting nd take their places. Up on stage they keep their hands behind their backs and stand up erect. They keep their feet together, their shoes touching. During the intermission, the choir master bings up any mistake the boys made. They also circulate in the audience to take up a collction to support the choir. The boys bow deeply at the end of the concerts.

Performance Music

French choirs perform a variety of music. The music varies from choir to choir and on the occassion. Performance for Easter and Chritmas will of course reflect thespirti of the holidays. The progam my be an electic mix or for special events,. music chosen for that occassion.. The performances are commonoly a combination of sacred and secular music in both French and foreign languages, often English. They do pieces in other languages such as German. But there are only so many languages in which the boys can learn songs. So besides French they do a number of pieces in English. This varies by choir because some choirs travel a lot more than others. The boys sing a range of hymns and other religious music like Handel's Hallelujah Chorus from the 'Messiah'. Some of the choirs sang mostly religious music. We also note a range of classical music. Classical music is a mainstay of many of the choirs, especially the more traditional choirs. This includes the works of the great French composers like Claude Debussy, Maurice Durufle, Gabriel Faure, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, Camille Saint-Saens, Pierre Villette, and others. They also perform the workls of other great compsers. Folk songs are another popular musical form sung by the choirs. Generally French folk music is sung, but folk music from other countries is also use.r , They also sing a range of popular of popular music, including Broadway show tunes.

Figure 4.--Here three choristers after their performance are hosted by a local family. In this case three boys were taken in. They get to meet their hosts and their children. Often they are taken on interesting excursions. .

Concert Tours

French choirs both perform locally as well as go on tours. This varies quite a bit from choir to choir. Some of the choirs are well established and financed and achieve an impressive musical standard. Others are less well established. Quite a few are not so well established. Some only functioned for a few years and their musical standard was generally not impressive. Others with 20th century foundations now have long histories. The choirs perform locally, often in churches close to where the boys live. They commonly have relationships with these churches. They help enliven church functions and holidays. Some of the more established choirs that have achieved high standards are invited to go on tours. This generally means tours within France, including many small towns. The best known choirs have arranged must more extensive tours, including neigboring European countries and even far away countries including America, China, Japan, and Russia. They appeared before royalty, popes, primenisters, and presidents. This is of course very exciting for the boys, many of hom have not yet left France before or at least not traveled bryond neigboring countries. Financing is aerenialproblem for the choirs. The best known choirs may get fees for their performances to help finance the tours. One way of limiting expenses is to arrange homestays for the boys so that expensive hotel accomodations are not necessary. This approach is very common on tours within France. The homestays are commonly arranged by the local churches where the boys perform. Often the parisioners are interested in meeting the boys. Commonly the boys are assigned to hosts inn pairs or sometimes three boys. That way they feel a little more comportable and no so loney with their hosts. And for the boys there isabonus in that the families often arrange some entertainment are tours to see interesting local sites. Some trips are exchanges with other choirs, in which case the boys are hosted by the other choir.

Choir Costumes

French boy choirs perform in a wide variety of costumes. Most French choirs are associated with churches or catholic schools. As a result, the often sing at religious services. One common costume is white monks' cassocks. Other choirs perform in ecleastical robes. The every day uniforms of French choirs have traditionally been blue sweaters, white shirts, blue short pants, and white knee socks. This was priobably adopted by many choirs because it was the everyday school uniform at French private Catholic colleges in the years after World War II. Most French boys at the time wore short pants. Thus the clothes worn by the choristers were not a special uniform. The white knee socks were a distinctive feature of French and some other European choirs. The white kneesocks, however, were much more common with French choirs than those of other countries. This was quite different than English choirs where boys beyond about 8 years of age never wore white knee socks. They were much more associated with school girl uniforms in England. One choir performs in destinctive brown velvet knickers with white long sleaved shirts, string ties, and white tights. In recent years it has become uncommon for French boys to wear short pants as part of a school uniform or for dress wear. Many of the French choirs thus now have long pants uniforms. A few choirs, however, continue to wear short pants--although they often are extremely long at knee length. Some boys even wear their short pants below the knee.

Individual Choirs

There are a large number of boy choirs in France. France appears to have more choirs than any other European country. All existing choirs appear to have been established in the 20th century--a relection of the ant-clericism of the French Revolution. HBC at this time has no information on earlier French choirs--surely some must have existed before the French Revolution (1789). Most of the choirs are associated with the Catholic church. Unlike England there appears to be less interest in organizing girl choirs, perhaps reflecting a more conservative outlook of the French Catholic church. HBC has collected some information on the individual French choirs, although little is known about many of them. The most famous are La Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois, which played a major role in the development of modern French boy choirs, and the Paris Cathedral Choir. There are also quite a number of excellent choirs that are not as well known. These choirs differ greatly in their training and musical abilities. Some appear to have been only transitory and did not last very long. Others have continued to function over long periods and several changes in choir directors. They also have a variety of uniforms which have changed over time.

Village Choirs

There are also many small village choirs that provided musical accompaniment to Sunday services. These choirs did not persue choral music to the me extent as the more serious choirs nor did they usually have a choir master with musical training. A HBC reader writes, "Your site is incredibly informative and I'm hoping you can help clarify something for me. I'm working on a film that has a scene set on Christmas eve in 1967 in a small village in the Loire Valley. The costume designer is wondering what might the choir boys be wearing here? I showed her pictures of the white cassocks, the ecclesiastical robes and the knickers and socks that choir boys in France wore. She liked the ecclesiastical robes best, but was concerned they might not be common in a small villages. Another concern was whether these would be used on Christmas eve. Could you confirm if these robes would have be used in a small village on Christmas eve 1967? And could you make any suggestions for alternatives to these robes?" HBC was not sure just what these small village church choirs were like. HBC readers have provided some information. Essentially it seems that these choirs are not boy choirs which require a larger pool of boys to draw on and resources to maintain beyond the capabilities of a village church. Rather such choirs would more likely consist of interested adults, although a few boys may might participate as well.

Figure 5.--Perhaps the most famous French movie about French choirs is "La cage aux rossignols" by Jean Dréville. It was made in 1945 with the choristers of the La Manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois (PCCB). Here the boys are seen in a rehersal for the film. The film and rehersal shots provide an intersting look at French boys' clothes at the end of World War II.

French Choir Movies

Some interesting movies have been made in France about boys choirs. The movies have been of uneven quality, but do show some details about the cotumes worn by choirs in France. Unlike neighboring Germany, the sailor suit was not commonly worn for French boy choirs. The best known French movie dealing with boy choirs is La cage aux rossignols ("The cage with the nightingales") used choristers from the French boys choir Les petits chanteurs a la croix de bois, the Little Singers of the Wooden Cross, a choir which has played a major role in French boy choir movement. HBC knows of few other French films dealing with boy choirs.

Altar Boys

There is a fine difference between altar boys and choiristers which is a little complicated. Historically the boys taken in by the monastaries both served as choristers and altar boys. But vocal abilities varied. Thusnot all of the boys could play an importantv role as choristers. As Europe developed, the focus of the Church shifted from the monastaies to the churches and and cathedrals. Thus the two traditions developed differently. Many modern altar boys today also sing as choristers in their church. The boy choir tradition decclined, especially during the Revolution. The boy choir tradition was revib\ved in the early 20th century and thus some modern French boys may be both altar servers and choristers. A French reader tells us, "I think almost all modern altar boys will sing. But not all choirboys will serve as altar boys. There is aot to learn to be a server and it is a futherc commitmentb of time. And there are some secular choirs which have nothing to do with the Church. Even Catholic choirs may not require their boys to be Catholics. I think that the thoughtis that the experience may draw the boys to the Church." There is a fine difference between altar boys and choirboys. Usually altar boys are described as wear vêtements, and choirboys wear the aube. Occassionaly when choristers serving as altar boys assist the priest, they may wear their choir aubes rather than the vêtements they usually wear when assisting with the Mass.

Chorister Experiences

French choristers have provded us some information about their experienes with choirs and choral singing. These accounts provide some fascinating insights into Frech choirs and what it was like to be a chorister. It required an amazing commitment on the part of very young boys, especially with the more established choir. The boys gained an amazing music education, but gave up some of the joys and feeedoms of childhood. Much of the available information on boy choirs is understadbly related to the musicality of the choir--the music produced by each choir. Less well covered is the experience of being a choir boy. Some readers have provided us some wonderful insights about their choirs and chorister experiences.


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Created: November 2, 1998
Last updated: 1:19 AM 2/13/2013