* boy choirs : United States

United States Boy Choirs

Figure 1.--Many American boy choirs have given considerable attention to their costumes. American choirs have generally worn blazers with both long and short pants, but the short pants uniforms disappeared in the 1960s. These boys are members of the Wilmington Boys Choir

Boy choirs are strongly, but not eclusively associated with Europe. A very large numbers of choirs have been founded in the United States based on the European tradition. The boy choir tradition is a European tradition originating in the needs of the medevil church for litugical music. Many countries of Western and Central Europe, have long choral traditions. The strongest tradition is catholic, but boy choirs have also been created in protestant countries. Boy choirs have also been created in America. In part because of the protestant establishment of colonial and early independent America, the boy choir tradition is relatively recent. The American boy choir tradition was launched by Anglian churches with British trained choral directors. We believe that almost all the American boy choirs have been founded in the 19th century had Anglican origins, althought our research is at this point still tentative. The roots of American choirs are in the Protestant churches and the choral traditions of those churches. There are many Protestant churches in Amrica and music makes up an important part ofthe worship service. America's Anglo-Saxon base was altered in the 19th century by immigration, including immigrants from Catholic southern Europe at the the end of the century. This did not strongly influence choral singing as by the time of the emigration to America, southern Europe had largely lost its boy choir tradition. Catholics only began arriving in America during the 1840s when the Potato Famine began driving the Irish from their homeland. Even so, almost all boy choirs in the United States were founded in the 20th century. There is a large number of boy choirs in America, but they are miostly secular choirs, commonly singing piopular music, but as there is a great wealth of clasical choir music, they often sing some of these pieces as well. Since that time a range of secular groups have become involved in boys choirs. Most of non-church groups date from the post-World War II period. While we notice both Christian and secular choirs, we hve not yet found a religious choir that was not Christian. The American choirs have adopted contemporary uniforms, most commonly blazers. A few have destinctive uniforms reflecting their state and community.Unlike many European choirs, there is no tradition of choirs associated with boarding schools in America. There is, however, one residential boarding choir in America.


The United States has a Protestant foundation. This means that until the 19th century, Americans worshiped mostly in Protestant churches. Protestants of many different denominations came to America and more develiped here. Protestant services vary as to how music is used, but the approach is congregational. That is the congregation sings hymns and service music. We do not to what extent Protestant churches during the colonial era formmed church choirs as opposed to having the whole congregation sing. Nor have we ever read about a boy or children's choir during the colonial era (17th and 18th centuries). The one exception to congregational singing in colonial America was the Episcopalian (Anglican) Church. (Some religious scholars see the Anglicans not as a Protestant Church, but a 'middle way' between Protestants and Catholics.) In both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, church choirs may sing full liturgies, including propers (introit, gradual, communion antiphons appropriate for the different times of the liturgical calendar). Even more common is the performance of anthems or motets during the service. We have never read about Episcopol boy choirs during the colonial era. An important factor here is that in England the tradition of boys choirs had declined so the Colonists did not bring this tradition with them from England. Thus We do not yet have any information on actual choirs, let alone boy choirs, during tghe colonial era. Perhaps readers will know more. This began to change in the 19th century. There was during the Victorian era in England, a revival of the boy choir tradition at the great Anglican cathedrals. And Anglicans emigrating to America brought this trend to America. So by the mid-19th century we begin to see Anglican churches organizing boy choirs. Our information is sketchy, but as far as we can tell, the early boy choirs wwre all Anglican. A wave of emigration from Catholic southern Europe brought Cathlics to America in large numbers, although we do not yet have much information on Catholic boy choirs. Just as altar servers were all boys, we think early Catholic choirs were all boys. The boy choirs throughout the 19th century were all church based. This continued in the first half of the 20th century, but after World War II we begin to see a number of secular groups founding boy choirs.


The boy choir tradition is a European tradition originating in the needs of the medieval Catholic church for litugical music. Many countries of Western and Central Europe, have long choral traditions. The Western choral tradition is based on that of the medieval Catholic church. The role of the choir was one of the issue in the refomation. Following the Reformation it was the English Anglican Church which maintained the strongest coral tradition. Only in the 20th century were choirs founded by other Protestnt and Catholic churches. merica developed a srong boy choir movement in the late 19th century. I do not know of any residential choirs, but many churches in large cities had very substantial boy choirs. As far as I know, all of these notable early choirs were church choirs. Soloists at those choirs received considerable notice. One such solist at the Grace Church in Chicago was Blatchford Kavanagh. American boy choirs as not as strongly associated with the Catholic church as those in Europe. Many American choirs are associate with protestant churches or are secular in nature.

Choir Types

There are several different types of children's choirs in the United States. There are boy, girl, and mixed choirs. Many churches have children's choirs. This began as boy choirs, but now are mostly children's choirs. Choirs have been organized by a variety of groups including church groups, municipalities, schools, the Boy Scouts, and various private groups. The greatest number of choirs is of course church choirs. The most accomplished choirs are some of the other choirs with deeper funding and larger recruitment areas. There have been few residential choirs in the United States.

Individual Choirs

HBC has noted a very substntial number of boy choirs in America. Some have come and gone after only functioning for a few years. Others have now been functioning for several decades. The choral music tradition in the United States is young, but there are a large number of American choirs, sponsored by both church and secular groups. In fact there are probably more boy choirs in America than any other countries. Quite a number have been organized and disbanded, but an increasingly large number have set firm roots in their local communities. There are few residebntial boy choirs, however, as is the case in a few European countries--especially England. The American choirs, however, generally lack the destinctive dress of many European boy choirs. Many have adopted blazers, loking rather like English schoolboys. Only a few have distintive regional outfits.

Figure 2.--American boys primarily participate in choral singing through choirs organized by their churches. These choirs wear a variety of robes, although the children's choir at a church may not have expensive formal robes.

Choir Costumes

The costumes worn by American choirs, especially the secular ones, tend to be much simpler than has been true of European choirs. Americans have generally not been as interested in uniforms for children as the Europeans. Most American children, for example, have not worn school uniforms, although that does appear to be changing in the 1990s. American choirs have often copied the non-liturgical costumes worn by British choirs in recent years. American choirs often have blazers with the choir crest. The American choirs, however, have generally not had the short pants and knee socks worn by British choirs and schoolboys, at least until the 1980s. American choirs have not copied the common uniforms worn by French (blue sweaters and short pants and white kneesocks) and German (sailor suits) choirs. Most American boy singers participate in church choirs, usually a children's choirs of boy boys and girls. Some talented boys may also sing in the adult choir. These choirs wear robes, but usually not the fancy ruffled collars worn by English boy choirs as well as some other Euroean choirs.


We see portraits of choir boys beginning in the late 19th century. American churches began to take an interest in boy choirs at that time. It is not always easy to destinguish between choir boys and altar boys. We think that the boys pictured with books (presumably hymnals) were choir boys. There were also differences in the costuming. Boys with floppy bows or Eton collars were likely to be choir boys. Altar boys commonly wore a floor-length Roman-style cassock with white surplice. Some but not all choir boys wore similar costumes.


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Created: November 2, 1998
Last updated: 8:14 PM 2/10/2013