Children’s choir – a serious medium

Nordic music is the main theme at the upcoming music festival Présences 2004 to be held in France 30 January till 14 February. Several prominent children’s choirs will perform commissioned works. Norway is presented by The Norwegian Girls’ Choir, which will perform Wind Songs by Norwegian composer Nils Henrik Asheim. MIC and Nordic Sounds give you an introduction to the world of the young female voices.

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The Nordic countries have an international reputation as an important choral area; the Scandinavian sound is admired and imitated in other parts of the world, and many exciting choral compositions are produced in the North. Now the
focus has been turned on the children’s choirs, and deservedly so. And it is a stimulating initiative that has been taken; a children’s choir with a symphony orchestra certainly isn’t an everyday combination. Usually the children’s choir, if involved at all, will form a secondary element in a large composition for adult choir and symphony orchestra, for example Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Britten’s Spring Symphony or Carl Nielsen’s Hymnus Amoris or Springtime on Funen, just to cite a few examples.

But here the grown-ups have been shown the door. And indeed the time is ripe to take a more serious interest in the children’s choir as a medium.

More than pedagogical music
There has been and presumably still is a tendency to equate children’s choirs with the less worthy compositional efforts by teachers and the like; and it’s true enough that there is an extraordinary amount of so-called pedagogical music for children. As we know, you have to start somewhere, and pedagogical games and simple, catchy, rhythmically engaging melodies can be an excellent start. It just shouldn’t stop there: serious work with children’s choirs, as well as being well conceived in educational terms, should also have a clear artistic aim. Many Nordic children’s choirs meet these criteria.

In this article I have chosen to start with a broadly defined children’s choir concept without getting bogged down in age limits. In reality many of the girls’ choirs covered today by the term children’s choir are rather equal-voiced youth choirs, since the average age is 16-17. I have however excluded the classic boys’ choir because it is a boys’ and men’s choir and thus in my view cannot be called a children’s choir.

Girls’ and boys’ world
Another issue is gender composition. When we talk about a mixed children’s choir, it is usually an expanded girls’ choir where two or three boys sing along with 35 girls. And in reality it would perhaps by more correct to have equal-voiced pure girls’ choirs on the one hand and equal-voiced pure boys’ choirs on the other – with the latter as alternatives to the classic boys’ choir model; first and foremost because there are great differences between a girls’ and a boys’ world.

After puberty the genders could appropriately come together in mixed youth choirs. Equal-voiced boys’ choirs, that is without men’s voices, are also to be found in the Nordic countries. The Danish Boys’ Choir is an example. At the international level, the worldwide choral organization IFCM is at present trying to arrive at a definition of the children’s choir concept which allows for the above-mentioned issues, but at the time of writing no clarity has been achieved.


The Nordic children’s choir work ranges wide: all over the Nordic countries, in schools and churches, a major effort is being made to promote choral singing, and there is plenty of singing material as well as interest from the children. The achievements are usually only limited by the seriousness and capabilities of the conductor and the time they are able to invest in the project. From the broad base the elite arises. In the following I will describe five Nordic children’s choirs in the elite class. They have been chosen among other reasons because they represent different approaches
to high-quality children’s choral singing, and I would also like to point out that they were chosen before the author of this article had seen the programme for the French festival, where four out of the five are also featured.

Norway
In Norway the most prominent children’s ensembles are girls’ choirs (I am still not considering the boys’ choirs as decided children’s ensembles). Det Norske Jentekor (The Norwegian Girls’ Choir) has its roots in the Norwegian broadcasting corporation NRK’s girls’ choir, which was founded in 1947, and whose leader for many years was Marie Foss. Since 1994 the Jentekor has been an independent institution, consisting of thirty girls aged 10-20 with Barbro Karita Grenersen as conductor. The aim of the choir is “to recruit performers and teachers for musical life in Norway.” To become a member of Det Norske Jentekor one also has to play an instrument and have good music-reading
skills. The entrance standard has to be high but like its colleagues mentioned in this article the institution also has a trainee choir, where one can start – also after an admission test – at the age of eight. Of course the Jentekor has also had a long, impressive international career.

Finland
The Finnish Tapiola Children’s Choir – or rather choral phenomenon – is a splendid example of what a highly focused and artistically aware effort can lead to. The choir was started forty years ago by Erkki Pohjola and is conducted today by Kari Ala-Pöllänen. The Tapiola concept is based on the natural use of the voice: each child’s own special vocal qualities form the raw material for the voice training, which is arranged such that the voice mixes with the other voices in the choir without losing its individual characteristics.

This creates the internationally known Tapiola Sound, which in reality is not one particular sound-ideal but many, adapted to the piece of music being sung. In addition each member of the choir must play one or more instruments. Another characteristic of Tapiola is that movement, dance and drama are part of the performance. Work with a contemporary, often sophisticated musical idiom and direct collaboration with contemporary composers also play a central role for Tapiola. Tapiola is undoubtedly one of the world’s best children’s choirs – in 1996 the choir won the UNESCO Prize for Performing Arts – but it is certainly not alone in Finland in representing children’s choirs at the highest level. Tapiola incidentally differs from other mixed children’s choirs in having a decent number of boys as members.

Sweden
On the other side of the Baltic we find the Adolf Fredrik Girls’ Choir, probably Sweden’s best children’s/youth choir today. As the name indicates, this is a girls’ choir consisting of some forty members aged 12-16. It is based at Adolf Fredriks Musikklasser in Stockholm, a singing school established on the same model as the very musical high school Sankt Annć Gymnasium in Copenhagen. With its 1000 pupils aged 10-16, it is a normal primary school with 5-6 weekly periods of singing and music. Every year 900 children in the Stockholm area are tested for the quality of their singing voice and their sense of pitch, and every year 180 pupils begin in six parallel classes.

The school has eighteen choirs, among which the Adolf Fredrik Girls’ Choir represents the top echelon, under its charismatic conductor Bo Johansson. Like Tapiola, the choir also works intensively with the music of our own time. That the Adolf Fredrik choir represents the best of its kind is confirmed by the statements if the record reviewer of Classics Today, David Vernier: “Everyone who loves choral music should hear this – and so should everyone who thinks children’s choirs are just a bunch of cute kids singing nursery rhymes....”

Iceland
In Kópavogur, a suburb of the Icelandic capital Reykjavík, we find the Kársness School, whose choir is known throughout much of the world. Its history is that of a quite ordinary state school which some thirty years ago engaged a young, dynamic woman as choral director. Now that woman, Ţórunn Björnsdóttir, is somewhat older, but still very dynamic, and the district school in Kársness is the setting for the activities of six different choirs. More than 200 of the school’s pupils participate in the choral activities at different levels, starting at the age of 8-9. The elite choir is called
Skólakor Kársness, and its members are between 12 and 16.

The exciting thing about this little story is that the results in Skólakór Kársness are achieved with children who are not specially selected from the start. In principle a similar result should be possible at any ordinary medium-sized state school in the Nordic countries. The catch with this is of course that besides the time required one also needs a leader with quite special qualities! The repertoire is very much Icelandic music. On the whole, contemporary national music is strongly represented in concerts in Iceland. The reasons for this are quite simple: in the first place a small, relatively new nation like Iceland has a strong national consciousness which also applies to music, and in the second place the history of composition in the country on the whole begins in the twentieth century. The national musical heritage – apart from medieval singing in fifths and the old rímur – is thus to a great extent the music of our time.

Denmark
We find the last choir profile in the Danish Radio Girls’ Choir (now called the Danish National Girls’ Choir/DR), which to be honest also really belongs in the youth choir department. The choir was founded as long ago as 1938, and for many years the Danish broadcasting corporation, Danmark Radio (DR) was the home of both a girl’s choir and a boys’ choir. The latter was discontinued as a radio ensemble around 1980.

The girls’s choir, whose leader for many years was Tage Mortensen, was responsible for a mainly secular repertoire which also included Danish national songs and the more easily digestible things, and reached a wide audience. Since 2001 the choir has had a new principal conductor, Michael Bojesen, and at the same time DR has intensified its investment in and marketing of the choir, which is promoted today along the lines of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR and the Danish National Choir/DR.

During the short time Michael Bojesen has conducted the choir, one also notes a change in profile, since the choir now works more than before with contemporary composition music and boundary-shifting activities, for example in collaboration with jazz musicians and composers. It is pleasing to see that a large public institution like DR is investing this much in a children’s choir. That the investment is bearing fruit can already be seen: for example the girls’ choir has recently made a very strong mark in the international musical world.

We will continue with an article of compositional highlight for children’s choir on Monday.

The author of the article, Steen Lindholm, is Principal Conductor of the Danish Boys’ Choir and has conducted and held workshops on the theme of children’s choirs in most parts of the world. As chairman of the music committee of the Nordic Choral Committee in 1983-98 and as a member of the board of the International Federation for Choral Music (IFCM) for twenty years, he is thoroughly familiar with the children’s choir area in the national as well as the global perspective.

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