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Robin Lithgow, former director of arts education in the Los Angeles school district, is writing a history of arts education for children. This the last of her installments about the boy choirs in England, and it is enthralling.
“Let’s start with the tradition of the Boy Bishop, celebrated all over Europe, dating back to the the early years of Christianity. In English villages the Boy Bishop was traditionally elected on the 6th of December, the feast of Saint Nicholas, and and his authority lasted till December 28, the Holly Innocents’ Day. He and his entourage were usually chosen from the choir boys at the local church. During his rule the real Bishop would, symbolically, step down at the deposuit potentes de sede of the Magnificat (“he hath put down the mighty from their seat”), and the boy would take his seat at et exaltavit humiles (“and hath exalted the humble and meek”). The elected boy would be dressed in full bishop’s robes, complete with mitre and cozier, and his comrades would be dressed as priests. They would travel about the parish blessing the townsfolk and would perform all of the ceremonies at the church except for the mass. It was a solemn rite, but being boys, they most likely had some fun hamming it up. Except for a brief revival during the rule of the Catholic Mary, this custom did not survive the English Protestant Reformation; but it was still very much in evidence all over the realm early in the reign of Henry VIII. …
“It is impossible to overstate the role of the voices of boy singers, thought to be the voices of angels. Entire cathedrals were designed as huge acoustical sound boxes to capture the purity of the sound, and that sound was heard throughout the realm during the Christmas season.”