When I was a boy in the 1950s, children’s voices were part of Christmas. We heard them every year on Christmas Eve as they struck up Once In Royal David’s City or Silent Night outside the front door and dad went out to give them sixpence. But those days are gone.
Now I listen instead to Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols or, better still, Friday Afternoons, the twelve songs he wrote for the boys at the prep school where his brother was headmaster. So called because he practised with them on Friday afternoons.
I believe he must have enjoyed writing songs for them to sing in much the same way that Vivaldi must have enjoyed writing music for the girls at the Ospedale della Pietà to play, or Shakespeare writing female parts for the boy players to act.
How much more exciting and satisfying it is for an artist to show what can be achieved when innocence and experience meet on equal terms. It is the real life equivalent of what always happens in an artist’s imagination.
Boy players and boy sopranos must have had more in common than the fact that their voices hadn’t broken. Children are great mimics and it’s that, I think, that lets anyone who writes for them give free range to their imagination. The boy sopranos’ angelic voices, the young girls’ precocious musicianship, the boy actors’ ability to be and not to be female, are all of a piece in a world that is entirely imaginary. The boundary between reality and imagination grows blurred.
Never never land! Wonderland! The Land of Counterpane! What country, friend, is this? This is Illyria, lady.