Anne Cassuto/The World
Forty-four boys, aged nine to 14, sing in a remote mountain church in Montserrat, Spain. It’s Europe’s oldest all-boys choir, and for more than seven centuries, the Escoliana de Montserrat has been singing sacred songs there.
Benedictine monks run the abbey. Nothing much has changed over time, but a big one’s underway: They’re letting girls in.
In Spanish, they call the choir of young boys whose voices haven’t yet changed voces blancas, or “white voices."
You can hear the high, ethereal echo of sopranos and alto sopranos during Sunday mass. The church’s pews are filled with faithful members and tourists who’ve made an hour-long trek from Barcelona.
This tradition dates back to 1307, said Efrem de Montallá, headmaster at the adjacent boarding school where the choir boys study and live.
The Benedictine abbey is even older.
Since the 11th century, families have been dropping their boys off there. Visits used to be rare, but the world’s changed, and these days, parents want more time with their kids, de Montallá told The World.
The monks sought ways to make that possible for years without messing with the choir’s strict every-weekend schedule, de Montallá said. Then, last year came a eureka moment: Why not create a parallel choir with boys and girls?
The idea would consider a performance once a month so that the boys in the main choir could have a weekend off.
Anne Cassuto/The World
The World stopped by during recess recently to ask some boys what they think about girls singing, too.
“It’s a very good idea,” said 11-year-old soprano Guillem Masabat. “I think it will be very successful. We’ll be able to rest more and do other things. I can hang out at home or go for walks."
The monks held auditions for girls last May, and 17-year-old Mireia Espada made the cut.
“I got the email and just started running around the house, screaming,” she said.
“I didn’t believe it. I told friends and family right away.”
During the audition, Espada said she knew she had to make it happen “because this has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl.”
The dream’s real now – it’s show day, a Monday mass, and Espada is warming the pipes with a little Schubert.
Espada’s nervous. She and the other 27 singers are about to sing in public for the first time.
Listening in, it’s easy to tell the difference between the two choirs. This one’s smaller. And members are older, between the ages of 17 and 24.
That means the boys, men really, can take on tenor and baritone parts, while the young women are the sopranos.
This new vocal range is a real benefit for the mixed choir’s director, Pau Jorqueras.
He said that by breaking with tradition, the monastery has made it possible to unlock another tradition that’s long been on ice.
Anne Cassuto/The World
Jorqueras shared with The World staff Montserrat’s archive of sacred music.
Inside, rows of shelves are packed with grey folders. In each, one will find sheet music and choral compositions. There are 1,577 different works here. The monastery’s monks wrote many over the centuries, and most have never been performed like one that Jorqueras pulled out from 1810.
“I’ve yet to even look inside all of the folders,” Jonqueras said, leafing carefully through the sheet music.
“I believe this arrangement consists of two choirs plus an orchestra.”
Two choirs of four singers each, in fact, male and female. Plus violins, two oboes, trumpets and cellos.
“No one knows what this arrangement will sound like,” Jorqueras said excitedly. “It’ll be so beautiful to have the kids work on it, perform it and possibly make a recording of it.”
He said there’s a lifetime of work among the dusty shelves.
And today’s new voices will bring this hidden music to life, like Laia Quinquillá, whose pitch-perfect C-sharp is reshaping history.
“I think this is a step forward and a great opportunity,” Quinquillá said, “It’s going to have repercussions for the future. This place has never allowed girls. Even now, I’m still trying to take it in.”
This story includes additional reporting by Anne Cassuto.
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