After 700 Years, Monastery Choir “Boys Only” Rule is Broken
In yet another instance of the dissolution of gender barriers, girls are all set to storm one of the surviving bastions of male exclusivity: the all-boys Escolania choir, based at the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat, near Barcelona, in Spain.
Next year, for the first time in its centuries-old history, the boy sopranos will have women and girl “colleagues”, reports Classic FM . This will end the 700-plus year old male monopoly over the monastery choir. We know the tradition is at least 700 years old because the first written records of its existence date from 1307.
It’s not the Escolania choir itself, composed of 45 boys aged 9 to 14, that will open up to women, but actually a new mixed chamber choir consisting of 25 young women and men aged between 17 and 24 that will sit alongside the boys’ choir.
Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey in Montserrat mountains, Spain. ( Fotokon / Adobe Stock)
A Choir So Old That It Isn’t Even Clear When It Was Established
The Escolania de Montserrat choir is one of the oldest vocal ensembles in the world, older by several hundred years than the better-known Vienna Boys choir, according to The Guardian —so old that it isn’t known how old it really is.
The Escolania prefect Father Efrén de Montellà said, “We know the Benedictine community started here 1,000 years ago, so we are celebrating our first millennium in 2025. The choir is at least 700 years old. It has survived through all the wars and all the conflicts in our history.”
The Santa Maria de Montserrat monastery itself was founded in the 11th century and pilgrims flock there to kiss the 12th-century “black Madonna” statue of the Virgin of Monserrat. La Moreneta, as she is known, is a patron saint of Catalonia, along with Saint George. A special hymn to the Virgin called El Virolai sung by the Escolania choir begins with the words “rose of April, dark-skinned woman of the mountain”.
A “Historic Step”
According to The Guardian , Father de Montellà explained that the decision to admit girls and women was tradition bowing gracefully to the demands of the time. “We’re often asked why there aren’t any girls in the Escolania. It’s a complex and difficult question. We follow a tradition that we would like to continue but we also realise we have to respond to demand.”
“In order to include all the girls who would like to sing at Montserrat and be escolanes we’ve decided to establish this second choir,” he added, calling the move a “historic step” for the choir that has been in existence since the 13th century. A long debate preceded the decision which was finally settled by a vote. The Benedictine monastery has recently got a new abbot, Manel Gasch.
The choir director Pau Jorquera is to decide on the ideal mix of male and female voices in the new chamber choir. The new choir members are to wear cassocks and rochets like the members of the traditional choir.
The Escolania boys choir performing in the basilica of the Abbey of Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain. (Bernard Gagnon / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
New Choir to Complement Rather Than Compete with the Established Choir
The Escolania choir performs twice a day in the basilica all 365 days of the year in front of an estimated 3-million-strong annual pilgrim traffic to the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat, 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Barcelona.
This means the members of the choir, who are largely boarders and have to perform on weekends and fast days as well, have a rather demanding schedule and no time to relax with their families. The mixed choir is meant to take over the Escolania’s liturgical duties one weekend a month to give the boys a rest. This should help families in their decision to allow their child to join the Escolania.
Students at the monastery study the standard curriculum while also learning to play the piano and one other musical instrument as well as musical theory and choral singing.
As per Classic FM , the qualifications needed by prospective choristers of the new choir are sight reading abilities, experience in choral singing, and a “sensitivity … for the Christian religion.” The chamber choir will open its audition process in May and will be heard by the public for the first time in September 2024, with its mix of girls’ and boys’ voices.
Top image: The Escolania boys choir performing in the Abbey of Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain. Source: Jean Robert Thibault / CC BY-SA 2.0
By Sahir Pandey
Burgen, S. 2023. Spanish monastery admits girls to choir for first time in 700-year history . Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/15/spanish-monastery-admits-girls-choir-first-time-700-year-history-escolania.
Burke, K. 2023. Unchanged melody: the all-boys choir that survived 700 years of conflict . Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2023/mar/03/unchanged-melody-the-all-boys-choir-that-survived-700-years-of-conflict.
Shaw Roberts, M. 2023. Girls admitted to ancient monastery choir in Spain for first time in 700 year-history . https://www.classicfm.com/music-news/girls-escolania-montserrat-boys-choir/
An American heard the boy's choir, was motivated to research further and wrote of ending up down the unfamiliar "rabbit hole" of the castrati.