Women's Voice Choirs
It seems there have always been male-voice choirs because the Church, where choral singing originated and grew, gave men the monopoly and barred women from participating. Although women have sung professionally as soloists in church and on the stage, they haven’t always been permitted to sing in mixed-voice choirs, let alone women-only groups. The Muses and Sirens beguiled the ancient Greeks, but since then it’s mostly been men’s voices that have taken the limelight. The Church could only divide its singers according to gender, the two groups singing antiphonally.
We had an early advocate in Hildegard von Bingen, the immensely gifted German abbess who composed searing plainsong for the nuns at Rupertsberg. In recent years her music has become hugely and deservedly popular. And female-voice choirs were great tourist attractions in Renaissance and Baroque Venice: the Singing Ladies of Ferrara (Concerto di Donne) became famous throughout Italy during the late sixteenth century. They were a group whose visual charms equalled those of their exquisite music-making and they performed much music of the time. Vivaldi composed music for the Figlie di Choro, those often well-born orphans who performed at Mass and Vespers from behind grilles in the high choir galleries or cantorie. His Gloria reflects the age and vocal range of his female musicians, with women aged 14 to 60+, some singing tenor and bass.
The emergence of dozens, now hundreds, of groups of women singers in Britain is a relatively recent phenomenon as is the growing repertoire written specially or adapted from traditional SATB settings. One website devoted to women’s voice choirs has sixteen pages, listing every imaginable ensemble from trios and quartets to university, church and regional groups and the burgeoning number of community choirs must swell the numbers to many thousands.