andrew swait: looking back

Six months ago I stumbled across a selection of English liturgical music and developed a passion for the genre. There was something about the pure sound of boys’ voices that provided a powerful antidote to the ugly things I was seeing in my youth advocacy work. There was also something poignant about the fact that most of the voices I was hearing no longer exist.

Choir boys grow up. Their voices “break” and provide a dramatic lesson about life: that things never remain the same. Change is a fact of life and growth. Some things of immense beauty are lost forever with change.

And so it is with boys’ voices.

As I sorted through dozens of solo music samples from the 1920s to the present, one voice stood out for me: that of Andrew Swait, possibly the most celebrated British choirboy—or chorister, as they called him there—in the last several decades. He had an exceptional, deep-colored voice and a broader repertoire than the usual and somewhat predictable range of popular selections typically performed—a serious musician.

The Brits and their Anglican churches have a special thing for boys’ choirs and they celebrate and promote their boy soloists like stars.

(Even Keith Richards was a famous choir boy. “It’s not the most beautiful voice in the world anymore,” Richards has said, “but the Queen liked it when it was at its best.” Richards was part of a touring trio of boy sopranos—or trebles, as they call them there—that sang for Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in the 1950s.)

Before his voice changed, Andrew Swait was at the top of a world of cathedral concerts, recording studios, international performances, and recognition by luminaries in the classical music field.

Andrew’s career was set on its way at age 4 when a family friend recognized his prodigious talent and urged that it be encouraged. At age 6 he won a scholarship and began attending The Tewkesbury Abbey School, and was one of the youngest to be initiated into the choir when he was awarded a surplice at age 7. Thereafter his life was punctuated by concerts, international tours, and the daily Evensong service at Tewkesbury Abbey.

By age 10 he had begun to take his turn as a soloist and, originally inspired by the quality of Andrew’s voice, the opportunity was given to the Tewkesbury Abbey Choir to record the Light of the World (Signum Records), which was released in 2006 to critical acclaim. Shortly thereafter, Andrew was featured in A Different Life, a half-hour TV documentary about his life as a chorister.

Here are two of my favorite selections from Light of the World:

Listen to Andrew Swait performing “Nunc Dimittis” (Burgon)

Listen to Andrew Swait performing “Pie Jesu″ (Fauré)

While singing with the Abbey and parish choirs, Andrew also learned the piano and cello, and attended concerts and followed the careers of his idols—soprano Emma Kirkby, countertenor Andreas Scholl, tenor Mark Padmore, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, and cellist Steven Isserlis—whom one can imagine the boy looked to as virtual mentors while he developed his own singing skills.

In September 2006 the Abbey School he’d been attending closed, whereupon he won a choral scholarship to Cheltenham College where he is a chorister to this day. In the last days of the Abbey School, Andrew joined the choir in recording its final performance on Choral Evensong from Tewkesbury Abbey (Delphian Records), released in October 2006.

As Andrew’s talent began to be widely recognized, he was privileged to perform as a treble with a growing number of amateur and professional musicians and performers: The Kings Singers (on the 2006 recording Landscape & Time-Signum Records), the Regency Voices (on a 2007 tour of the Ukraine and Poland), pianist Andrew Plant (at a private book launch at the 2007 Aldeburgh Festival where they performed works by Benjamin Britten–rehearsing on Britten’s piano, no less!), counter-tenor James Bowman and pianist Andrew Plant (on the 2007 recording Songs of Innocence (Signum Records-a selection of twentieth century English and American songs including four world premieres by Benjamin Britten), soprano Anna Netrebko (on Souvenirs, released in 2008 by Deutsche Grammophon—his performance with Netrebko was hailed by reviewers as one of the high-points of the album), soprano Sarah Brightman (with whom he performed at the 2008 Classical Brit Awards), and the Chamber Choir of Trinity College of Music, directed by Steven Jackson with Alexander Ffinch  (on the 2008 recording Salve Puerule: Choral and Organ-Herald Records). 

Listen to Andrew Swait and the King’s Singers performing “Even Such Is Time” (Chilcott)

His school’s headmaster commented that Andrew was “unfazed” by all the attention; when he returned from his projects he was just a normal kid who got along well with all the other students at Tewkesbury. Andrew is modest, unselfconscious, and fearless.

“I also learn Mandarin Chinese on Saturday afternoons,” he reported to a Daily Telegraph reporter back then. “I don’t know quite how it happened, but I’ve had an interest in Mandarin ever since I was a certain age (six, as it happens). I help support a young girl and her family in my teacher’s home village back in China. They write letters sometimes, to thank me.”

“Yes,” wrote the Daily Telegraph reporter, “not only does this perfectly-spoken young paragon possess the voice, blond hair and blue eyes of an angel, but he also sends his pocket money to the poor. As for stepping out onto a stage and singing solo to 600 people (the Abbey choir does tours of Europe and the US), he doesn’t see it as anything special.

“’No, I don’t get nervous at all,’ he replies, stifling a yawn.” (Due to a very late rehearsal the night before!)  “‘You see, we always rehearse a piece before we perform it.’”

Andrew entered the Chorister of the Year 2006 competition and was a selected as a finalist. His performance of “My Soul is Love Untold,” accompanied by organist Robert Quinney, and Bob Chilcott’s “Midwinter” were broadcast from Westminster Abbey on BBC Radio 2 on November 5th, 2006. 

In May 2007 Andrew was invited by Universal Records to join the classical boy-band The Choirboys, whose Christmas disc The Carols Album entered the Classic FM charts at no. 7 and was nominated for the 2008 Classical Brit Awards. The new group was made up of Andrew, Bill Goss, and Will Dutton (who is the son of the famous treble Paul Dutton). This collaboration is the most mass-market commercial venture Andrew had taken on, and it must have been great fun for him even though it was artistically less adventurous than his other projects.

Here is a promotional video for the album, which will give you an idea of the slick promotion their album received:

And here is a link to a BBC Radio Leeds interview of the boys:



In 2008, at the height of all this activity—and just when Andrew was included in a project called the NMC Songbook (NMC Records), which included “just about anybody who was anybody in contemporary British music”—Andrew’s voice began to change, bringing his short and brilliant treble career to an end.

It is particularly interesting to me that the treble voice is at its best in the brief period just before and as the voice drops. As a boy approaches and begins to undergo puberty, the quality of his voice distinguishes itself as an uniquely rich tone develops. This brief period of high vocal range and unique color—when the voice is at its most beautiful—forms much of the ground for the use of the treble in both liturgical and secular music in the Western classical tradition.

Occasionally boys whose voices have changed can continue to sing in the soprano range for a period of time, but as I have since learned, Andrew stopped singing altogether for about a year.

Now he is in his final year at Cheltenham College, a private prep school in the heart of the Cotswolds where, in addition to all the academics one would expect in a top-flight secondary school, he’s singing bass in the Chamber Choir directed by Alexander Ffinch and the Chapel Choir directed by Gordon Busbridge. He studies organ with Alexander Ffinch and piano with Jeremy Carter at the school. He also studies cello in London with Michal Kaznowski of the Maggini Quartet.

Andrew’s voice coach is Stephen Connolly, formerly of the King’s Singers, with whom he is currently working and developing a vocal repertoire as a bass.

I was intrigued to write about this change of voice and other developments in Andrew’s life, so I reached out by e-mail and was surprised to receive a reply.

I asked him: What was it like to have his brilliant treble career disappear virtually overnight?

“The last recordings I did as a treble were two world premiers on an album called The NMC Songbook. As I was recording them it was clear my voice was going. I was losing my top range and actually sounded more like a counter-tenor than a treble,” Andrew replied.

“After recording and performing with James Bowman, I didn’t think of this as negative and enjoyed the alto side of my voice that I was still able to use. However, I could tell that it was time to move on to another voice part.

“After being a chorister for about 6 years, I had seen many voices break and above all I didn’t want to continue singing treble if it wasn’t up to standard. With this in mind, I think I found the end of my treble career relatively painless!

“Strangely, I didn’t miss my treble voice, despite the fact I always imagined I would when the time came. Of course I missed the concert halls, recording studios and amazing musicians I had been privileged to perform with, but not the treble voice itself.

“As a musician I loved what I was able to do with a treble voice but as a boy I also found the prospect of singing lower exciting. At the time, I was preparing to move up to Cheltenham College from the Cheltenham College Junior School. In effect I was leaving behind my treble voice as I was leaving my junior school which worked quite well.” 

Andrew is currently singing bass. Do you like it? I asked.

“There’s a richness and roundness in singing bass which I didn’t have as a treble and while there are some things that you can’t do as a bass, I think this makes up for it. My voice coach is Steven Connolly (recently of the King’s Singers), with whom I’ve been lucky enough to record and now lucky enough to have as a singing teacher. I love the bass range and have tried to take everything I learnt as a treble and apply it.

“As a bass there is much more technique involved of course, which I am still trying to master! I do sometimes miss the ease with which I could hit my upper register as a treble. It’s much harder trying to do this down a couple of octaves and I am working on widening my range in particular at the moment.

“However, the ‘ease’ with which I could sing as a treble was totally due to the hundreds of hours which I spent practising as a chorister. Without this, I could never have been as capable and when I remember this, working on my bass technique doesn’t bother me as much.

“As a treble, my years were numbered (so to speak), but as a bass I have the rest of my life to improve my voice as much as I can,” he said.

(Tomorrow: Looking Forward)


Groove of the Day

Listen to Andrew Swait and Sam Harris performing “Mouth of the Dumb” (MacMillan)

 (from The NMC Songbook, his last recording as a treble)

3 Responses to “andrew swait: looking back”

  1. 1 kitty
    April 8, 2011 at 6:52 am

    Thank you … for the reminder of what is good and for such a soothing sound when my ears and my heart needed it badly. “Even Such Is Time” was absolutely beautiful. I cannot imagine boys in the States singing like this, but I imagine they are out there. Shame if they aren’t … absolutely fantastic voices and sound … thanks 🙂

  2. July 5, 2011 at 4:32 am

    Absolutely beautiful Dan. You know a bit of my background with being an Anglican (Episcopalian) organist. Brought tears to my eyes listening to this. If you are interested, can send you some absolutely gorgeous C of E (as it has been known) music that will enthral you. Please let me know. Cheers. £ance.

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