Choral Music


Choral Music, music sung by a group of people as a unit. Usually, the term choral music implies two or more singers for each part, whereas the term part-song is used for vocal music having one singer for each part. Most choral music is written for a chorus, or choir, consisting either of women and men, of boys and men, or solely of men, women, or children.


Although complex genres of choral music developed in Western music, part-singing practices are found throughout the world, in folk and tribal contexts as well as cultivated traditions. Such singing often accompanies manual labour, expresses joy or sorrow, or forms a part of religious ritual. Among the world’s many singing traditions are the polyphonic (multipart), polyrhythmic choruses of African music; the relaxed harmony in thirds and sixths found in Alpine and northern Slavic areas; the tense-voiced women’s canons of the Balkans, at times in parallel seconds; the unison choral singing that sometimes accompanies the Indonesian gamelan orchestra; and the unison and polyphonic choruses of Oceania.

In ancient Greece, religious feelings were expressed in drama by a chorus. Although the chorus members—like those of modern opera—were dancers and actors as well as singers, the term chorus eventually indicated only singers.


Western choirs effectively began in the 6th-century ad, when Pope Gregory I, known as the Great, established song schools in the European centres of Christianity in order to ensure the correct performance of liturgical music. Many still-famous medieval choirs—of highly trained boys and men singing soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass parts—developed in churches, colleges, and royal chapels. These included the still active choirs now associated with the Sistine Chapel in Rome; St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna; St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, Germany; and, in England, King’s College at the University of Cambridge and the Chapel Royal in London.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the range of choral music was extended beyond the liturgy. The Reformation encouraged informal group singing of religious songs—metrical psalms in France, Switzerland, England, and Scotland and chorales, or hymns, in Germany. The Italian-inspired Renaissance, on the other hand, followed the precedent of 15th-century French chansons (secular part-songs) and stimulated amateur singers to perform madrigals and other part-songs, genres now often performed chorally. In the 18th century, the orchestrally accompanied choral works of Johann Sebastian Bach and the German-English composer George Frideric Handel produced an enthusiasm that found the outlet in amateur choirs in which women sang the soprano and contralto parts. These included the Berlin Singakademie (1792), the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music, Vienna, 1812), the Handel and Haydn Society (Boston, 1815), and the Sacred Harmonic Society (London, 1832).

Choral festivals became frequent in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Welsh eisteddfod, derived from folk music and having more than a thousand years of tradition, combines choral and poetry competitions; the annual National Eisteddfod was established in 1860. The Three Choirs Festival, founded in 1717 and based in three western English cathedrals, is the oldest continuing festival of oratorio and church music. In the 20th century, choral groups have tended to specialize in particular styles or composers and are frequently associated with civic, academic, Church, or national institutions.


As the Roman Catholic liturgy became more complex, so did its music. From the 12th to the 15th century the single-line chant of Gregorian plainsong expanded polyphonic Latin church music. Genres such as the antiphon and in particular the motet and mass were the principal vehicles for the development of Western polyphony during these centuries. Their counterparts in 16th-century post-Reformation England were the anthem and service. The great masters of church music of the 15th and 16th centuries included the French Guillaume Dufay, the Italian Giovanni da Palestrina, the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria, and the English William Byrd. In the 16th century, the secular equivalent of the motet was the madrigal, a genre in which the Italian composers Luca Marenzio and Claudio Monteverdi and the English composers John Wilbye and Thomas Weelkes, among many others, excelled. During that time much ensemble singing was without instrumental accompaniment, a tradition maintained in most modern part-songs.

The outstanding composers of the late Baroque, Handel and Bach, were masters of their native German style as well as of advanced Italian, French, and English techniques. Handel settled in England and brought the oratorio to a high development. Bach based his Passions and nearly 300 cantatas on the Lutheran chorale.

In the Classical era (c. 1750-c. 1820) the orchestra began to equal the choir in importance in the masses of Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Joseph Haydn. The large choral works of the 19th and 20th centuries used musical instruments in many ways to reinforce the meaning of the texts. Notable examples include the Requiem (1874) of the Italian Giuseppe Verdi, the German Requiem (1868) of Johannes Brahms, The Dream of Gerontius (1900) by the English Edward Elgar, the Psalmus Hungaricus (1923) by the Hungarian Zoltán Kodály, and Carmina Burana (1937) by the German Carl Orff.

Large choral genres with secular texts are often difficult to distinguish musically from sacred works. Handel and the English composer Henry Purcell, for example, used the same techniques in their choral odes for civil and court occasions as they did in their church music. Musically, sacred and secular also overlapped during the Romantic era (c. 1820-c. 1900), a period when composers often turned to the great poets for the texts of their secular choral works. For example, both the First Walpurgis Night (1831, revised 1843) by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn and The Damnation of Faust (1846) by the French composer Hector Berlioz used texts by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The introduction of voices into a previously purely instrumental genre, the symphony, brought choral symphonies into the repertoire. The first and most famous is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824), the last movement of which incorporates a choral setting of the “Ode to Joy”, by the German poet Friedrich von Schiller. Among its most important successors were the Second, Third, and Eighth symphonies (1894, 1895, 1907) of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. Advanced 20th-century idioms were reflected in later works such as the Symphony of Psalms (1930) by the Russian-born Igor Stravinsky, Canti di prigionia (Songs of Prison, 1941) by the Italian Luigi Dallapiccola, and the Passion According to St Luke (1966) by the Polish Krzysztof Penderecki.

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