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A choir or chorus is a musical ensemble of singers.

Melbourne Chorale (back of stage) Melbourne Chorale (back of stage)

A vocal ensemble which sings in a church, or sings exclusively sacred music, is called a choir, whereas an ensemble which performs the non-soloist parts of an opera or musical theatre production (or sometimes an oratorio) is called a chorus. For most other ensembles those two words may be used interchangeably. Other equivalent terms, often used in the names of choirs to provide variety, include chorale. There are also terms for more specific types of choir, such as glee club, show choir,barbershop quartet, and Madrigal group.

A choir usually has eight or more singers, typically with two or more singers on each part; a chorus is typically larger still, with many singers on each part. Smaller vocal ensembles are usually called trios, quartets, quintets, etc. (e.g., barbershop quartet), or a vocal group or singing group.

Contents

Structure of choirs

Choirs are often led by a conductor or choirmaster. Most often choirs consist of four parts but there is no limit to the number of possible parts: Thomas Tallis wrote a 40-part motet entitled Spem in alium, for eight choirs of five parts each; Krzysztof Penderecki's Stabat Mater is for three choirs of 16 voices each, a total of 48 parts. Other than four, the most common number of parts are three, five, six and eight.

Choirs can sing with or without instrumental accompaniment. Singing without accompaniment is typically called a cappella singing (although this usage of the phrase is discouraged by the American Choral Directors Association[1]). When singing with instrumental accompaniment, the accompanying instruments can consist of practically any instruments, one, several, or a full orchestra. In Anglican church music the accompanying instrument is almost always an organ.

For rehearsals, a piano accompaniment is often used even if a different instrumentation is planned for performance, or for rehearsing a cappella music.

Choirs can be categorized by the voices they include:

  • Mixed choirs (i.e., with male and female voices). This is perhaps the most common type, usually consisting of soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices, often abbreviated as SATB. Often one or more voices is divided into two, e.g., SSAATTBB, where each voice is divided into two parts, and SATBSATB, where the choir is divided into two semi-independent four-part choirs. Occasionally baritone voice is also used (e.g., SATBarB), often sung by the higher basses.
  • Male choirs, with the same SATB voicing as mixed choirs, but with boys singing the upper part (often called treble or boy soprano) and men singing alto (in falsetto), also known as countertenor.
  • Female choirs, usually consisting of soprano and alto voices, two parts in each, often abbreviated as SSAA, or as soprano, soprano II, and alto, abbreviated SSA
  • Men's choirs, usually consisting of two tenors, baritone, and bass, often abbreviated as TTBB (or ATBB if the upper part sings falsetto in alto range, as is common in barbershop music).
  • Children's choirs, often two-part SA or three-part SSA, sometimes more voices.

Choirs are also categorized by the institutions in which they operate:

  • Church choirs
  • College choirs
  • School choirs
  • Community choirs (of children or adults)
  • Professional choirs, either independent (e.g., Chanticleer) or state-supported (e.g., Netherlands Chamber Choir)

Vienna Boys' Choir Vienna Boys' Choir

Finally, some choirs are categorized by the type of music they perform, such as

  • Symphonic choirs
  • Vocal jazz choirs
  • Show choirs, in which the members sing and dance, often in performances somewhat like musicals

Layout on stage

One possible layout One possible layout

There are various schools of thought regarding how the various sections should be arranged on stage. In symphonic choirs it is common (though by no means universal) to order the choir from highest to lowest voices from left to right, corresponding to the typical string layout. In a cappella or piano-accompanied situations it is not unusual for the men to be in the back and the women in front; some conductors prefer to place the basses behind the sopranos, arguing that the outer voices need to tune to each other.

More experienced choirs often sing with the voices all mixed together. Proponents of this method argue that it makes it easier for each individual singer to hear and tune to the other parts, but it requires more independence from each singer. Opponents argue that this method loses the spatial separation of individual voice lines, an otherwise valuable feature for the audience, and that it eliminates sectional resonance, which lessens the effective volume of the chorus.

For music with double (or multiple) choirs, usually the members of each choir are together, sometimes significantly separated, especially in performances of 16th-century music. Some composers actually specify that choirs should be separated, such as in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.

Skills involved in choral singing

Choral singers vary greatly in their ability and performance. The best choral singers possess (among others) the following abilities:

  • to sing precisely in tune and with a pleasing vocal timbre which blends with the other singers;
  • to sing at precisely controlled levels of volume, matching the dynamics and expression marked in the score or prescribed by the conductor, and not sing so loudly as to be markedly detectable as an individual voice within the section;
  • to sight-read music fluently;
  • to sing solo passages when required;
  • to memorize or near-memorize the music, and thus be able to keep eyes on the conductor as much as possible;
  • to read and pronounce the sounds of foreign languages accurately and in the pronunciation style specified by the leader;
  • to remain completely alert for long periods, monitoring closely what is going on in a rehearsal or performance;
  • to monitor one's own singing and detect errors. In British choirs, it is often the custom for a singer to raise a hand to indicate awareness of having made a mistake;
  • to accept direction from others for the good of the group as a whole, even when the singer disagrees esthetically with the instructions;
  • to arrive at rehearsals and performances consistently on time, mentally and physically prepared to sing.

Singers who have perfect pitch require yet another skill:

  • to sing music in keys other than that in which it is written, since choirs often sing music in transposed form.

Historical overview of choral music

A great number of composers have written choral works. However, composing instrumental music is in many ways different from composing vocal music. The requirements of including text, making it intelligible, and catering to the special capabilities and limitations of the human voice makes composing vocal music in some ways more demanding than composing instrumental music. Due to this difficulty, many of the greatest composers have never composed choral music. Naturally, many composers have their favourite instruments and rarely compose for other types instruments or ensembles, and choral music is in this sense not a special case. On the other hand, many composers of all eras have specialized in choral music, and for the first thousand years of western music history choral music was one of the only types of music to have survived intact.

Medieval music

Main article: Medieval music

The earliest notated music of western Europe is Gregorian Chant, along with a few other types of chant which were later subsumed (or sometimes suppressed) by the Catholic Church. This tradition of a cappella choir singing lasted from sometime between the times of St. Ambrose (4th century) and Gregory the Great (6th century) up to the present. During the later Middle Ages, a new type of singing involving multiple melodic parts, called organum became predominant for certain functions, but initially this polyphony was only sung by soloists. Further developments of this technique included clausulae, conductus and the motet (most notably the isorhythmic motet), which was to become a predominant Renaissance form. The first evidence of performance with more than one singer per part comes in the Old Hall Manuscript (1420, though containing music from the late 1300s), in which there is occasional divisi (where one part divides into two different notes, something a solo singer obviously couldn't handle).

Renaissance music

Main article: Renaissance music

During the Renaissance, sacred choral music was the principal type of (formal or 'serious') music in Western Europe. Throughout the era, hundreds of masses and motets (as well as various other forms) were composed for a cappella choir, though there is some dispute over the role of instruments during certain periods and in certain areas. Some of the better-known composers of this time include Dufay, Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and William Byrd; the glories of Renaissance polyphony were choral, sung by choirs of great skill and distinction all over Europe. Choral music from this period continues to be popular with many choirs throughout the world today.

Madrigals are another particularly popular form dating from this period. Although madrigals were initially dramatic settings of unrequited-love poetry or mythological stories in Italy, they were imported into England and merged with the more upbeat balletto, celebrating often silly songs of spring, or eating and drinking. To most English speakers, the word madrigal now refers to the latter, rather than to madrigals proper, which refers to a poetic form of lines consisting of seven and eleven syllables each.

The interaction of sung voices in Renaissance polyphony influenced Western music for centuries. Most of the secular forms of music of the Baroque period derive in some way from the flowering of music during this intensely creative time. Composers routinely studied the style of composition well into the 20th century, especially as codified by music theorist Johann Joseph Fux, and the language of music analysis (which describes instrumental parts as "voices" and their melodic motion as "voice-leading") has its roots in the Renaissance style.

Composers of the early twentieth century also endeavored to extend and develop the Renaissance styles. Herbert Howells wrote a Mass in the Dorian mode entirely in strict Renaissance style, and Ralph Vaughan Williams's Mass in G minor is an extension of this style. Anton von Webern wrote his dissertation on the Choralis Constantinus of Heinrich Isaac and his development of serial music techniques was informed by this study.

Baroque music

The sudden developments which mark the beginning of the Baroque period around 1600 (instrumental music, opera, chords) were only introduced gradually into choral music. Madrigals continued to be written for the first few decades of the 17th century. Contrapuntal motets continued to be written for the Catholic church in the Renaissance style well into the 18th century.

One of the first innovative choral composers of the Baroque was Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), a master of counterpoint, who extended the new techniques pioneered by the Venetian School and the Florentine Camerata. Monteverdi, together with Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), used the new harmonic techniques to support and reinforce the meaning of the text. They both composed a large amount of music for both a cappella choir as well as choirs accompanied by different ensembles.

Independent instrumental accompaniment opened up new possibilities for choral music. Verse anthems alternated accompanied solos with choral sections; the best-known composers of this genre were Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell. Grand motets (such as those of Michel-Richard Delalande) separated these sections into separate movements. Oratorios extended this concept into concert-length works, usually loosely based on Biblical stories. Giacomo Carissimi was the principal early composer of oratorios, but most opera composers of the Baroque also wrote oratorios, generally in the same musical style as the operas. George Frideric Handel is the best-known composer of Baroque oratorios.

Lutheran composers wrote instrumentally-accompanied cantatas, often based on chorales (hymns). While Dieterich Buxtehude was a significant composer of such works, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) made the most prominent mark in this style, writing cantatas, motets, passions and other music. While Bach was little-known as a composer in his time, and for almost a century after his death, composers such as Mozart and Mendelssohn assiduously studied and learned from his contrapuntal and harmonic techniques, and his music is regularly performed and admired in the present day.

Classical and Romantic music

Composers of the late 18th century became fascinated with the new possibilities of the symphony and other instrumental music, and generally neglected choral music. Mozart's choral music generally does not represent his best work, with a few exceptions (such as the Requiem). Haydn only became interested in choral music near the end of his life, writing a series of masses beginning in 1797.

In the 19th century, sacred music escaped from the church and leaped onto the concert stage, with large sacred works unsuitable for church use, such as Beethoven's Missa solemnis, Berlioz's Te Deum, and Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem. Rossini's Stabat mater, Schubert's masses, and Verdi's Requiem also exploited the grandeur offered by instrumental accompaniment.

Oratorios also continued to be written, clearly influenced by Handel's models. Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ and Mendelssohn's Elijah and St. Paul are in the category. Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms also wrote secular cantatas, the best known of which are Brahms' Schicksalslied and Nänie.

A few composers developed a cappella music, especially Bruckner, whose masses and motets startlingly juxtapose Renaissance counterpoint with chromatic harmony. Mendelssohn and Brahms also wrote significant a cappella motets.

The amateur chorus (beginning chiefly as a social outlet) began to receive serious consideration as a compositional venue for the part-songs of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and others. These 'singing clubs' were often for women or men separately, and the music was typically in four-part (hence the name "part-song") and either a cappella or with simple instrumentation. At the same time, the Cecilian movement attempted a restoration of the pure Renaissance style in Catholic churches.

20th and 21st centuries

As in other genres of music, choral music underwent a period of experimentation and development during the 20th century. While few well-known composers focused primarily on choral music, most significant composers of the early century wrote at least a small amount.

The early post-Romantic composers, such as Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff, contributed to the genre, but it was Ralph Vaughan Williams who made the greatest contribution of this type, writing new motets in the Renaissance style with the new harmonic languages, and arranging English and Scottish folk songs. Arnold Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden represents the culmination of this style, a tonal kaleidoscope whose tonal centers are constantly shifting (similar to his Verklärte Nacht for strings from the same period).

As the century progressed, modernist techniques found their expression in choral music, including serial compositions by Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, and Stravinsky; eclectic compositions by Charles Ives; dissonant counterpoint by Olivier Messiaen (Cinq Rechants) and Paul Hindemith (When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd). Because of the difficulty of singing atonal music, these compositions are rarely performed today, although enjoyed by specialists. However, the primitivist movement is represented by Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, a composition widely performed.

Neoclassical styles found a more enduring legacy in choral music. Benjamin Britten wrote a number of well-known choral works, including War Requiem, Five Flower Songs, and Rejoice in the Lamb. Francis Poulenc's Motets pour le temps de noël, Gloria, and Mass in G are often performed. Hugo Distler wrote a huge amount of modern music modelled on the forms of Bach. In the United States, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Randall Thompson wrote signature American pieces. In Eastern Europe, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály wrote a small amount of choral music.

Post-World War II music took experimentation to its logical extreme. Sinfonia by Luciano Berio includes a chorus. Krzysztof Penderecki's St. Luke Passion includes choral shouting, clusters, and aleatoric techniques. Richard Felciano wrote for chorus and electronic tape.

Minimalism is represented by Arvo Pärt, whose Johannespassion and Magnificat have received regular performances.

Avant-garde techniques:

  • Shouting
  • Fry tones (lowest possible note)
  • Tone clusters
  • Wordless chorus, spearheaded by Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker and Holst's The Planets, was expanded by Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, and others.

Black Spirituals came into greater prominence and arrangements of such spirituals became part of the standard choral repertoire. Notable composers and arrangers of choral music in this tradition include André Thomas and Moses Hogan.

During the late 20th Century, one of the major areas of growth in the choral movement has been in the areas of GLBT choruses. Starting around 1979, gay men's choruses were founded within a period of months in major U.S. cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Dallas. Over the last quarter century the number of such groups, men's, women's and mixed, has exploded. GALA Choruses, an associative group, now has well-over 100 member choruses throughout the world.

At the turn of the century, Eric Whitacre has achieved considerable attention by combining tonal music with tone clusters and similar experimental techniques. Although it is too soon to discern trends in the 21st century, the spirit of more practical tonally-oriented music which dominated the last decades of the 20th century seems to be continuing via the works of Karl Jenkins, John Rutter, Robert Steadman, Morten Lauridsen and Kentaro Sato amongst others.

Famous choirs

Professional choirs

Antioch Chamber Ensemble (external link)
BBC Singers (external link)
Chanticleer
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Mattaniah Christian Male Choir
Monteverdi Choir
Netherlands Chamber Choir
Norman Luboff Choir
Philippine Madrigal Singers (Winner in the European Grand Prix Du Chant Choral 1997)
Phoenix Bach Choir (external link)
Red Army Choir
Swedish Radio Choir
The Swingle Singers
The Tallis Scholars
The Sixteen

Amateur choirs

Ateneo Chamber Singers
Birmingham Concert Chorale, Birmingham, Alabama
Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia
Chicago Chorale
Laus Deo Choir
Leicestershire Chorale
London Gay Men's Chorus
London Philharmonic Choir
London Symphony Chorus
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Magnum Chorum
Mixed choir Tirnavia, Slovakia
Orfeon Donostiarra, Spain
The Purcell Singers
Norwegian Student Choral Society
Seattle Pro Musica
Stockholm Academic Male Chorus
Sura Chamber Choir
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
The Tees Valley Youth Choir
Youth Choir "Balsis", Latvia
Immaculate Conception Choir, Karangalan Village Pasig City, Philippines

College choirs

Axminster and District Choral Society, Axminster, UK
Bowling Green State University Men's Chorus
BYU Men's Chorus
Choir of Christ Church, Oxford
Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge
Choir of King's College, Cambridge (external link)
Choir of New College, Oxford
Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Cornell University Glee Club
The Hamrahlid Choir
Harvard Glee Club
Morley College Choir
St. Olaf Choir
The University of Pennsylvania Glee Club
The University of the Philippines Concert Chorus (UPCC)
The University of Arizona Symphonic Choir
The Luther College Nordic Choir

Children's choirs

American Boychoir
Athens Boys Choir
The Australian Rosny Children's Choir
Bel Canto (Omaha, NE)
Knabenchor Hannover (Hannover Boys Choir)
Knabenkantorei Basel (Basel Boys' Choir)
Libera
The National Youth Choirs of Great Britain
San Francisco Boys Chorus (SFBC)
Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben (Stuttgart Hymnus Boys' Choir)
Tapiola choir (external link)
The Greater Baton Rouge Children's Chorus ([2])
The Texas Boys Choir
Thomanerchor Leipzig
Wiener Sängerknaben (Vienna Boys' Choir)

Church choirs

Choir of Canterbury Cathedral
Choir of Durham Cathedral
Choir of Edinburgh Cathedral
Choir of Lincoln Cathedral
Choir of Liverpool Cathedral
Choir of Peterborough Cathedral
Choir of Ripon Cathedral
St Mary's Cathedral Choir, Sydney
Choir of St Paul's Cathedral, London
Choir of Southwark Minster
Choir of Westminster Abbey
Choir of York Minster
Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Male Choirs

Shouting choirs

  • Mieskuoro Huutajat

External links


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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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