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The Complexity of Traditional Choral Music

Traditional Choral Music is complex, and it has its history. Unfortunately, it’s often portrayed in simplified stereotypes and thread-worn narratives that stifle learning and artistic potential.

Increased interaction between vocal and instrumental musicians burgeoned as the Renaissance bled into the Baroque period, exemplified by Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers and Eighth Book of Madrigals (go here to watch period ensemble Vox Luminis perform). This ushered in a polychoral compositional style.

Traditional Choral Program

Choral music consists of musical tunes performed by a group of singers. The size of the choir varies from a dozen people to as many as fifty or more people. Generally, a traditional choir has four vocal parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Sopranos sing high melodies, altos sing mid-range, and tenors sing low melodies—this form of music results from multiple traditional cultures that use a chorus to create musical tunes.

In the early seventeenth century, the Reform movement established a standard for musical practice in its churches and synagogues. This largely standardized the form of church cantatas, which were instrumentally accompanied and used a repertoire that included chant and compositions by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach.

The era of the great Baroque choral masters also saw the rise of solo cantatas, which used a mixture of vocal and instrumental elements. Bach and his contemporaries Johann Philipp Telemann and Dietrich Buxtehude wrote many instrumentally accompanied church cantatas. However, he wrote fewer complete cycles than the earlier choral composers.

In the Romantic era, Russian composers developed a highly advanced choral style used in religious services and for concerts. Tchaikovsky completed nine sacred works, and Rachmaninov composed an opera, The Theotokos, that used a full chorus for its musical accompaniment.

The twentieth century took choral music to new heights of experimentation and expression. Works such as Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia used choral shouting and clusters, and Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion included wordless choral harmonies and aleatoric techniques. Choral music continued to be used for more modern and secular applications such as oratorios, musicals, and concert works, with many renowned composers including a choral part.

While many people enjoy hearing a professional choir perform at concerts, the most common function of a choir is to lead hymns and service music in a worship community. Some church choirs also perform anthems during designated times in the liturgy, and the most ambitious church choirs may sing the full liturgical service.

Choral music is characterized by its polyphony or multiple autonomous vocal lines. It has a rich history in European church music. A typical arrangement for a choir consists of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices (SATB for short). The female voice lies between soprano and alto and is often called mezzo-soprano or middle soprano; the male voice lies between tenor and bass and is sometimes called baritone. Some pieces require a second double choir, performed simultaneously to provide more depth and richness in the sound.

The quality of a performance depends on more than just the number and type of voices involved. The way the singers interact with one another – how they move together and separately, how they use vibrato, how loudly or softly they sing, and what shape their vowels take — all contribute to the overall sound. Some groups, such as GALA Choruses in Kansas City, have gone beyond traditional singing to create musical documentary formats that combine music, narration, and multimedia to illustrate social issues.

Most choral groups are led by a conductor or choirmaster, who is responsible for directing the group and ensuring that each section of the voice performs correctly. The director also selects repertoire, hires soloists and accompanists, and leads rehearsals. Many choirs are composed of members of one church or faith community; some are secular.

Many young classical singers are trained for careers as soloists on the opera stage and in concert, but they also have a passion for singing in a group. It is not unusual for these talented performers to earn a living on the choral circuit, where they can still be true to their passion for singing in a group. However, expecting these generalists to refrain from adopting a specialized group’s ideal choral practices is important.

The choral arts can be performed with or without instruments, depending on the genre of the work, the performance venue, and the acoustic quality of the space. For example, the acoustic quality of a large cathedral might call for an orchestra to accompany a choral piece. In contrast, a small group of singers might need only a piano or an electronic accompaniment for rehearsals and practice sessions.

Historically, the choral music has embraced an astonishing array of musical styles. From the hypnotic unison singing of Gregorian chant through the complex polychoral style of Renaissance music to the evocative, dramatic oratorios of the 20th century, there is a wealth of diverse and beautiful music to explore. While relying on simplistic stereotypes or thread-worn narratives may stifle learning and limit artistic potential, it is only possible to fully appreciate the richness of this centuries-old tradition by exploring these different approaches.

A choir’s most common grouping of voices is male and female, soprano, alto, and tenor parts, or SATB. Sometimes, a baritone is included to sing an octave lower, or women are grouped into three parts, SSAA. A choral piece is often written for two independent groups of females, soprano and alto, or for just a single voice part (SATB).

In some cases, a piece will be written for purely instrumental ensembles. In these instances, the piece is called an “instrumental choral work.” This type of choral composition may also be used for religious purposes.

Many choral groups focus on performing classical or contemporary choral repertoire. This repertoire can range from madrigals to church anthems to masses and requiems. Some choral groups are highly professional, operating commercially and with a strong performance focus. Others are more amateur, operating on a community basis or as part of a school or adult education center.

As modernism ran roughshod over choral forms in the 20th century, composers such as Poulenc continued to write masses and motets, a sign of the high regard that some composers still held for the vocal ensemble. Other notable choral composers include John Stainer, who wrote the famous choral piece Pomp and Circumstance, and Elgar, who struggled to gain recognition for his choral music in his lifetime.

A less common but equally important choral genre is the oratorio. An oratorio is an unstaged musical dramatization of a text, usually religious. Handel’s Messiah is the most famous example of an oratorio, but there are many other examples.

There is much more to excellent choral sound than simply singing “straight.” The vowels’ shape and intensity, the consonants’ depth, the use of vibrato, and even how singers breathe all contribute. The goal is to achieve a unified, balanced sound rich in overtones yet flexible enough to fit the musical context. Many choir directors fall into the trap of focusing exclusively on “straightening,” which, while useful to a certain extent, can lead to physical tension, stifle artistic potential, and reduce vocal ranges.

Traditionally, choral music was performed without instrumental accompaniment, called a cappella, though today, many pieces are accompanied by orchestras and other ensembles. Accompanying instruments can vary from the traditional organ to piano (as with chant) or strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. The choral ensemble may also be separated into different voice parts, creating antiphonal effects (one choir responds to another) and other interesting dynamics, as in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

When composers first began using choral music for dramatization, they were restricted by the church’s limitations to religious subjects. As religious influence began to wane, however, Brahms and Mendelssohn’s likes adapted forms used for sacred purposes to portray non-religious narratives. This allowed them to create large choral works such as their Petite Messe solennelle, which required many voices.

Modern choral music is often a combination of sacred and secular, with the addition of contemporary elements such as jazz harmony. As a result, a great variety of musical styles in which a chorus can appear, including opera, ballet, and concert.