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Traditional Choral Music is a form of musical performance that involves multiple singers in unison. This is a tradition that dates back to pre-Christian times.
Chorus music is a highly avocational pursuit. As such, instrumental music is viewed as being taken more seriously.
An adult mixed choir typically comprises soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices (abbreviated as SATB). It may also include a baritone voice.
A key feature of choral music is that it is performed in unison. This style was first developed in the medieval church, where a single voice simultaneously sang all parts of a composition. Early choral pieces include Gregorian Chant and several other types of notated music that date from around the fourth to sixth centuries. Western Europe brought this musical tradition when it began colonizing other countries. Harmony singing in a choir is still used today, even in countries without a Gregorian chant tradition.
The Renaissance produced several important choral composers. William Byrd’s devotion to Catholicism prevented him from producing as much sacred choral music as might otherwise have been the case. However, he still contributed to the repertoire of Anglican church anthems. He also helped to introduce a more accessible form of choral music by writing in the English language rather than Latin. The Venetian school, represented by Claudio Monteverdi, was responsible for further developments in choral music. He extended the mass form to incorporate orchestral instruments and pioneered the use of multiple voices for different parts of a single composition.
Choral music branched out into secular forms, too. One example is the popular Elizabethan musical Joan to the Maypole, which dates from around 1600. Then came the Baroque era, which saw the rise of such notable composers as Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach. During this period, the choral symphony became established as an important genre. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a classic example, and his Ode to Joy is another widely known work.
Modern choral music continues to expand and develop. The works of such influential composers as Benjamin Britten and Francis Poulenc are well-known examples. Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber produced some important signature American pieces in the United States. Other renowned composers, such as Sofia Gubaidulina and Krzysztof Penderecki, have explored avant-garde techniques, including tone clusters and aleatory elements. The most contemporary choral composers embrace an increasingly eclectic mix of styles to create exciting and innovative choral music.
Choral music can be categorized into different styles. It can be ‘orchestral’ – a work that uses a full orchestra backed by singers – in the sense of works like Richard Strauss’ tone poems or a large-scale orchestral symphony such as Beethoven’s Ninth or Mozart’s Requiem. However, this is a purely descriptive label, and it should not be taken literally; the same argument could be made for many other large-scale orchestral works backed by singers, such as Verdi’s symphonic masses or several twentieth and twenty-first-century ‘oratorios’ such as Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio or Jonathan Harvey’s Weltethos.
Choral groups may be unaccompanied, acoustically accompanied by piano, or, as was more common in the Baroque and Classical periods, accompanied by harpsichord or strings. It is generally considered that the acoustic accompaniment enhances and clarifies the sound of the voices rather than distracting them from it. The choir can hear each other better and, in particular, use their vocal resonance to create sonority. It also helps prevent singers from relying too heavily on a ‘choir leader’ to generate sonority.
A church choir typically sings religious choral music, such as Gregorian chant, folk music, or Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). It may perform anthems or hymns. It is often led by a choirmaster/mistress.
The style of choral music changes over time and with the development of new musical genres. Polyphony was restricted to solo singing and acoustic accompaniment in the early Middle Ages. The emergence of the Opera era led to a more complex and elaborate score with orchestral backing. At the same time, the Classical period saw an increasing emphasis on harmony in both compositions for solo singers and those for choir.
Choral groups are usually formed from singers of a range of abilities, from the very skilled to those with little or no experience. Some are mixed, while others are grouped into sections for easy learning and to maintain the balance of the voice parts. The latter approach is gaining ground, especially in more experienced groups. However, it can lead to a less homogenous sound and may be counterproductive to achieving good ensemble performance.
A traditional choral arrangement is a new musical composition created from a preexisting work through “translation, musical arrangement, condensation, abridgment or other transformation.” It must have been made in the scope of the copyright owner’s right to create derivative works. This right applies to all forms of music, including choral arrangements. Creating a choral arrangement without permission from the song’s creator, songwriter, or composer is illegal. The copyright owner may also require ownership of the resulting work as a condition of granting permission to create it.
Traditionally, the choral sound has been defined by polyphony music with multiple voices playing one or more melody lines. However, many choral arrangements are based on monophonic or single-voice musical pieces. These may not necessarily sound choral when performed in a choir. Choral arrangements are also often based on popular songs or other non-traditional genres. This includes folk music, contemporary classical works, and even rock and pop songs. These are not regarded as “choral” in the traditional sense, but they still serve to bring great music to many people who might not otherwise be exposed to it.
For example, it is common for choirs to perform madrigals originally intended for solo performances. In such cases, the resulting sonority is choral in the classic sense once there are more than five or six voice parts to each line of polyphony. It is also not uncommon for the choir to sing the melody line of a piece while another group plays a supporting accompaniment.
In the United States, several young performers are trained for careers as professional solo singers on the opera and concert stage. These artists are not generally suited to the demands of a career as a professional choral singer, but their talent and dedication deserve recognition. Expecting them to behave like choral specialists is unrealistic and unfair.
The most common form of a choral arrangement is for an adult mixed choir (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), abbreviated SATB. Occasionally, choirs are arranged for SATB-plus-baritone (SATB) or SATB-plus-bass-soloists (SATB). Choral arrangers should be willing to experiment with their vocal formations to keep their choir members on their toes and prevent them from becoming too comfortable in a particular vocal role.
Choral music can be accompanied by instruments, piano organs, or unaccompanied (a cappella). When rehearsing choral works, instrumental accompaniment is often used as it helps singers to hear themselves and the other parts, especially when a part is more difficult or sung out of tune. This also helps develop the synchrony that is important in a group performance.
There is a huge range of musical styles that can be considered choral. During the 17th century, Lutheran composers wrote instrumentally accompanied cantatas, often based on hymns. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) contributed significantly to the genre with his extensive cantata and motet repertoire. Other composers of the time who developed new musical styles influenced by choral traditions included Dietrich Buxtehude and Georg Philipp Telemann. In contrast, modern-day composers such as Karl Jenkins, Nico Muhly, Augusta Read Thomas, Sofia Gubaidulina, and James MacMillan have helped to push the boundaries of choral composition.
Most choral groups are not affiliated with any particular church, but the genre has become essential to Western classical music. Most choral pieces are religious, though many non-religious songs are in the traditional repertoire, and many cultures worldwide have strong harmony singing traditions.
Generally, the highest voice in a choir sings the melody, and the lower voices harmonize with it. This allows the director to focus on directing the overall dynamics and giving the performance the right balance. Sometimes, other parts will recite text or provide rhythmic accompaniment, but the most important role of a choir is to create a sound rich in texture and emotion.
A common practice is to divide the choir into sections based on their vocal range. Sopranos are the higher voices, and altos are the middle and lower voices. Some groups further split the tenor and bass voices, although this is rare. This allows a greater range of voices to be explored and gives different sounds to the work.
More experienced choirs may mix the voices, with singers of the same voice grouped in pairs or threes, and this method is especially favored when performing works written in the Venetian polychoral style. However, this can cause difficulties when it comes to directing the piece, and some composers specifically specify that choirs should be separated – such as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.