A choir (/ˈkwaɪər/; also known as a quire, chorale or chorus) is a musical ensemble of singers. Choral music, in turn, is the music written specifically for such an ensemble to perform. Choirs may perform music from the classical music repertoire, which spans from the medieval era to the present, or popular music repertoire. Most choirs are led by a conductor, who leads the performances with arm and face gestures.
A body of singers who perform together as a group is called a choir or chorus.
The term "Choir" has the secondary definition of a subset of an ensemble; thus one speaks of the "woodwind choir" of an orchestra, or different "choirs" of voices or instruments in a polychoral composition. In typical 18th- to 21st-century oratorios and masses, chorus or choir is usually understood to imply more than one singer per part, in contrast to the quartet of soloists also featured in these works.
Choirs are often led by a conductor or choirmaster. Most often choirs consist of four sections intended to sing in four part harmony, but there is no limit to the number of possible parts as long as there is a singer available to sing the part: 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.
Many choirs perform in one or many locations such as a church, opera house, or school hall.
Conducting is the art of directing a musical performance, such as a choral concert, by way of visible gestures with the hands, arms, face and head. The primary duties of the conductor or choirmaster are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats (meter), and to listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble.
The conductor or choral director typically stands on a raised platform and he or she may or may not use a baton; using a baton gives the conductor's gestures greater visibility, but many choral conductors prefer conducting with their hands for greater expressiveness, particularly when working with a smaller ensemble. In the 2010s, most conductors do not play an instrument when conducting, although in earlier periods of classical music history, leading an ensemble while playing an instrument was common. In Baroque music from the 1600s to the 1750s, conductors performing in the 2010s may lead an ensemble while playing a harpsichord or the violin (see Concertmaster). Conducting while playing a piano may also be done with musical theatre pit orchestras. Communication is typically non-verbal during a performance (this is strictly the case in art music, but in jazz big bands or large pop ensembles, there may be occasional spoken instructions). However, in rehearsals, the conductor will often give verbal instructions to the ensemble, since they generally also serve as an artistic director who crafts the ensemble's interpretation of the music.
Conductors act as guides to the choirs they conduct.
In worship services
Most Eastern Orthodox Christian churches, some American Protestant groups, and traditional Jewish synagogues do not accompany their songs with musical instruments. In churches of the Western Rite the accompanying instrument is usually the organ, although in colonial America, the Moravian Church used groups of strings and winds. Many churches which use a contemporary worship format use a small amplified band to accompany the singing, and Roman Catholic Churches may use, at their discretion, additional orchestral accompaniment.
In addition to leading of singing in which the congregation participates, such as hymns and service music, some church choirs sing full liturgies, including propers (introit, gradual, communion antiphons appropriate for the different times of the liturgical year). Chief among these are the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches; far more common however is the performance of anthems or motets at designated times in the service.
- Mixed choir (with male and female voices).
- Male choirs with the same SATB voicing as mixed choirs, but with boys singing the upper part (often called trebles or boy sopranos) and men singing alto (in falsetto), also known as countertenors. This format is typical of the British cathedral choir (e.g. Peterborough Cathedral, St Paul's, Westminster Abbey).
- Women's choir, a choir of adult women, high voices only, usually consisting of soprano and alto voices, two parts in each, often abbreviated as SSAA, or as soprano I, soprano II, and alto, abbreviated SSA.
- Men's chorus (Männerchor), a choir of adult men, low voices only, usually consisting of two tenors, baritone, and bass, often abbreviated as TTBB (or ATBB if the upper part sings falsetto in alto range). ATBB may be seen in some barbershop quartet music.
- Children's choir, often two-part SA or three-part SSA, sometimes more voices.
- Boys' choir, a choir of boys
- Girls' choir, a choir of girls, high voices only
- Indian music choral group, takes the elements of western music in Indian music.
Choirs are also categorized by the institutions in which they operate:
- Church (including cathedral) choirs
- Chorale (Kantorei), dedicated to mostly sacred Christian music
- Collegiate and university choir
- Community choir (of children or adults)
- Professional choir, either independent (e.g. Anúna, The Sixteen) or state-supported (e.g., BBC Singers, National Chamber Choir of Ireland, Canadian Chamber Choir, Swedish Radio Choir, Nederlands Kamerkoor)
- School choirs
- Signing choir using sign language rather than voices
- Integrated signing and singing choir, using both sign language and voices and led by both a signductor and a musical director
- Cambiata choirs, often the same SATB, but with girls singing soprano and alto, along with trebles and cambiatas and boy altos
Some choirs are categorized by the type of music they perform, such as
- Bach choir
- Barbershop music group
- Gospel choir
- Show choir, in which the members sing and dance, often in performances somewhat like musicals
- Symphonic choir
- Vocal jazz choir
In the United States, middle schools and high schools often offer choir as a class or activity for students.
Nationally, male students are enrolled in choir at much lower numbers than their female students. The music education field has had a longtime interest in the "missing males" in music programs. Speculation as to why there aren't as many boys in choir, and possible solutions vary widely. One researcher found that boys who enjoy choir in middle school may not always go on to high school choir because it simply doesn't fit into their schedules. Some research speculates that one reason that boys' participation in choir is so low is because the U.S. does not encourage male singers. Often, schools will have a women's choir, which helps the balance issues mixed choirs face by taking on extra female singers. However, without a men's choir also, this could be making the problem worse by not giving boys as many opportunities to sing as girls. Other researchers have noted that having an ensemble or even a workshop dedicated to male singers can help with their confidence and singing abilities.
Arrangements on stage
There are various schools of thought regarding how the various sections should be arranged on stage.
More experienced choirs may sing with the voices all mixed.
Consideration is also given to the spacing of the singers.
The origins of choral music are found in traditional music, as singing in big groups is extremely widely spread in traditional cultures (both singing in one part, or in unison, like in Ancient Greece, as well as singing in parts, or in harmony, like in contemporary European choral music).
The oldest unambiguously choral repertory that survives is that of ancient Greece, of which the 2nd century BC Delphic hymns and the 2nd century AD. hymns of Mesomedes are the most complete. The original Greek chorus sang its part in Greek drama, and fragments of works by Euripides (Orestes) and Sophocles (Ajax) are known from papyri. The Seikilos epitaph (2c BC) is a complete song (although possibly for solo voice). One of the latest examples, Oxyrhynchus hymn (3c) is also of interest as the earliest Christian 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 unison 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, unlike the Renaissance motet, describes a composition with different texts sung simultaneously in different voices. The first evidence of polyphony with more than one singer per part comes in the Old Hall Manuscript (1420, though containing music from the late 14th century), in which there are apparentdivisi, one part dividing into two simultaneously sounding notes.
During the Renaissance, sacred choral music was the principal type of formally notated 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 Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, John Dunstable, 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.
The madrigal, a partsong conceived for amateurs to sing in a chamber setting, originated at 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 dancelike balletto, celebrating carefree songs of the seasons, 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.
The Baroque period in music is associated with the development around 1600 of the figured bass and the basso continuo system. The figured bass part was performed by the basso continuo group, which at minimum included a chord-playing instrument (e.g., pipe organ, harpsichord, lute) and a bass instrument (e.g., violone). Baroque vocal music explored dramatic implications in the realm of solo vocal music such as the monodies of the Florentine Camerata and the development of early opera. This innovation was in fact an extension of established practice of accompanying choral music at the organ, either from a skeletal reduced score (from which otherwise lost pieces can sometimes be reconstructed) or from a basso seguente, a part on a single staff containing the lowest sounding part (the bass part).
A new genre was the vocal concertato, combining voices and instruments; its origins may be sought in the polychoral music of the Venetian school. Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) brought it to perfection with his Vespers and his Eighth Book of Madrigals, which call for great virtuosity on the part of singers and instruments alike. (His Fifth Book includes a basso continuo "for harpsichord or lute".) His pupil Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) (who had earlier studied with Giovanni Gabrieli) introduced the new style to Germany. Alongside the new music of the seconda pratica, contrapuntal motets in the stile antico or old style continued to be written well into the 19th century. Choirs at this time were usually quite small and that singers could be classified as suited to church or to chamber singing. Monteverdi, himself a singer, is documented as taking part in performances of his Magnificat with one voice per part.
Independent instrumental accompaniment opened up new possibilities for choral music.
A pinnacle of baroque choral music, (particularly oratorio), may be found in George Frideric Handel's works, notably Messiah and Israel in Egypt. While the modern chorus of hundreds had to await the growth of Choral Societies and his centennial commemoration concert, we find Handel already using a variety of performing forces, from the soloists of the Chandos Anthems
Lutheran composers wrote instrumentally accompanied cantatas, often based on chorale tunes. Substantial late 17th-century sacred choral works in the emerging German tradition exist (the cantatas of Dietrich Buxtehude being a prime example), though the Lutheran church cantata did not assume its more codified, recognizable form until the early 18th century. Georg Philipp Telemann (based in Frankfurt) wrote over 1000 cantatas, many of which were engraved and published (e.g. his Harmonische Gottesdienst) and Christoph Graupner (based in Darmstadt) over 1400. The cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) are perhaps the most recognizable (and often-performed) contribution to this repertoire: his obituary mentions five complete cycles of his cantatas, of which three, comprising some 200 works, are known today, in addition to motets. Bach himself rarely used the term cantata. Motet refers to his church music without orchestra accompaniment, but instruments playing colla parte with the voices. His works with accompaniment consists of his Passions, Masses, the Magnificat and the cantatas.
A point of hot controversy today is the so-called "Rifkin hypothesis," which re-examines the famous "Entwurff" Bach's 1730 memo to the Leipzig City Council (A Short but Most Necessary Draft for a Well Appointed Church Music) calling for at least 12 singers. In light of Bach's responsibility to provide music to four churches and be able to perform double choir compositions with a substitute for each voice, Joshua Rifkin concludes that Bach's music was normally written with one voice per part in mind. A few sets of original performing parts include ripieni who reinforce rather than slavishly double the vocal quartet.
Composers of the late 18th century became fascinated with the new possibilities of the symphony and other instrumental music, and generally neglected choral music.
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 Berlioz's Te Deum and Requiem, and Brahms's 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's 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.
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 produced some fine examples that have entered the repertoire.
The early modernist composers, such as Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Max Reger contributed to the genre. Ralph Vaughan Williams's Mass in G minor harks back to the Renaissance style while exhibiting the vibrancy of new harmonic languages. Vaughan Williams also arranged English and Scottish folk songs. Arnold Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden is a tonal kaleidoscope, whose tonal centers are constantly shifting (his harmonically innovative Verklärte Nacht for strings dates from the same period). Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych also explored new ways of harmonizing and arranging Ukrainian folk songs, producing masterpieces such as Dudaryk and Shchedryk, the latter of which featured a four-note ostinato theme and became a popular Christmas carol known as Carol of the Bells after it was translated by Peter J. Wilhousky.
The advent of atonality and other non-traditional harmonic systems and techniques in the 20th century also affected choral music.
More accessible styles of choral music include that by Benjamin Britten, including his 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. A primitivist approach is exemplified by Carl Orff's widely performed Carmina Burana. 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 music for choirs. Frank Martin's Mass for double choir combines modality and allusion to Medieval and Renaissance forms with a distinctly modern harmonic language and has become the composer's most performed work.
The so-called holy minimalists are represented by Arvo Pärt, whose Johannespassion and Magnificat have received regular performances; John Tavener (Song for Athene) and Henryk Górecki (Totus Tuus) share this label. American minimalism and post minimalism are represented by Steve Reich's The Desert Music, choral excerpts from Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach and John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, and David Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winningLittle Match Girl Passion.
At the turn of the 21st century, choral music has received a resurgence of interest partly due to a renewed interest in accessible choral idioms.
A number of traditions originating outside of classical concert music have enriched the choral repertoire as well as provided new outlets to composers:
- At the end of the 19th century, male voice choirs became popular with the coal miners of South Wales, and numerous choirs were established including the Treorchy Male Choir, Morriston Orpheus Choir and Cor Meibion Pontypridd male voice choirs. Although the mining communities which gave rise to these choirs largely died out in the 1970s and 1980s with the decline of the Welsh coal industry, many of these choirs continue, and are seen as a traditional part of Welsh culture and perform worldwide. Not all of the choirs were based on coal – some started in the rugby clubs, such as Cardiff Arms Park Male Choir and Morriston Rugby Choir, while others such as Pontarddulais Male Choir were formed out of a youth choir.
- Black Spirituals entered the concert repertoire with the tours of the Fisk College Jubilee Singers, and arrangements of such spirituals are now part of the standard choral repertoire. Notable composers and arrangers of choral music in this tradition include William Dawson, Jester Hairston and Moses Hogan.
- During the mid 20th century, barbershop quartets began experimenting with combining larger ensembles together into choruses which sing barbershop music in 4 parts, often with staging, choreography and costumes. The first international barbershop chorus contest was held in 1953 and continues to this day.
- Contemporary choirs, such as Rock Choir and London Contemporary Voices in the United Kingdom, have become popular since the beginning of the 21st century. They usually perform rock, pop, soul and Motown songs in close-part vocal harmony, often incorporating dance moves.