The Church Choir in today’s Society


The concept of the church choir is outdated and is therefore an anachronism which has little relevance or place in today’s society.

The origins of the Church Choir can be found not in Roman Catholicism or in Christianity at all, but in the Old Testament. The first Church Choir was in fact appointed by King David some 3000 years ago. If we are to believe the biblical account, the members of these choirs took their roles a lot more seriously than many church choristers do today.

Now these are the singers, heads of fathers’ households of the Levites, who lived in the chambers of the temple free from other service; for they were engaged in their work day and night. (1 Chronicles Ch 9 vs 33).

If we are to believe this statement, then it appears that being a member of the choir was a full time occupation.  It almost seems to appear as if David ordered there be music 7 days a week, 24 hours a day to worship God in the Tabernacle.  Furthermore, a little later on in the book of Chronicles there is more detail about David’s requirements for music in worship.

Then David spoke to the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their relatives the singers, with instruments of music, harps, lyres, loud-sounding cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.

We can infer from this that choirs have been around for a while then.

The development of plainsong

The earliest known music of the Christian Church is Plainsong – a monophonic sacred form.  Chant developed separately in several European centres. Although the most important were Rome, Hispania, Gaul, Milan, and Ireland, there were others as well. These styles were all developed to support the regional liturgies used when celebrating the Mass.

Around the end of the 9th century, singers in monasteries such as St. Gall in Switzerland began experimenting with adding another part to the chant, generally a voice in parallel motion, singing mostly in perfect fourths or fifths above the original tune. This development is called organum and represents the beginnings of counterpoint and, ultimately, harmony. Over the next several centuries, organum developed in several ways.

Renaissance Choirs

Instrumental music did not equal vocal music in importance until the 17th century. There is of course a reasonable amount of music written for instruments alone which survives from the 16h century, some of which is sublime in quality.  However, it remains true that the vast majority of the music composed during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was connected with a text.  Most of the compositions from this time, or at least most of the polyphony set to Latin words was probably performed by voices alone rather than voices and instruments.

It must be remembered that vocal music is not always by definition choral music.  Some of the earliest choirs in medieval Western Europe were made up of clerics who sang plainchant.  Polyphony was deemed more the province of musically adept soloists.

Baroque Choirs

The Baroque period in music is associated with the development around 1600 of the figured bass and the basso continuo system. The use of figured bass was a dramatic change in the way composers thought of musical pieces. Unlike a typical Renaissance piece, which was based around interweaving, independent melody lines, a Baroque composer using figured bass thought of a piece as a chord progression.

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.

Classical & Romantic Choirs

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 Christand 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.

Choirs Today

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.

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.

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.  Multi-cultural influences are found in Osvaldo Golijov’s St. Mark Passion, which melds the Bach-style passion form with Latin American street music, and Chen Yi’s Chinese Myths Cantata melds atonal idioms with traditional Chinese melodies played on traditional Chinese instruments. Some composers began to earn their reputation based foremost on their choral output, including the highly popular John Rutter and Eric Whitacre.

The large scale dramatic works of Karl Jenkins seem to hearken back to the theatricality of Orff, and the music of James MacMillan continues the tradition of boundary-pushing choral works from the United Kingdom begun by Britten, Walton, and Leighton. Meanwhile, composers such as John Williams, known primarily for film scores, and prominent concert orchestral composers such as Augusta Read Thomas, Sofia Gubaidulina, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Thomas Adès also contribute vital additions to the choral repertoire.

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