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This article is about choirs, musical ensembles containing singers. For other meanings of the word, see Choir (disambiguation).

A choir is a musical ensemble. The term is generally used to refer to ensembles of singers, but can also refer to a collection of instruments from the same orchestral family such as a woodwind choir (see Choir (disambiguation)).

Children's choir
Children's choir

Terminology: A vocal ensemble which sings in a church, or sings exclusively sacred music, is invariably called a choir, whereas an ensemble which forms part of an opera or musical theatre production is called a chorus. For most other ensembles those two words may be used interchangeably. Other terms include glee club and chorale. A choir is usually distinguished from a quartet or other vocal ensemble by having two or more singers performing identical parts.


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 octuple choir of five parts each; Krzysztof Penderecki's Stabat Mater is for triple choir of 16 voices each, for a total of 48 parts. Other than four, the most common number of parts is 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 is discouraged by the Choral Journal , the publication of 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. For rehearsals, a piano accompaniment is often used even if a different instrumentation is planned for performance, or for a cappella music.

Choirs can be categorized by voicing:

  • Mixed choirs, perhaps the most common type, usually consisting of soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices, often abbreviated as SATB. Other typical divisions include SSAATTBB, where each voice is divided into two parts, and SATBSATB, where the choir is divided into two semi-independent four-part choirs.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • K-12 school choirs
  • Community choirs (of children or adults)
  • Professional choirs, either independent (e.g. Chanticleer) or state-supported (e.g. Netherlands Chamber 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, and it may be somewhat similar to a musical.

Skills required of choral singers

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
  • 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 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 finger to indicate to the leader that she has detected her own error and will not repeat it
  • to accept direction from others for the good of the group as a whole, even when the singer disagrees esthetically with the instructions.

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 an entirely different field than 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.

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) into the late Middle Ages. During the later Middle Ages, a new type of choral singing, involving multiple melodic parts, called organum became predominant for certain functions. Later developments included clausulae, conductus and the motet, which was to become a predominant Renaissance form.

During the Renaissance, choral music was the principal type of music in sacred settings in Western Europe. Many of the greatest composers of the time composed hundreds of masses, motets and other works for singing by choirs--mostly a cappella, though there is some dispute over the role of instruments during certain periods and in certain areas. Some of the names of composers of this time include Guillaume de Machaut, 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; indeed most of the secular forms of music of the Baroque derive in some way from the flowering of music during this intensely creative time.

One of the first great choral composers of the Baroque era was Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643), a master of counterpoint, who conclusively showed some of what could be done with choirs and many other musical ensembles, using the new techniques pioneered by the Venetian School and the Florentine Camerata. Monteverdi, together with Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), demonstrated how music can support and reinforce the message of the lyrics, just as Palestrina had done several generations earlier. They both composed a large amount of music for both a cappella choir as well as choirs accompanied by different ensembles.

A century later, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was the next to make his prominent mark in history. Due to his work as a cantor, he came to compose an overwhelming amount of sacred choral music: cantatas, motets, passions and other music. He is also famous for his vast output in chorales, essentially stylistically harmonised hymn-tunes. Bach's influence through his choral writing on the development of classical harmony is not to be underestimated.

Famous choirs

Professional choirs

  • Netherlands Chamber Choir
  • Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
  • Red army choir
  • BBC Singers (external link)
  • The Philippine Madrigal Singers (Winner in the European Grand Prix Du Chant Choral 1997)

Amateur choirs

Children's choirs

Church choirs

See also

External Links

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