Choral music has held a revered and beloved place in human societies since the beginning of recorded history. From medieval times to today’s children’s choirs, here are four things you need to know about choral music:
1. Choral music has its roots in religious music.
Most of today’s choral singing groups can trace the roots of their practices back to sacred music. The most popular example is probably the Gregorian chant that was a familiar part of medieval church services.
In Gregorian chant, groups of monks would participate together in singing the various passages of sacred music. The conscious blending of their individual voices created the powerful sound of a single musical presence. It still serves as the model for much modern-day choral music.
Gregorian chant, a form of the monophonic “plainsong” or “plain chant,” accompanied the recitation of the mass and the divine office of the canonical hours. It derives its name from the fact that it developed during the rule of Pope (later Saint) Gregory I, at the turn of the 7th century of the Common Era.
The development of polyphony, the use of more than one voice or tone heard in a composition, brought composers the opportunity to expand on the range and types of compositions they wrote. When creating contrasting vocal parts, composers often drew on the talents of young boy sopranos to sing the contrasting trouble notes. This is because during this period in history, women’s voices were often forbidden in public performance.
2. Choral music eventually found a secular audience and begin to include lyrics and instruments.
As religious reformation and social secularization progressed, audiences outside sacred spaces enjoyed greater opportunities to hear choral music in performance. Once it flowed outside the monasteries and into the streets, its composers experienced greater creative freedom. They began to abandon the formalized structures common to sacred choral music, and to add instruments into the mix.
Composers also began to bring in human voices singing in chorus to enhance and add texture to familiar types of instrumental pieces. The addition of words enabled composers of instrumental music to address their audiences in new ways.
The Baroque period saw Italian composer and singer Claudio Monteverdi creating “polychoral” sacred pieces with multiple choirs and increasing numbers of instruments. The 16th and 17th century choral tradition also included the development of numerous motets, a form that evolved during the Middle Ages into a variety of types of religious and secular compositions.
3. Choral music was integrated into the oratorio and symphonic traditions.
The oratorio, a larger composition for orchestra, chorus, and soloists and typically based on stories from scripture, was born as composers expanded on the form of the motet. The oratorio form reached its apogee during the 1600s. The German composer George Frideric Handel, who worked extensively in England, perfected this type of music. Handel became, in fact, the father of the particularly English style of oratorio.
One exceptional 19th-century example of the integration of choral music into the symphony is the “Ode to Joy” sequence of the 1824 Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. The large-scale choir’s singing of text by the lyric poet Friedrich Schiller lifts the mood into a soaring affirmation of humanity’s potential.
For many lovers of classical music, Gustav Mahler’s use of choral performance in his titanic symphonies represents the pinnacle of the form. Mahler’s Second “Resurrection” Symphony, as well as his Third and his Eighth, offer powerful musical interpretations of the nature of love, life, and fate enhanced by the voices of their choruses.
The Austrian composer, whose creative period straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, became known for his thundering, multi-layered sound. His Eighth Symphony earned the title of “Symphony of a Thousand” thanks to its gargantuan cast of voices and instruments. It is written for performance by a massive orchestra, a double chorus, a boys’ choir, and eight single solo voices.
4. Today, children's choral groups continue to delight performers and audience members alike.
Today, choral music in the United States continues to flourish, performed by a wide range of ensembles of all ages. Children’s choruses offer opportunities for young people to engage with music education, learn performance skills, and develop friendships based on a common commitment to creative work.
The Children’s Chorus of Washington is one group that represents the nation’s capital. Over the past 24 years, it has provided choral training and experiences to 2,500 youth and toured internationally.
The Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas is a mosaic of six individual groups of some 450 singers total. Under the auspices of the Deloitte Concert Series, it performs seasonal concerts at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.
The Boston Children’s Chorus is composed of about 500 students from all over the greater Boston area. Almost half of them live in the city of Boston.
Children’s choruses typically hold auditions at designated times of year, and work hard to open opportunities to as many talented young people as possible. The BCC’s students, like those in Washington DC, Dallas, and many more communities around the country, are eligible to receive need-based scholarships to support their participation. In fact, about 80 percent of the BCC’s performers attend its musicianship programs on scholarship.