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An Introduction to Choral Music

A few things you wanted to know about choral music
(but didn't know who to ask)

Choir. Chorus. Choral. Chorale.
Find out the meaning of the word.

What voice parts make up the whole?

Isn't it all just classical?
The six historical periods of choral music.

Choir. Chorus. Choral. Chorale.
What do they all mean?

A choir is an ensemble of singers. Not a group of soloists competing with each other. That's American Idol. No, a choir is an ensemble. The word "ensemble" comes from French and means "together." And that's what the singers in a choir do. They sing together.

A chorus and a chorale are pretty much the same thing, when you get down to it. In fact, they've come from the same root word, but passed along to us from ancient Greece and Rome in several different forms.

The word "choral" is an adjective describing what choirs, choruses and chorales all do. They sing. Together. Thus, choral music.

In practice, people do make distinctions between the words, but there are no hard and fast definitions keeping them separate. "Choir" often refers to a choral group associated with a church or school. "Chorus" is often used in a theatrical context, such as opera or musical theater, for the group of singers (and often dancers) who "back up" the featured performers. "Chorale" can refer to a particular type of church music, or simply be another name for a choir or chorus. Like Pacific Chorale. Your favorite choir / chorus / choral ensemble.

"Chorale" shouldn't be confused with "corral." (Yes, they're pronounced the same way.) A corral is where you pen your livestock. A chorale is, well, where you pen your singers. As it were. Pacific Chorale does not have any horses for rent.

And "choral" shouldn't be confused with "coral." Coral is an underwater creature that builds reefs. "Choral" is a description of a type of singing, which is hard to do underwater.

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No, it's not another standardized test. It's an abbreviation for the most typical structure of a choir: soprano, alto, tenor, bass—SATB.

Soprano is the high female voice. They usually sing the melody. Because our ears are calibrated to hear higher pitches more clearly, the soprano is usually what we hear first when we listen to a choir.

Alto is the low female voice. They sing harmony, which usually means lots of work and little glory. You'd certainly notice the difference, though, if they all got tired and left. Altos add warmth and richness to the sound.

Tenor is the high male voice. The tenor voice is relatively rare, which is why tenors are valued in the choral world. They add brilliance to the sound.

Bass is the low male voice. Don't pronounce it to rhyme with "grass"—that kind of bass is a fish! "Bass" sounds just like "base," and that's what they are: the base of the choir's sound.

A few other voice types you might encounter are treble, mezzo-soprano and baritone. "Treble" is usually used for boys who sing in the soprano range. "Mezzo-soprano" is the medium female voice, higher than alto and lower than soprano. It is not commonly used as a category in choral music, but is frequently applied to soloists. "Baritone" is the medium male voice, higher than bass and lower than tenor. In many choirs, baritones act as a subset of the bass section.

There are lots of other combinations of voices possible besides SATB. More to come about that in a future segment.

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Isn't it all just classical?
Why Romantic music isn't necessarily romantic.

Music historians break down the history of music into different eras, styles or periods. Music is constantly changing and evolving, and it helps us to understand these historic trends by creating categories that emphasize common characteristics of music from a certain time, say, the 14th century or the English Renaissance or the last days of disco. The six basic historical periods of Western art music are as follows:


The Medieval Period (1000-1450)

Because music notation was developed during this time period, this is the earliest Western music that we still possess. During the Medieval period, church music developed from single-line chant to polyphony, or music sung by multiple voices. This is the beginning of choral music as we know it. Literacy was almost the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church, so most of the Medieval music we know is sacred in nature. Of course, people were singing music on non-religious themes at the time, but since most of them did not have access to the skill of writing it down, comparatively little of it has been preserved. That was a development that took place during…

The Renaissance (1450-1600)

“Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and this era marked the rediscovery of much knowledge and literature from the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. At least, that’s what the publicists were saying at the time. Some familiar elements of today’s music emerged during the Renaissance, such as notated (written-down) instrumental music, commercial music publication, and opera. Choral music reached a peak during the Renaissance: not only was music written in massive quantities for the church, but secular music written for hired or amateur singers to perform in home concerts also became extremely popular. (They didn’t have iPods or XM radio in 1550 – if you wanted to hear music, you either had to hire a musician or perform it yourself!)

The Baroque Era (1600-1750)

"Baroque" was not a complimentary term when people first started applying it to the arts. Critics thought the new style of the era was irregular and overly ornamented, and used the term to compare it to an oddly-shaped pearl. Opera may have been invented during the Renaissance, but it really took off during the Baroque period. Music became more instrumentally driven, and vocal styles became more elaborate and stylized. Now is when the music we usually hear sung by larger choirs began to be written, such as the works of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. From this point until the twentieth century, we start to find less a cappella choral music (sung without instrumental accompaniment) and more music written for combinations of voices and instruments.

The Classical Era (1750-1820)

The shortest of the six periods, the Classical era is dominated by the great Austrian composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The symphony orchestra came into its own, opera continued to grow in popularity, and choral music fell in prominence. Even so, some of the greatest choral music ever written comes from this period: Haydn’s Masses and oratorios, Mozart’s Requiem and C Minor Mass, and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and Ninth Symphony are all masterworks of the genre. Maybe that’s why we still tend to refer to all art music as “classical.”

The Romantic Era (1810-1910)

Not Romantic as in hearts and flowers (necessarily), but as in an idealized, subjective, emotionally intense form of expression emphasizing mood, color and atmosphere. Choral music responded in three ways to this movement: expanding to vast proportions in the Verdi and Berlioz Requiems, contracting to intimate gatherings of amateur singers in the home, as in the part-songs and Liebeslieder of Schubert and Brahms, or looking to the glorious achievements of the past in the oratorios of Mendelssohn and the Masses of Bruckner. The churches that had been the mainstay of choral music were no longer at its forefront, but in their place arose models of community, symphonic and academic choruses that continue to influence the art form today.

The Modern Era (1900-present)

An era of innovation, exploration, and rebellion against the conventions of the past. Choral music had by now become just about exclusively the domain of amateur performers, so it avoided some of the wildest forms of experimentation going on in other fields. Even so, choral music during the twentieth century saw renewed interest in folk traditions from around the world, influences from the booming popular music industry (jazz, rock, Broadway, gospel), a revival of choral music from earlier periods in history, improvisation, aleatoric music (music that relies on a certain level of random chance to determine its materials or structure), and new applications of technology. All this tumult was supposed to bring about the music of the future, but at some point (no one can agree exactly when) it turned into postmodernism, which, as Alanis Morisette might say, is just ironic.

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