History Of Choral Music


What is the origin and history of choral music? Information on definition, choral music on Renaissance, Baroque era and classical and romantic periods.

CHORAL MUSIC, is music for a group of singers who are divided into several sections according to voice range, each section singing one line of the vocal score. The conventional voice ranges are soprano and alto (high and low female voices ) and tenor and bass ( high and low male voices). Some choral works call for instrumental accompaniment; others are written to be sung a cappella. Although some choral music is scored for female voices only or for male voices only, most choral works call for a mixed choir or chorus ( from Greek choros, a group of chanters), combining all four parts. The singing of each vocal line by many unified voices distinguishes choral music from vocal ensemble music”, in which only one person sings each vocal line.

Choral music has been written in every period since the 15th century, in almost every country of the Western world, and by nearly every major composer. It was almost always closely connected with the church until the 19th century, when the growth of singing societies created a new demand for secular choral works. Today, in addition to church choirs, there are amateur choral societies and smaller professional choirs. These groups inherit from past centuries a tremendous library of choral music, much of it still unexplored; and this stock is constantly being added to by contemporary composers. It is essential for performers and listeners to understand the various styles and purposes of this music as it has developed in Western culture.

History of Choral Music

As early as the 4th century, when plainsong (later called Gregorian chant) was the only music of the Christian church, groups of singers (scholae ) began to be trained as choruses to sing the chants that were too difficult for the congregation. Choir schools (scholae cantorum) were established at large churches and monasteries.

Composers of the 9th century developed a form of polyphonic music called organum, which added a vocal line following the plainsong in parallel fifths or fourths. Organum gradually became more complex, incorporating solo voices that added florid countermelodies to the unison chant sung by the choir. This tendency culminated with two composers of the school of Notre Dame in Paris—Léonin (late 12th century) and Pérotin (late 12th and early 13th centuries) — leading ultimately to the motets of Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) and Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-c. 1377). Machaut’s Notre Dame Mass (1364) is the first known setting of the Ordinary of the Mass by a single composer. Most of this polyphonic music, like the medieval secular music (French chanson and Italian caccia), was intended for one voice on each part, usually supplemented by instruments.


The 15th Century. In the early 15th century musical styles circulated between France and England, with cathedrals, churches, colleges, and royal chapels vying with each other in the excellence of their music. The result was the development of true choral music, with two or more singers to each part. The most famous composers were Gilles Binchois (c. 1400-1460) and Guillaume Dufay (c. 1400-1474) of the Burgundian school, and Lionel Power (died 1445) and John Dunstable (died 1453) of the English school. Dunstable and Power composed die first musically unified masses, with the various movements built on a plainsong tune (cantus firmus). Also at this time the English carol became a polyphonic form, with verses for soloists and refrain (burden) for chorus.

In the late 15th century appeared a group of English composers including John Browne, Walter Lambe, Richard Davy, and Robert Wilkinson, whose choral works—mostly antiphons and Magnificats—are found in the Eton College choirbook. Their compositions, large, polyphonic, and technically demanding, employ a norid style and a wealth of detail in the vocal parts. These works mark an early peak in choral music.

The leading composers of the 15th century Flemish school were Jean d’Okeghem (c. 1430-1495), Jacob Obrecht (1450-1505), and Josquin Després (c. 1450-1521). Josquin’s 24 masses and roughly 100 motets display four-voice writing of wonderful clarity, balance, and expressiveness.

The 16th Century. Because the Catholic Church was the chief patron of the arts, the most common choral forms of the 16th century were the mass (a set form of five movements for the invariable texts of the Ordinary: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) and the motet, a shorter work with words from Scripture or the liturgy. The choirs consisted usually of fewer than 20 male voices. (Women were not allowed in church choirs until the 18th century.) The choral sound was not massive; instead it emphasized clarity and balance. Choirs furnished music daily for the celebration of the Mass and for the eight canonical hours.

English composers of the early 16th century included John Taverner (c. 1495-1545), John Redford (died 1547), Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521), William Cornyshe (c. 1465-1523), and Christopher Tye (c. 1500-c. 1573). All of these men wrote great numbers of masses and motets.

Musical leadership in the second half of the 16th century belonged to Italy, where a Roman, Giovanni Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), was the most important composer. His works are the supreme models of the ideal liturgical style: restrained, balanced music, masterfully blending beautiful melody, harmony, and rhythm. Palestrina composed 105 masses and some 500 motets; the Missa Papae Marcelli (about 1560) for six voices is his most famous work.

Venice was next in importance after Rome as a music center. The school of Venetian music began with Adrian Willaert (c. 1490-1562), who developed a form of antiphonal scoring that was especially effective at St. Mark’s Basilica and became a Venetian specialty. This form was further evolved by Andrea Gabrieli (c. 1520-1586) and brought to its culmination by Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554-1612), whose magnificent motets include the In ecclesiis. The younger Gabrieli supplemented his polychoral arrangements with independent instrumental parts, providing a great variety of musical color.

English composers of the late 16th century were confronted with the special task of writing music with English texts for the new Anglican Church liturgy. Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) wrote motets in a simple, chordal style. In 1550, John Marbeck (c. 1510-c. 1585) supplied music for the Book of Common Prayer in one-note-to-a-syllable fashion. The motet was gradually replaced in Anglican services by the anthem, which was developed by Thomas Morley (1557-1602) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). Although Gibbons was active well into the 17th century, his music generally follows the 16th century style.

The same is true of the versatile William Byrd (c. 1543-1623), perhaps the greatest of all English composers, who wrote services and anthems for the Church of England, Catholic Church music, and many secular and instrumental works. Byrd’s Great Service and his three masses (for three, four, and five voices respectively) are among the classics of the age. His Latin motets, including the Ave verum corpus, show his genius for bold, emotional writing.

The most popular forms of Renaissance secular music were the chanson and the madrigal, ensemble music scored for one singer to a part. The most important composer of the French chanson was Claude Le Jeune (1528-c. 1600). The Elizabethans, especially Morley, Gibbons, and Byrd, wrote many madrigals for chamber performance by small vocal ensembles. In Italy the madrigal, which usually used romantic poetry for its texts, was refined in the early 16th century by Philippe Verdelot (died about 1550), Costanzo Festa (1490-1545), and Jakob Arcadelt (c. 1505-c. 1567). The greatest masters of the Italian madrigal were Cipriano de Rore (1516—1565), who also wrote many motets; Philippe de Monte (1521-1603), who wrote 1,200 madrigals; Luca Marenzio (c. 1553-1599), whose 17 books of madrigals show masterful use of word-painting; and Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1560-1613), who wrote madrigals for virtuoso singers.

Renaissance choral music reached its highest point in the work of the Flemish composer Roland de Lassus (c. 1532-1594). Lassus, master of the Italian madrigal and the French chanson, also composed 53 extant masses and some 500 motets. In his works he fused northern and southern European elements as well as the religious and secular influences of his time, integrating the entire Renaissance musical world. Among-his incomparable motets are the Penitential Psalms, published posthumously in 1604.

The 16th century marks a great climax in the development of choral music, with each voice line independent and important to the total effect. Instruments were generally used with the voices, supplementing the vocal sound as well as playing independent parts.


The 17th Century. Choral music as the dominant form of composition was replaced at the beginning of this period by opera and instrumental music. The writing of motets and masses in the old manner continued, but the new style of opera permeated and transformed sacred music as it did theatrical music. Even so, musicians of the baroque period regarded the old polyphonic style as specifically “sacred” and consciously distinguished it from the new homophonic theatrical style.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), whose career spanned the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the baroque, combined the austere polyphonic style with all the new techniques of the 17th century. His modern, imaginative, and expressive music includes polyphonic masses, magnificent psalm settings, many books of soloistic madrigals, and the Vespers (1610), perhaps his greatest work.

Giacomo Carissimi (1605—1674) first used the chorus as an important element in the oratorio, a form developed at the beginning of the 17th century. Carissimi employed the chorus dramatically, specially in his oratorios Jephtha and Jonah. His masterful choral writing served as a model for Handel and other composers.

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), the 17th century’s greatest German Protestant church composer, combined the Italian and German styles in his early book of madrigals and his opera Daphne (1627), as well as in the voluminous sacred music to which he devoted the rest of his life. Great originality distinguishes his Psalms of David (1619), written in the Venetian style for voices and instruments; the Resurrection Story (1623); and the Seven Last Words (about 1645). In 1666, at the end of his career, Schütz composed three Passion settings, from the Gospels of St. Luke, St. Matthew, and St. John, in the unaccompanied style of the earliest Lutheran composers, mostly solo recitatives with vivid and dramatic choruses. For most other German composers of this period the chorale was the focal point of Protestant church music.

The greatest of the north Germans was the Danish-born Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), organist of St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck from 1668 until his death. Buxtehude’s large-scale compositions, showing his mastery of secular and sacred idioms, were performed at his Abend-musiken, a series of Advent concerts that attracted to Lübeck such composers as Handel and J. S. Bach. Characteristic works by Buxtehude include his Missa Brevis in polyphonic style, the Benedicam Dominum in the Venetian manner, and In dulci jubilo, one of his 124 surviving cantatas.

In France, Jean Baptiste Lully ( 1632-1687 ) and André Campra (1660-1744), primarily writers of opera, composed motets that are really cantatas for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Marc Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704), a pupil of Carissimi’s, introduced the oratorio form to France in such works as his Judicium Salomonis, with its dramatic use of chorus. François Couperin (1668—1733) wrote accompanied motets that are gems of delicacy, sweetness, and elegance. Michel Richard de Lalande (1657-1726), the most distinguished French church musician of his day, continued the Lully tradition with his 42 motets, including the Dixit Dominus. Lalande’s exciting, brilliant style anticipates Handel.

English music after the Restoration (1660) was dominated by Pelham Humphrey ( 1647-1674), John Blow (1648-1708), and Henry Purcell (1659-1695). These composers, writing for cathedral choirs of men and boys, developed the “full” anthem (entirely for choir without independent accompaniment) and the “verse” anthem (with sections assigned to solo voices with independent accompaniment). Purcell, organist of Westminster Abbey from 1679 to his death, was a versatile composer of operas, ceremonial music, Latin motets, and anthems ranging from the profound eight-part Hear My Prayer (about 1681) to the cheerful Rejoice in the Lord Alway ( about 1683).

Bach and Handel. The 18th century was dominated by Bach and Handel, who were masters of nearly every known form of music. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) excelled in church music, in which he incorporated all the techniques and styles of the baroque era. His extant sacred cantatas number about 200 (some 100 others have been lost), written for performances at the Lutheran Sunday services at St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig, where Bach was cantor from 1723 to 1750. Incorporating arias, chorales, recitatives, orchestral sinfonias, and choruses, the cantatas cover a tremendous range of technique and expression. Bach also wrote a Magnificat (1723), a St. John Passion (1723), a Si. Matthew Passion (1729), the great B Minor Mass, written over a number of years, and several motets, usually arranged for double choir. The two passions, with their combination of lyricism and drama, transcend the ecclesiastical purposes for which they were written. Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 began the Bach cult that has permeated the musical world.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), mainly an opera composer, was trained in Germany and Italy before settling in England (1712), where he wrote a series of occasional works. These were festal anthems for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra: the Utrecht Te Deum (1713), Chandos Anthems (1716-1718), Wedding Anthem (1736), Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline (1737), and Dettingen Te Deum (1743).

From 1738 to 1752, Handel turned his great operatic talent to the writing of oratorios, with texts based on the Bible, that were intended for performance in the theater during Lent. These were primarily works of entertainment, not religious or liturgical music as such. Their form was adopted from opera, incorporating recitatives, arias, concerted numbers, instrumental interludes, and choruses; the distinctive element was the predominant choral participation. The Messiah (1742), Judas Maccabaeus (1747), Susanna (1749), and Theodora (1750) are based on texts drawn from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Apocrypha; the other oratorios take their texts exclusively from the Old Testament and include Saul (1739), Samson (1742), Joseph (1744), Belshazzar (1745), and Jephtha (1752). These are exciting and dramatic works that have been revived in modern times.

The Messiah, Handel’s universally popular oratorio, differs from his other oratorios in that it is pictorial and devotional rather than dramatic. It was first presented in Dublin in 1742, with about 40 singers in the chorus and an orchestra of similiar size. When the Messiah was given later in London it was coolly received, the subj ject being considered too religious for entertainment. Yet the Messiah remains one of the greatest compositions of all time, despite misguided efforts by later musicians, including Mozart, to “improve” it with enriched orchestration.


Haydn and Mozart. The two greatest composers of the second half of the 18th century, Haydn and Mozart, were predominantly interested in instrumental music; but they also wrote much choral music, mostly for the Catholic Church. This music is now considered too theatrical and operatic for church services and is performed only in concerts.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote 12 masses, of which six are early works and the other six mature masterpieces. The early masses are lyrical and charming but not particularly personal. In the later, less conventional masses Haydn wrote in a dramatic, frequently polyphonic style. The Paukenmesse (Drum Mass; 1796), also called the Mass in Time of War, was so named because of the extraordinary use of trumpets and tympani in the “Agnus Dei.” The Nelson Mass (1798), named in honor of Lord Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile, uses a curious orchestration without woodwinds; it contains much strong choral music. The Theresienmesse (1799), the Creation Mass (1801), and the Harmony Mass (1802) are impressive works with a mixture of solo and chorus writing.

In 1791-1792 and again in 1794-1795, Haydn visited London. There he was inspired by Handel’s oratorios, and after returning to Vienna he composed The Creation (1798), a dramatic oratorio with brilliant orchestration, expressive arias, and splendid choruses. Its beautiful imitations of nature have made it Haydn’s most popular work. The Seasons (1801), Haydn’s other large-scale choral work and his last major work, has a secular text divided into four sections: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Its naive scene painting points to the romantic writing of later composers.

Most of the church pieces of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) are early works written on a small scale (usually for four solo voices, chamber orchestra, and chorus). Mozart’s sacred works include 17 masses written at Salzburg, among them the great Coronation Mass (1779). He also wrote four litanies, two sets of Vesper psalms, and many motets, including the splendid Ave verum corpus (1791).

Mozart never completed his two greatest masses, the C Minor Mass (1782) and the Requiem (1791). The C Minor Mass was probably filled out with movements from Mozart’s other masses before its first performance in Salzburg. However, the sections completed by Mozart are sufficient for a nonliturgical performance. Only the first two movements of the Requiem were completed by Mozart, although he wrote about half of the remainder in vocal score. This material was orchestrated by his friend Franz Xaver Siissmayr, who also composed three movements. The total effect of the Requiem, with Mozart’s first two movements repeated at the conclusion, is moving and beautiful, poignantly expressing the composer’s contemplation of death.

Beethoven and Schubert. The finest composers of choral music in the early 19th century were Beethoven and Schubert. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), primarily a composer of orchestral and chamber music, also wrote considerable choral music. The Mass in C (1807), commissioned for liturgical use, combines classical forms with new and dramatic effects. Beethoven developed his deep personal convictions in his several cantatas, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives (1801), and the Choral Fantasia (1808) for chorus, piano, and orchestra. Beethoven’s masterpiece, the Missa Solemnis (1823), achieves a complete blending of voices and instruments: it is not a choral work with instrumental accompaniment, but a work in which choir and orchestra are coequal. This technique, which Beethoven also used for the Ode to Joy finale of his Ninth Symphony (1824), results in a work of great power and expression. It inspired many later composers, who tried, with varying degrees of success, to reproduce it.

Like Beethoven, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) unites the classical tradition of the 18th century with the novel characteristics of 19th century romanticism. Schubert wrote much choral music, both secular and sacred. His mass in G (1815), composed when he was only 18, is ingenuous and charming. In his maturity Schubert wrote two large-scale masses, of which the Mass in A Flat (1819-1822) is the more successful. This work, rich in melody and beautiful harmony, is his most personal treatment of the sacred text.

Later Romantic Composers. Choral music, which had long been the province of church and cathedral choirs, widened its scope in the 19th century with the growth of choral societies in England, continental Europe, and the United States. Much of the credit for this development belongs to Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), the most popular of 19th century composers. Although Mendelssohn pioneered in the writing of cantatas with secular texts, his two greatest choral works are sacred oratories. St. Paul (1836) is a fine work, but it lacks the dramatic movement of Elijah (1846), in which Mendelssohn beautifully combined music and drama.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) specialized in colossal and spectacular musical effects that called for large choirs and a huge orchestra. His Mass for the Dead (1837), better known as the Requiem, and his Te Deum (1849) contain excellent and original choral music. Berlioz also wrote an oratorio, L’enfance du Christ (1854), which is full of gentle, poetic, pastoral charm.

The outstanding choral composer of the late 19th century was Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). In his German Requiem (1868) Brahms fused the lyrical style with the symphonic. He also composed shorter works for chorus and orchestra and several a cappella motets in conscious imitation of Bach’s style.

The Te Deum (1884) and the F Minor Mass (1890) of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) reflect the colorful devotion of his native Austrian Catholicism. The Requiem (1874) of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) is a work of genius, a personal rather than ecclessiastical expression. Although Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was not primarily a choral composer, his Stabat Mater (1877), Requiem (1890), and Te Deum (1892) are full of lyric beauty and sincere expression. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), in his Resurrection Symphony (1894) and Symphonies No. 3 (1896) and No. 8 (1907), was the most successful of the many composers who have followed Beethoven’s example by introducing choral music into their symphonic works.


Europe. A number of European composers, including Arnold Schonberg (1874-1951), Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), and Bela Bartok (1881-1945), introduced iconoclastic methods and revolutionary ideas to choral music, making significant additions to the repertory. Because many of their works were experimental, the public was often slow to accept them.

However, some Europeans wrote in a conservative style. These included the Swiss composers Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), whose Sacred Service (1930-1933) has a Jewish liturgical text, and Frank Martin, who wrote several sacred oratorios.

Many of the foremost 20th century composers in the choral field have been English. The outstanding choral works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) include his Sea Symphony (c. 1905-1910), the unaccompanied Mass in 6 Minor (1922), and the mystical oratorio Sancta Civitas (1926). Gustav Hoist (1874-1934) composed the Hymn of Jesus (1917), the First Choral Symphony (1923-1924), and a Choral Fantasia (1930), as well as several hymns for chorus. The most notable choral work by William Walton is the oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast (1929-1931). Diversity is especially evident in the works of Benjamin Britten, which include the Ceremony of Carols (1942), the cantata Saint Nicholas (1948), and the War Requiem (1962). Other contemporary British choral composers are Edmund Rubbra, Michael Tippett, Peter Racine Fricker, Anthony Milner, and John Joubert.

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) of France achieved worldwide acclaim with his dramatic oratorio King David (1921), his opera Judith (1926), and the oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake (1934-1935). Other French composers made enormous contributions to modem choral literature—Darius Milhaud, with his more than 30 choral works, Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), with his serenely spiritual Requiem Mass (1887), and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), with his excellent motets, unaccompanied Mass (1937), Stabat Mater (1937), and Gloria (1959).

The choral works by continental composers frequently express national characteristics through the use of folk song. The Glagolitic Mass (1926) by Leos Janacek (1854-1928) expresses his Slavonic heritage, and the Psalmus Hungaricus (1923) by Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) is distinctly national in feeling. Soviet choral music includes cantatas with patriotic themes, such as Alexander Nevsky (1938) by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).

Anton Webem (1883-1945), the Austrian serial composer, wrote three important cantatas. A German, Carl Orff, composed the Carmina Burana (1936), a cantata with optional staging and dance, written in a highly individual manner with special emphasis on rhythmic percussion effects. From Italy came notable choral compositions by Luigi Dallapiccola and Goffredo Petrassi.

United States. In the United States a great interest in choral music developed after World War II. American choral music covers a tremendous range in type and quality, and the permanent value of much of it cannot yet be judged. Charles Ives (1874-1954) was one of the most daring composers at the beginning of the 20th century. His choral music foreshadowed many techniques developed later, and its polytonality continues to shock audiences. Important contemporary choral composers include Virgil Thomson, Randall Thompson, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Alan Hovhaness, Norman Dello Joio, and Daniel Pinkham, who employ varied styles with differing stresses of folk song, jazz, 12-tone technique, and polyphony. The vast range of technique and expression covered by their music makes it representative of the spirit of their country.


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