People have been singing together for as long as we have kept recorded history. The history of Western choral music as we know it today had its origins in sacred music.
Gregorian chant was commonly used in churches as a form of worship. Monks would sing the passages in unison, blending their voices to create the sound that we strive to achieve in modern choir; many voices sounding as one.
As music composition matured, the use of several different tones began to be common. Polyphony, or as we began to be used in increasingly complicated iterations. As polyphonic sound increased the breadth and depth of music heard in church, composers began to seek a greater range of sound. Since women were not allowed to sing in church, composers turned to the high soprano sounds of young boys, who were able to sing the treble lines.
Church music reflected the changes of society and with the Reformation of the 16th century, sacred music was forced to adapt. In order to clarify the words sung in sacred music, reformists insisted that there by one syllable per note, thus signaling an end to the prevalence of polyphonic music, and giving rise to homophonic music. Instead of the vertical lines of melody overlapping, there melodies would move at one, on different pitches. Focus on text had another effect on music – it resulted in a greater focus on the marriage between text and melody. This is best reflected in madrigals (which we will feature in our spring concert!)
Choral music began to leak outside of the church, and into more secular performances. Though still used in church, choral music in the secular arena had greater license to experiment away from the rigid strictures of the church. Often instruments would double the voices of the choir, but increasingly, choirs were used to enhance instrumentation, and to add another important layer to music. The use of text allowed another layer of communication, and the audience responded appropriately. Several of the most famous choral moments in history involved the use of large choirs singing with large symphonies, as seen in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – Ode To Joy:
With the advent of modern music, many people think that choral music has fallen by the wayside. But this is categorically untrue. More than ever, people seek the togetherness and intimacy that singing with others affords. This is seen with the myriad of choral groups available in every major city in the world. The advent of technology also introduces a new kind of creativity in choral music, best illustrated with events like Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir. (Check out his great Ted Talk about the process!)
Though choral music has a long and illustrious history, it is far from over! If anything choral music is just getting started. After all, the joy and wonder of singing with others is something that will never go out of style!
What is your favourite kind of choral music? Let us know in the comments below!