Historically, choirs have been taught to sing with their voices mixed. This can create an even volume but requires the singers to focus on tuning and matching their pitch.
Madison Choral Project is polyphonic–music involving two or more autonomous vocal lines. Its harmonies may use various techniques to achieve complex musical effects, from parallel motion (two parts traveling up or down the scale with the same number of intervals) to contrary motion (one part traveling up and another traveling down the scale).
Although composers became preoccupied with instrumental and symphonic music during the Classical period, they continued to produce excellent choral works, including masses such as Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Motets such as Bruckner’s Locus Iste also speak to the high regard that composers continue to hold for this genre.
The most familiar type of choral group is the mixed chorus–the traditional soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices. But the choral ensemble can also include male and children’s voices in treble choirs.
While the hypnotic unison singing of Gregorian chant is perhaps the most iconic example of choral sound, it’s important to remember that the choral tradition encompasses many different styles and genres. Even within Western classical music, a vast array of compositions exists, from the ethereal beauty of Mozart’s Requiem to the complex polychoral style of the Venetian school.
Some composers use separate choirs to create antiphonal effects, where one choir appears to “answer” the other in a musical dialogue. This is particularly common in Baroque works but can also be seen in the work of composers such as Bach, Handel, and Beethoven.
In the early 18th century, Lutheran church composers produced substantial instrumentally accompanied choral works, including many cantatas. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Phoebus and Pan cantatas (Geschwinde, geschwinde ihr wirbelnden Winde, BWV 201; 1731) and the Birthday and Hunt Cantatas (Schleicht, spielende Wellen, BWV 206; 1723) are examples of this type of choral music.
A well-prepared choral singer will always read from a score, including all of the individual voice parts and a cue line for when each section should begin and end. The singers usually perform in an acoustically reverberant space, which helps diffuse the rhythmic perception of the voices and soften the dynamic contrast between the different voice parts.
For aspiring choral writers, the most important thing to remember is that the human voice can only manage so much melodic distance in one sustained breath. Using wide musical intervals, whether chromatic or diatonic, will likely result in an overly dense and difficult-to-sing texture, even for professional choral singers. Using repeated patterns and oblique rather than direct intervallic motion is far better.
The overall sound quality of a piece of music is called its “texture.” It’s created when multiple pitches combine to create harmony or dissonance. Texture is also how different voices and instruments interact to produce timbre, a combination of pitch and tone color. The texture of choral music is varied and can be influenced by many different musical styles and techniques. This program examines how the other parts of a choir — or orchestra — work together to make their unique and distinctive sounds. It also explores how the timbre of voice is affected by style, technique, and range.
The first choral texture is monophony, one polyphony line or melody strand. This is the most common type of choral music, and it can be found in everything from cappella groups singing folk songs to large church choirs performing classical works. Early Christian chants and Renaissance motets are well-known examples of monophonic music. Other examples include the Japanese shakuhachi, Trinidadian steel bands, Bosnian ganga singing, and Indonesian gamelan music.
A second kind of choral texture is heterophony when two or more lines of polyphony occur simultaneously. This can be quite challenging for singers because it requires blending separate lines of melody and harmony into an integrated whole. Some examples of this kind of choral music are Bach’s cantatas and Handel’s oratorios.
There is a third type of choral texture called homophony, when all of the lines have the same rhythm and harmonies are purely supportive. This is the most common form of choral music and can be heard in songs like Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. The key to achieving a satisfying choral texture is balancing the intensity of the performance. A choir can communicate something powerful when it sings softly in a resonant space, but the effect can be lost when the chorus is pushed to its limits.
The choral tradition has inspired composers working in all kinds of musical styles. Even the 20th-century minimalist Arnold Schoenberg used a large chorus in his Gurrelieder, and more recently, Meredith Monk has experimented with choral sounds. The wide-ranging textures of choral music can be a great source of inspiration for contemporary composition, and there’s always a place in a concert hall for the beauty and power of this ancient tradition.
A mixed choir of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass traditionally performs choral music. Other ensembles, namely men’s and children’s choruses, are also common.
Many qualities a good classical singer must possess are essential to choral singing, too. A fine choral voice should be free of strain, consistent across the vocal range, with beauty and uniformity of vowels, clarity of diction, and an impressive squillo or formant (that desirable ringing tone).
One of the most important considerations in writing for choir is balancing the number of voices, especially in homophonic passages. Too many voices can dull a piece, but too few make blending voices and maintaining balance difficult. Choral music often has divisi passages, in which two or more voice parts sing the same melody simultaneously but not at the same pitch. The prevailing technique is for one voice part to sing above the other while the lower voice part sings below.
Another factor that can affect a chorus’s sound is its acoustic environment. Ideally, the choral space should be resonant, but that’s only sometimes possible or desired. Choruses usually sing in less deep spaces, and that can contribute to the chorus’s overall sound quality by diffusing rhythmic perception and giving it more of a collective volume.
The last major factor in choral sound is how the choir performs its music. Choral directors in decades past put a heavy, if not sole, emphasis on technique. The result was a tendency for choral performances to be cold and lacking emotion. Many choirs have since shifted towards contemporary music, but a growing number are returning to traditional works, and that’s good.
Finally, a choral score should be easy to read for the chorus. Full scores are not useful in a choral rehearsal, but a reduced score with only the vocal lines and a cue line is much easier. Traditionally, the size of a score for choir has been octavo (6 3/4 x 10 1/2), but most singers now prefer a smaller, plain paper, usually 8 1/2 x 11. Most also hold their music in one hand and do not use music stands.
There’s more to excellent choral music than simply singing “straight.” Vocal music requires an immense range of techniques that can be difficult to teach and master. The articulation of the vowels, the intensity and length of consonants, and even the intake of breath all contribute to the overall sound of the voice. Choral directors who focus only on teaching singers how to sing “straight” often miss the point and can cause physical tension, burn, and resentment among choir members.
A good choral director can also balance the text with the musical composition, creating a harmonious whole. This can involve varying the rhythm of the music, adding dynamics, or changing the pace of the tune to suit the text. For example, slow, ethereal pieces may be combined with fast and upbeat ones to create contrast and excitement.
The use of traditional choral masterworks as artistic vehicles is still prevalent today. Contemporary composers such as Ola Gjeilo, Dan Forrest, and John Rutter compose in this style, frequently drawing upon the Mass Ordinary or the Requiem Mass for their choral works. Other composers, such as the British composer Sir John Tavener, write more traditionally, directly setting Mass Ordinary and Traditional texts for their choral works.
Many choral musicians are also composers, and this can be a very rewarding field of work. The choral music of the composer Sir Edward Elgar is best known, particularly his piece Pomp and Circumstance, although he wrote a great deal more choral music than this one particular piece. Other notable choral composers include Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and Franz Schubert, who wrote sacred and secular choral music.
In addition to writing for a choir, these composers often set poetry. For example, the choral music of the British poet Ralph Vaughan Williams includes his settings of Walt Whitman poems such as Toward the Unknown Region and Sea Symphony. Other composers, such as Franz Schubert, have written highly complex choral works, such as his Chorale and Magnificat in B minor, incorporating classical melodies and modern, complex polyrhythms.