Choral singing can refer to either a choir or a chorus. Church singing groups are usually called choirs, as are small, professionally trained groups. Large secular groups are referred to as choruses. Choral groups can be all-male, all-female, or mixed-voice, for which a common model is SATB: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. This article discusses the history and development of choral singing in the United States, opportunities for choral singing, and the social, religious, and community functions of choral singing.
Choral singing in the United States has a history as old as the country itself. Some early religious groups of settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries maintained choirs. In the eighteenth century, traveling "Yankee tunesmiths" sold simple songbooks and formed choruses. In the East, those who valued orthodox musical learning looked instead to Europe's more sophisticated musical traditions for inspiration. This imitation of Europe contributed to the proliferation of choral groups in the nineteenth century, including the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston (1815), the Sacred Music Society of New York (1823), and choruses founded by émigrés from Germany and England. Black Americans developed a choral style combining African and European elements with vigor and expressiveness. In the early twentieth century, the United States saw a decline in choral singing except for church and college/university ensembles such as the St. Olaf Choir in Minnesota, and the Westminster Choir in Princeton, New Jersey. These choruses were often involved with the "a cappella choir movement," emphasizing unaccompanied singing. The renaissance of American choral music may have been in 1938, when Robert Shaw came to New York to add choral music to Fred Waring's popular radio program. Shaw, who died in 1999, set the global standard for choral music in the twentieth century with his various world-class choruses and meticulous directing techniques, and helped elevate choral singing to its current popularity.
Choral performance was the most popular form of public arts activity in the nation in 2004. Almost 29 million American adults and children performed regularly in one or more of approximately 250,000 choruses. Opportunities abounded for choral singing in the United States. Growing especially fast were children's choirs and affiliation choirs organized around ethnicity or lifestyle such as Jewish, Hispanic, Korean, black, and gay and lesbian choirs. Other opportunities included church and community choirs, barbershop quartets (and the women's Sweet Adelines), choruses associated with symphony orchestras, and university choruses, glee clubs, and small a cappella groups.
Choral singing's popularity may be attributed to its importance in social, community, and religious life. Not everyone can play an instrument, but almost everyone can participate in the communal experience of choral singing. Singing in church can create a sense of spiritual as well as literal harmony; community choirs such as the intentionally interethnic Berkeley Community Chorus help foster America's democratic culture. Singing in a choir can be a joyous, thrilling experience, using the most basic instrument—the voice—to create harmony, togetherness, and a sense of contributing to a whole greater than the self.
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Rebecca E. Barry