Although the most common meaning of choir is a group of singers performing during a liturgical function, the term has come to mean also the place in the church from which they sing. The choir in this second sense was located, if the singers were clerics, directly behind or to the side of the altar, or between the altar and the nave if the architecture demanded it. Sometimes it was hidden from view by elaborately ornamented screens. Later, a balcony in the rear of the church served as the choir loft, especially for choirs of lay men and women. A trend toward returning the choir to the apse or nave began after promulgation of the Constitution on the Liturgy by Vatican Council II (1963).
Middle Ages. The earliest records of Christian worship show that the community, men and women, sang as a body in response to the ministers. The practice of having male cantors act as soloists undoubtedly was one taken over from the synagogues. There is evidence that even as late as St. Ambrose's time women alternated with the men in psalm-singing, but the general movement toward prohibiting women from singing in liturgical services seems to have reached a peak in the 6th century. This prohibition destroyed the unity of the congregation and led to the use of a select group of clerical singers (see schola cantorum).
The history of the choir in the Middle Ages revolves around the great monasteries and, later, the cathedral schools. The growth and development of polyphony increasingly demanded trained singers and tightly organized choir structure. Accurate information about the performance of early polyphony is scarce, but there is reason to believe that it was solo-polyphony rather than choir-polyphony. The medieval structure of the choir was maintained: the precentor, or leader; the succentor, or assistant; the first cantors, or rulers, who intoned and guided the chant and often sang the solo passages at the lectern; and the men and boys who formed the body of singers.
Origin of the Renaissance Choir. Before the 15th century one cannot speak of a choir in the generally accepted sense. The monastic choir was really a congregation of monks with a few specialists; the cathedral choir also was a group of relatively unskilled canons and a few soloists. The rise of private chapels (e.g., those of the Dukes of Burgundy, Berry, Orléans, and Savoy in France, and of St. George's at Windsor, St. Stephen's at Westminster, and the Royal Household), but especially the rivalry among college chapels (such as at Queen's College, Oxford; Eton College; and King's College, Cambridge, in England), brought a new professionalism into church music. For the first time small groups of trained singers were performing the polyphonic repertoire. At the turn of the 15th century and for the first part of the 16th, the average choir consisted of 15 to 20 members. Even in 1586 the papal choir had only 21 members, made up chiefly of young boys. As late as the 17th century, when clarity of tone was the chief aim, the choir was still generally small in size. Women often appear in contemporary illustrations of 17th-century choral groups, but these groups, also small in size, did not perform at church services.
The polyphony of the Renaissance is not easily performed by modern choirs, which generally lack the high male countertenor voices to sing alto parts. Another characteristic of the polyphonic choir was the castrati voice. From the 16th to the 18th century in Italy the practice of castration to preserve the boyish character of the voice was common. The castrati, highly paid and much in demand, had great range and power, combining the special timbre that came from the adult male lungs and chest with the soprano voice. The most famous choirs were the Sistine choir in Rome and the Venetian choir at St. Marks. The Sistine choir established the a cappella tradition; the Venetian choir developed the use of opposing sonorities and instrumental accompaniment (cori spezzati ).
Subsequent History of the Choir. The history of the choir during the baroque and later periods of music is largely a reflection of the history of music in general.
The Roman tradition continued to dominate, but it was affected by the colossal (e.g., the multiple choirs of Benevoli). During the late baroque, however, there was a growth in small parish choirs, as well as in a special repertory for them. These choirs were always accompanied by organ (or instruments) and sang only the Ordinary of the Mass. Major cathedrals, on the other hand, possessed well-trained choirs of some size that performed on Sundays and special occasions. Members of cathedral choirs were often the singers and instrumentalists who formed the local opera company; their repertory consisted mostly of the newly composed baroque and classical Masses. Under the influence of the caecilian movement, there was a return to the a cappella style, and interest was renewed in the 16th-century repertory. A whole new repertory of compositions for small parish choirs was written by the post-Caecilians; these works imitated in an academic fashion the 16th-century style but retained organ accompaniment. Large choirs continued to flourish at the major churches, especially in Austria and Germany; and the concerted Masses of the neoclassical period continued to be the standard repertory.
The 20th Century. With the motu proprio on sacred music of 1903, a search began for trained choral groups to perform the difficult Gregorian chants and polyphonic works. The establishment of boys' choirs, inspired by such examples as Montserrat in Spain, led to cathedral and parish church choral organizations, which in some instances became very capable. The lack of real solfeggio instruction, however, opened the way for a repertory tailored to rote learning, making little or no demand on reading ability or ear training. The resulting paucity of art in choir loft and sanctuary was generally made worse by a dearth of male voices and inadequate rehearsal. Capable, well-trained choir directors were scarce, as was money to pay them adequately. The amateurish approach quickly proved destructive of good church music.
In the mid-20th century choirs were again receiving the benefit of skilled directors and organists, and the repertory of choir music began to show the influence of professional work. At the same time, the change from Latin to the vernacular in the liturgy created new problems for the church choir; for not only are there repertory difficulties, but choirs, far from being obviated, have been restored in an important role. The choir has today been given new settings for the Proper of the Mass, and it shares with the congregation the singing of the hymns, canticles, psalms, and the Ordinary of the Mass.
Bibliography: a. jacobs, ed., Choral Music (Baltimore 1963).
[c. a. peloquin/
r. g. weakland]
choir / ˈkwīr/ • n. an organized group of singers, typically one that takes part in church services or performs regularly in public: a church choir. ∎ one of two or more subdivisions of such a group performing together. ∎ the part of a cathedral or large church between the altar and the nave, used by the choir and clergy. ∎ a group of instruments of one family playing together: a clarinet choir.
1. Part of a large church appropriated for the singers, with stalls, situated to the liturgical east of the nave, and partially screened.
2. In a cruciform church that part east of the crossing, including choir, presbytery, and sanctuary around the high-altar, wholly or partially screened.
Choir may also denote a company of angels, especially any of the nine orders in medieval angelology.
The word is recorded from Middle English (in form quer, quere), from Old French quer, from Latin chorus. The spelling change in the 17th century, which means that now the older variant quire is found only in the reference in the Book of Common Prayer to ‘Quires and Places where they sing’, was due to association with Latin chorus and modern French choeur.
1. A mixed voice choir (or chorus) is one of both women and men.
2. A male voice choir is (usually) of men only, but may be of boys and men.
3. A double choir is one arr. in 2 equal and complete bodies, with a view not merely to singing in 8 parts but also to responsive effects.
4. Architecturally, the choir is that part of a cath. which, in a church other than a cath., is called the chancel.
5. Chorus tends to be used for secular bodies, but there are many exceptions.
an organized company of persons or things; a company of singers; a band or company of dancers; an order or division of angels. See also carol, chorus.
Examples: choir of angels, 1667; of cherubim, 1667; of choristers; of cosmical science, 1855; of dancers; of echoes, 1592; of muses, of planets, 1692; of teeth, 1704; of tents, 1382.