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Medieval and Baroque Choral Music

A choir is a group of singers who sing polyphony—music in two or more autonomous vocal lines. Choral music is usually religious but can be secular, too.

From the hypnotic unison singing of Gregorian chant to Beethoven’s final symphonic movement that includes a choir, choral music has a rich history. For more information, click the link https://www.themcp.org/ provided to proceed.

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Unlike the orchestral pieces that grew to dominate concert halls in the Classical period, choral music of this era relied on multiple voices to convey a full range of emotions. Even so, it often had the potential to overwhelm the listener with its complexity. Many of its composers struggled to overcome this challenge, and the result was an incredibly rich and varied repertoire.

The oldest surviving choral pieces come from a variety of centuries and locations. For example, fragments of the Delphic Hymns and Seikilos epitaph were engraved on stone fragments found in the Hellenistic town of Tralles near present-day Aydin, Turkey. Other surviving examples include the musical notation of a part song by the Greek composer Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana and the melodies transcribed on papyri for works such as Euripides’ Orestes and Sophocles’ Ajax.

In the early church, a choir was a group of female and male singers that sang plainsong in unison. As the Church gradually disenfranchised women from active roles in its hierarchy and ministry, they were also excluded from communal singing in churches. This led to the evolution of a separate boys’ choir, and eventually to an all-male choir, sometimes referred to as a boys’ chorus.

As church influence continued to wane, some composers began to exploit the potential of a choral ensemble for secular purposes. For example, the medium-length choral cantata form, which had originally been used to portray religious narratives, was exploited by composers such as Rossini and Mendelssohn for more secular purposes.

In medieval times, the most common type of music performed by choirs was unison plainchant. This monophonic style allowed the listener to focus on the sacred text and foster a sense of spiritual unity and contemplation. While this type of music remained popular throughout the Middle Ages, in the late Medieval period a new form of polyphonic musical composition began to emerge, including motets.

These pieces used many more melodic lines than chant, and were generally sung in four part harmony. These early forms of music often included a fugal movement, allowing the choir to sing with more independence from the organ. As the Renaissance progressed, instrumental accompaniments for choral works became more commonplace. Composers such as Carissimi used instruments for his oratorios, and later composers like Bach maximized the use of both vocal-instrumental accompaniment (chorale) and multi-part compositions.

As the Reformation swept through Europe, choirs of both men and women flourished. This era saw the rise of secular and monastic church choirs, cathedral and collegiate church choirs and even royal chapels. The advent of accurate musical notation also enabled the performance of a greater variety of music, including two and three-part polyphonic pieces.

This era also saw the rise of the Protestant church cantata, with substantial examples in the German tradition written by Dietrich Buxtehude and Georg Philipp Telemann. In the 17th century, Lutheran composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach used chorale tunes to create a unique style of instrumentally accompanied church cantata that is recognizable today.

After the Renaissance, church and opera largely monopolized choral writing. A few purely secular pieces were written, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams’s setting of poems by Walt Whitman in Toward the Unknown Region (1807). But it wasn’t until Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia (1808) that this music truly found its voice.

This era also saw the rise of madrigals, which were polyphonic musical works that combined homophonic and counterpoint harmonies. These were published in thousands and were learned, performed, and cherished by cultured aristocrats. Madrigals were often sung about love and employed word painting techniques, as well as unusual harmonies.

Josquin des Prez, a composer from the region that is now Belgium, was an important figure in Renaissance choral music. His “Ave Maria…Virgo Serena” (Hail Mary — Holy Virgin) of 1485 is an outstanding example of this style of polyphonic musical composition. The piece weaves one, two, three, and four voices at different times in a complex imitative texture.

VOICES8, an eight-voice choir based in Boston, gave a stunning performance of Renaissance music last Friday night at the Fogg Museum. They performed Tallis’s a cappella “Ave Maria” as well as some madrigals. The music was accompanied by a small group of players playing harpsichords and violas. This group was a scholarly ensemble of musicians who had studied the music and its idioms in detail for years before performing it together.

The Baroque era saw the rise of the chorale as a musical form, often with accompaniment by string instruments. A number of composers wrote substantial orchestral works with choruses (notably Handel and Bach). The motet developed, extending its original Gregorian origins to become a compositional form with multiple melodic parts sung in alternation.

As the Baroque era ended, a new form emerged – the concert-length oratorio. Oratorios were based on Biblical narratives or other sacred subjects and frequently had a religious message. Some examples include Handel’s Messiah and Israel in Egypt.

In the Baroque period, more experienced choirs often sang with all of the voices mixed together. This reduced the number of vocal peaks and a more even tone was produced, although it did require greater independence from each singer. Other choirs arranged their members in groups of three or more, so that singers of the same voice could be easily tuned to each other.

Choruses of the Baroque era used a variety of harmonic and textural techniques to achieve interesting sound effects. Repeated patterns, intervallic movement, and a preponderance of stepwise rather than chromatic movement can all produce an effective vertical texture. Dividing the voices is also common in many pieces, especially if there is a large number of sopranos and altos, where overlapping pitches are easier to manage than those of tenors and basses. This can add considerable textural contrast.

As choral music became more complex in the later Middle Ages, it was common to separate the vocal parts into different sections. This is called polyphony, and it allowed singers to sing their part with the other voices rather than being relegated to solo singing. Manuscripts from the period often indicate this practice, either by a skeleton reduced score (from which it is sometimes possible to reconstruct otherwise lost pieces), or by a notation such as basso seguente, meaning “low voice” in Italian, whereby a single staff contained all of the lower sounding parts.

There are many types of classical choirs, ranging from an adult mixed choir which includes male and female voices (abbreviated as SATB) to a choir which uses soprano, alto, tenor and bass voice combinations (SSAATTB). In some cases, a baritone part is included (e.g. SATBarB), which allows the few men in a choir to share the role of both tenor and bass.

Most choral groups are accompanied by an instrumental ensemble, such as an orchestra or a piano, but this is not always the case; a choir may perform unaccompanied. In rehearsals, a pianist or organ is often used as an accompaniment for the voices to help them learn the music. Choral conductors may use a baton or lead their ensemble with their hands for greater expressiveness, and some choose to play an instrument such as the violin or harpsichord while conducting (particularly in earlier periods). This is referred to as continuo-leading.

Modern choral composers take full advantage of the expressiveness of the human voice. Their music often explores multi-faith and cultural perspectives. For example, Panufnik weaves Sephardic chants into his choral works while Dove uses the voices as a canvas for his explorations of birth, love, death and renewal.

Although a choir may be comprised of a group of amateur singers, the professional choirs in which many choir members are found tend to have a very precise and demanding musical style. This is partly due to the fact that most choirs are led by a conductor who takes on the role of artistic director and choir master or mistress (responsible for selecting repertoire, engaging soloists and accompanists), chorus master/mistress (responsible for training and rehearsing the ensemble) and conductor (responsible for leading the performance with arm, hand and facial gestures).

Whether they are singing old standards that have been cherished for generations or new pop music that has become inescapable, there are many contemporary choral groups that offer an array of interesting sounds. Denmark’s Vocal Line, for instance, won the Eurovision Choir competition in 2019 with a celebratory performance that showcases their ability to create hugely emotive music while incorporating cinematic flair. Their version of Katy Perry’s uplifting “Roar” makes the song feel enormous and they move to individualized choreography that brings an added sense of looseness to their tightly controlled performances.