Choral music

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Choral music is vocal music sung by a choir . Choral music can be monophonic or polyphonic , either with instrumental accompaniment or a cappella (without independent accompaniment).

Choirs in the modern sense, i.e. large singing groups often made up of lay people, have only existed since the 19th century. The vocal music that originated before the late baroque was performed mostly as a soloist according to today's musicological knowledge, but today it is also considered "choral music" due to the later performance tradition.

middle Ages

Already in late antiquity, a type of lecture and the common singing of certain texts of the Latin mass emerged , which more and more linked certain unison melodies with certain texts. These chants were collected under Pope Gregory I and canonized into what is known today as Gregorian chant (Gregorian chant).

From the originally pure unanimity, the first polyphony developed in the course of the early Middle Ages through octave guidance , later also fifth and fourth parallel guidance ( Organum ). The purely parallel guidance was later abandoned, but the same timing of the music was retained for a while.

Because the individual voices also emancipated themselves rhythmically from one another, different systems of notation became necessary. A first "modal system", which was still based strongly on the ancient meter, was followed around 1280 with the Ars antiqua, a first mensural system in which the tone durations were characterized by numbers that indicated the relationships between the note values. In the 14th century Ars nova brought further innovations and refinements to the metric system, but also new genres and forms. The Ars subtilior marked the end of the era, which took refinement and complication to the extreme until a completely new style prevailed at the beginning of the 15th century.

The distribution of votes was completely different then than it is today. The main voice was the tenor , which was contrasted with a contratenor . In addition, there was usually a lower bass voice . Higher voices were referred to as cantus or treble (us) , and the term alto (us) , derived from the Latin altus “high”, originally meant a high male voice.

The a cappella style of the Renaissance

Guillaume Du Fay , in the early epoch of Franco-Flemish music , wrote three-part sentences with completely text. The collection of fresh teutsche Liedlein (1539–1556), which for example contains the song Innsbruck, I must let you by Heinrich Isaac, contains polyphonic a cappella movements for the first time .

In Renaissance music, a cappella by no means meant that no instruments could be used. Rather, what was meant was that all parts were written in full, so that no instruments were necessary to cast the sentence adequately. The main representatives of this musical form were Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594) and Orlando di Lasso (1534–1594). The music served here primarily as a means of creating text.

In the course of the 16th century, the multi- choir enabled new sonic experiences by juxtaposing several choirs in the room. At the end of the 16th century, the choir became increasingly functional, especially in opera .

Development in the German-speaking area

Reformation time

The tenor song with instrumental accompaniment is somewhat older than the a cappella movement . A master of this form was Ludwig Senfl (1486–1543 / 44). The tenor song consisted of a texted melody, a cantus firmus , to which a clearly deeper sounding bass and two upper voices were added as a complex instrumental counterpoint. Occasionally it was possible to text the instrumental parts as well.

The composers of the Reformation period used this form for their edifying, secular chants. They also consisted of a cantus firmus, to which other voices were added, now no longer instrumental, but fully texted. The main representative of this direction was the Luther intimate Johann Walter (1496–1570), who is also considered the founder of the Dresden court orchestra .


In baroque several musical developments came together that made this period a total of to a climax of vocal music. Protestant church music in particular flourished.

In the foreground of the early and high baroque was the transmission of religious content as well as the union of different national styles (Italy, France). Representatives include Heinrich Schütz ( sacred choral music ), Michael Praetorius , Johann Hermann Schein and Claudio Monteverdi .

There was a radical change in the tonal language, caused by the changed handling of the text: If this was previously interpreted symbolically, if at all, its affect content was now illustrated with the word-tone figures of a musical rhetoric .

The most important innovation of the high baroque era was that the vocal choir was for the first time juxtaposed with an independently operating orchestra . The new form of the cantata was created (with often extensive solo vocal sections), but the motet moved into the background. Johann Sebastian Bach , Georg Philipp Telemann and Georg Friedrich Händel are among the best-known representatives of this period .

In addition, the late baroque was, as it were, the “cradle” of our understanding of choir today. While at Praetorius individual voices could still be cast as soloists, choirs or instruments, depending on needs, taste and possibilities, a permanent choral ensemble in today's sense was expected, even if these were usually still quite small (about 12 singers in Bach have survived ).


In the Viennese Classic , secular choral music was of little importance, as instrumental music moved into focus in the 18th century. However, there are also quite a few operas in which the choir plays a role.

In church music, however, demanding and extensive music for choir and orchestra was still written. Joseph Haydn , Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven composed sacred works such as masses for liturgical use.


Romantic choral music was shaped by the genres of choral song and oratorio .

Due to the increasingly secular orientation of society, many secular choral song compositions were created, for example by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy , Carl Friedrich Zelter , Friedrich Silcher , Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms . In part, the melody of these choir songs was based on the folk song, in which the Romantics saw naturalness and purity. Silcher composed his choir songs as folk songs . At the end of the 19th century there was a massive formation of choral societies .

Due to the civil choir associations - starting from the first civil mixed choir association Sing-Akademie zu Berlin (founded in 1791) - forerunners of today's Philharmonic Choirs, choirs were available on a scale that could cope with the combination with the enlarged symphonic orchestras. Composers such as Giuseppe Verdi , Max Reger , Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, Felix Draeseke and Richard Wagner made use of this . The normal size of a choir increased to around 70 to 120 singers. Larger casts of 300 to 500 singers, such as Gustav Mahler, Hector Berlioz , Mendelssohn or Arnold Schönberg ( Gurre-Lieder ) are prominent exceptions, but they were not uncommon and therefore quite realistic for larger performances.

The enlargement of the choirs also had an impact on the structure of the movements: polyphony took a back seat; extravagant harmony and extreme dynamics were paramount. In addition, there were now more choirs in which several or even all voices were represented twice. Furthermore, the women's and men's choirs developed .

In the field of sacred music, in addition to compositions with an orchestra, the a cappella method of composing prevailed again. Based on Louis Spohr's Mass op.54 and his 3 Psalms op.85 on the a cappella compositions of Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the arch spans Bruckner 's E minor Mass (accompanied by winds) , Brahms' sacred motets, the Ave Maria Verdis , Draeseke's late a cappella masses to Reger's motets, which are already on the threshold of modernity. A characteristic of many of these compositions is a recourse to baroque forms. Incidentally, Mendelssohn's motet hora est, in which each vocal range is represented four times, holds the “cast record” in the a cappella area of ​​this epoch .

In the field of choral music with orchestra, there are mainly mass and requiem compositions, but also an increasing number of oratorios and works that can be performed in concert. While the mass compositions by Schubert and Carl Maria von Weber were still clearly influenced by the classical period, later mass compositions, for example by Anton Bruckner and Robert Schumann, were clearly influenced by baroque models. Overall, the mass compositions decreased significantly in the Romantic period, which is mainly due to the fact that the compositions became more and more complex technically and with regard to the number of members, which made their liturgical use difficult.

Choirs also played an important role in the oratorio works of the Romantic period. These works met the bourgeois music industry. They were not confessional and could be performed in concerts. Significant works are Spohr's oratorios Des Savior and The Last Things , Mendelssohn's oratorios Paulus and Elias , Carl Amand Mangold's Abraham (1860) and Albert Lortzing's The Ascension of Jesus Christ. Brahms' German Requiem and Josef Rheinberger's Christoforus also belong to this category. Oratorio works with choir were also created in the various national schools. These include, for example, John Stainer's The Crucifixion, Hector Berlioz's Te Deum (1848) and his Requiem Grande messe des morts (1837), which go beyond the usual framework of liturgical celebrations and therefore rely on an oratorical performance. In this context, Antonín Dvořák's Stabat Mater op. 58, his Requiem op. 98 and his Saint Ludmilla op. 71 are also important. Edward Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius op. 38 also belongs to this category.

The use of choirs in symphonies remained relatively rare. Despite or because of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Op. 125, symphonies with choirs remained relatively rare. Franz Liszt's Faust Symphony in three character pictures for choir and orchestra (1857) and his symphony on Dante's Divina Commedia with women's choir (Dante Symphony, 1855-1856) remained the only prominent examples alongside Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy's hymn to Gustav Mahler's symphonies ( see also symphony cantata ).

A special role is played in the choral music of the romance of Cecilianism . It reflected the endeavor in the Catholic Church to find purer and clearer forms of sacred music that were more appropriate to the liturgical framework than the neo-baroque forms of romanticism, which were often perceived as overloaded and Protestant. This was to be achieved by turning back to an often misunderstood Palestrina style.


After the First World War, two paths were pursued in order to deliberately - motivated by contemporary history - differentiate oneself from romanticism. On the one hand the path of the musical avant-garde with atonal and twelve-tone forms of composition, which, however, never really caught on in the choir. Nevertheless, isolated choral works of high standing were created by Anton Webern , Arnold Schönberg , Ernst Krenek , Hanns Eisler and Luigi Dallapiccola , for example .

Other composers were more oriented towards the ideals of the Baroque and Renaissance ; this direction of composition, wrongly called Neo-Baroque , played an important role in Germany and Austria in particular. It has not existed in this form in other countries.

In addition to the rediscovery of "old masters" such as Heinrich Isaac , Orlando di Lasso , Leonhard Lechner , Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi , Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina , Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach , there were new compositions by artists such as Hugo Distler , which refer to baroque music and its composition technique , Ernst Pepping , Paul Hindemith , Kurt Hessenberg , Johann Nepomuk David , Franz Tischhauser , Günter de Witt and Volker Gwinner added.

However, the term neo-baroque as a name for this direction of composition is fundamentally wrong: almost all composers of this direction, especially Hugo Distler, in contrast to many composers of the Romantic period, did not resort to baroque forms, but rather deliberately to older forms, especially those of the Renaissance . Recourse to old compositional techniques is not the most important stylistic element of these composers; in fact, many compositions belong to a moderate musical modern age.

The same recourse to musical traditions also took place in choral music with other composers. For example, Igor Stravinsky in his psalm symphony , Sergei Rachmaninov in the liturgy of St. Chrysostom op.31 and in the great evening and morning praise op.37, Carl Orff in the Carmina Burana , Leoš Janáček in the Glagolitic Mass and Francis Poulenc and Maurice Duruflé in their motets consciously elements of their respective traditions with the means of musical modernism.

Popular music since the end of the 20th century

In addition, a clear movement towards popular music and its typical styles can be seen; new types of choir such as gospel choir , pop or jazz choir are developing . However, the question of how one can authentically represent these styles with an amateur choir has not yet been clarified. There are two possible solutions: Either you use sophisticated arrangements (mostly technically very demanding), or you reduce the choir functionally to background vocals with simultaneous use of soloists and band ( contemporary black gospel ). Vocal improvisation (e.g. Scat ) is very rarely found in choral music in Germany. In the area of ​​church music, various composers try to combine popular styles (especially swing and jazz) with “classical” elements. The best-known representatives of this direction are Ralf Grössler and Johannes Matthias Michel .

The range of popular choral music is very difficult to distinguish from the solo vocal ensembles, which are enjoying increasing popularity in the barbershop , comedy , folklore , musical theater and variety theater sectors . On the whole, both vocal ensembles and choirs show a specialization with simultaneous commercialization .

Development in Europe

The development in the German-speaking area has shaped all of Central Europe since the early baroque; Influences can be observed as far as Scandinavia and America. Therefore, the musical development of choral music in other European countries was very similar to that in German-speaking countries. This only changed significantly with the social and political situation around the beginning of the 20th century.

In contrast to the German-speaking area, in other countries one had the opportunity to find a smooth transition from the late romantic period into contemporary choral literature; Several countries (including France, England, America) have now developed a kind of "national style"; What is particularly striking here is the adoption of folkloric and popular elements.


From the middle of the 18th century - based on the uninterrupted cultivation of liturgical choral singing (see also: Evensong ) - the genre choir and organ emerged in England , which was only adopted much later in France and Germany. Here, depending on the occasion and the possibilities, the choral part is kept simple and simple (often with low voices) ( Edward Elgar ), but can also take on symphonic proportions ( Charles Villiers Stanford ). The extensive and often orchestral organ part, which goes well beyond continuo accompaniment , is characteristic. English organs therefore often have their own accompanying manual called a choir .

In addition to the mixed choirs, the tradition of boys' and men's choirs is still very widespread and cultivated.


With composers like Maurice Ravel , Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy , there was a general musical change in France from the middle to the end of the 19th century. The main genres were the piano song, the cantata and the orchestral song, stylistically impressionism was decisive. The World Exhibition in Paris in 1855 continued to be influenced by Russian, Arabic and Asian music. This was also expressed in choral music through new harmonic scales and sometimes unusual voice treatment (vocalises, percussive elements).

In church music there was a clear return to Gregorian chant at the beginning and middle of the 20th century, with a simultaneous further development of harmony. Particularly noteworthy here are Maurice Duruflé , Francis Poulenc and Jean Langlais .

Non-European development

United States

The USA as a country of immigration has always been influenced by European art music; In the field of choral music, the romantic epoch has been preserved, the literature and ideas of which are still cultivated today.
At the beginning of the 20th century there were clear efforts to develop its own, independent musical culture . The first attempt by calling Antonín Dvořák to New York failed insofar as his work was not attributed to the USA. It was only with composers like George Gershwin , Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington that the USA achieved the international breakthrough in art music in the 1930s, even if this only had an indirect influence on choral music. It was not until the 1940s / 50s that the jazz choir genre slowly developed , when the composition techniques of the big band were transferred to the vocal area. The USA is still a leader in arranging jazz and pop choirs.

In church music, the main focus was on the maintenance and further development of Romanticism, which from a European perspective, however, culminates in an almost patriotic foreign infiltration.

Choral music editions and collections (selection)

See also

Portal: Choral Music  - Overview of Wikipedia content on the topic of choral music


Choral leader

Text output

  • Paul-Gerhard Nohl: Latin church music texts. 4th edition. Bärenreiter, Kassel 2006, ISBN 3-7618-1249-3 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Choral music  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations